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Future of the Afghan School Project Uncertain

The girls live in remote central Afghanistan, a region of deep, narrow valleys and jagged mountains, where most families raise chickens and students walk long distances to school. They write to their Blair pen pals regularly, sharing everything from the mundane moments of their daily lives to the dreams they hold for themselves. A recent letter from an Afghan girl to Blair’s Mia Leddy ’23, written in neatly curving script, starts, “Hello, dear friend! I have a sheep. My favorite subjects are English, math and chemistry.” 

In her fourth year participating in the program, Mia has been corresponding with six Afghan girls between the ages of 15 to 20 for several years, and she says that once a relationship is established, letters can get very personal. “After a few letters, they start talking more about their personal lives. They go into the difficulties they face. Sometimes they write that their dad is forcing them to marry someone at 18. Sometimes they are happy about it, sharing the happy news that they are getting married.” In each situation, Mia says, “I just try to be a sounding board, to be a place where my writing partner can express her feelings.” 

Started several years ago by student Emily Lunger ’17, Blair’s letter exchange is part of the Afghan School Project. Created in 2003 through St. Luke’s Church in Hope, New Jersey, the initiative started with the goal of raising money to build a school in Afghanistan. The organization has since helped to construct the Yakawlang Central Girls High School in Bamiyan Province, which enrolls about 1,000 girls in 7th through 12th grades. The Afghan School Project continues to support the school today through fundraising for needed equipment as well as through the letter exchange.

 “The Afghan schoolgirls have dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers, but in order to go to university and have professional careers, they need to know English,” Emily said when she first became involved. “In our letters, we encourage them to follow their dreams and practice English skills, which they do when they write back. It’s partly an academic exercise, but it involves a great deal of friendship and love, too.”

Global Developments

Until recently, between 30 and 50 Blair students participated in the letter-writing program each year, but, given recent global developments, the future of the program is uncertain. Communication with the Yakawlang Central Girls High School has broken down, and it is unknown whether Blair’s Afghan pen pals will be permitted to continue corresponding or receive a secondary education.

Faculty advisor to the program, Director of Communications Andee Ryerson, is heartbroken about recent developments. “It is painful to realize that the Afghan School Project may have come to an end and that the futures of our pen pals are so uncertain,” she says. While she and the students had hoped there might be a final exchange of letters, it simply isn’t possible now.

Blair Students Rise to the Occasion

For her part, when Mia Leddy learned of recent developments in Afghanistan, her thoughts immediately turned to the pen pals she has known for years. “When I found out about what was happening in Afghanistan, it hit really close to home,” she says. “We’ve been writing letters to these girls for years. We will likely lose contact. It was so disheartening to know our friends are struggling and there’s not much we can do about it.”

Determined to help, Mia rounded up classmates involved with the Afghan School Project and, after discussing recent developments, the group decided to hold a fundraiser. Using student and faculty volunteers, the group sold a wide assortment of baked goods to the many visitors on campus at Community Weekend in September. “To our delight, we raised just over $600,” she says, beaming. Since the group cannot guarantee that funds raised for the Yakawlang School will safely reach their destination, they decided to put the proceeds toward ventures, such as SavetheChildren.org, that are helping support Afghan families and children recently arrived at temporary shelters in the United States. 

“I’m really proud that after cultivating these relationships with their Afghan pen pals so carefully, Blair students are turning their desire to help others into action,” says Mrs. Ryerson. 
 
As for Mia, she is busy studying in a cozy chair in Blair’s warm library, pausing at times to think about her pen pals in the Afghan highlands and what they might be doing. She has one more letter that she knows she can’t send now, but she hopes it will make it to Afghanistan someday soon. Until then, she knows that her friends on the other side of the world will resolutely face an uncertain future.

  

Society of Skeptics Welcomed Bohdan 'Dan' Lucky, Former NASA Engineer

When speaking with this individual, it does not take long for one to realize that we are, in fact, the lucky ones. With over 57 years of engineering experience at established institutions such as NASA and Boeing, Mr. Dan Lucky has rich stories about everything from helicopter manufacturing to working with some of the world’s first computers. Mr. Lucky visited Blair Academy to share those experiences on November 30 at 7 p.m. Watch his presentation now:

“It was a complete accident,” starts Mr. Lucky, when asked about whether or not he knew in high school what he would be doing for the rest of his life.
 
He was a Penn State junior when a representative from global aerospace giant Boeing visited to interview potential recruits. “I was in engineering school back then, and Boeing came around. We started talking and they asked if I would be able to do night shifts. I asked, ‘What would I do?’ They said, ‘Night shifts in electrical engineering. You’ll be paid a base salary of $112.50 per week and $11.25 extra for a night shift bonus.’ [I realized that] I’d be making more money than both of my parents combined. Being an immigrant with parents who escaped from Russia, I quickly said, ‘Heck, yes!’”
 
Lucky for him, what started out as a night shift quickly turned into a full-time position. By 1967, Mr. Lucky had advanced to working with computers and focusing on “telemetry data,” a rare skill at that time, and NASA quickly recruited him later that year. At NASA, Mr. Lucky would go on to work on “Project Apollo,” the third U.S. human spaceflight program, which ran from 1967 through 1972. 
 
NASA remained the center of Mr. Lucky’s work universe for two more years before he turned to engineering on digital equipment for corporations such as Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and Hewlett-Packard. Today, Mr. Lucky supports customer's environments with Red Hat, Amazon Cloud and Salesforce, all leaders in the cloud computing industry.
 
When asked for his advice to young students at Blair, Mr. Lucky reiterates one point: Be concerned not about today, but about tomorrow.
 
“What you are doing today is a practice run for your next event in life,” says Mr. Lucky. “I didn’t know what I was going to be doing at Boeing when they first asked me to take on the night shift, but I learned how to do things as I experienced them. When I speak to groups, I explain and go through each process to tell people not to get over concerned today. Focus and be excited about what will come tomorrow.”

 


History of Skeptics

The Society of Skeptics was established as a forum for students and faculty to discuss and debate important global issues; it has grown to become one of the premier high school lecture series in the United States. Each week, speakers from the political, social, scientific, economic and literary arenas share their unique perspectives with students, who are encouraged to engage with presenters, asking questions and debating points of view.

The program, which is funded in part by the Class of 1968 Society of Skeptics Endowment Fund, is an outgrowth of the Blair International Society, begun in 1937. Forty years later, former history department chair Elliott Trommald, PhD, Hon. ’65, established the modern Skeptics program as a regular forum for student discussion and debate; history teacher Martin Miller, PhD, took over in the mid-1980s and molded the program into a weekly lecture series, one that has since continued without interruption. Under the tutelage of Dr. Miller and his successor, history department chair Jason Beck, Skeptics has featured a wide variety of speakers who are thought-provoking, engaging, accomplished in their respective fields and often controversial.

For a listing of upcoming Skeptics programs, please visit Blair’s website.

Belonging & Equity at Blair 

Recognizing the strength and value that diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) bring to our community, Blair has long sought to make our hilltop a place where all students feel that they belong. For years, that commitment has taken the form of steps such as prioritizing professional development opportunities for faculty and staff, committing to providing financial aid to students from all backgrounds, holding schoolwide educational experiences that seek to further discussion and deepen understanding, and expanding the many organizations and clubs that work to further diversity, equity,  inclusion and belonging on campus. (For a full list of Blair’s DEIB initiatives,  please visit www.blair.edu/deib.)

Recently, Blair sought to build on that foundation by creating a new student leadership group at the School: the Belonging & Equity Committee (also known as B&E). Student directors with this group organize on-campus discussions, promote school programming and proactively seek opportunities for fellow students to offer feedback on their Blair experiences. They serve as points of contact should incidents of bias occur, and they also spearhead campus protocols with an anti-bias lens. 

Below is one Belonging & Equity Committee leader’s experience with the work in which this student organization is engaged. Read on to learn how she and her fellow B&E members are contributing to Blair’s DEIB efforts and educating the community with their work.


An article from the Blair student newspaper, The Oracle
October 7, 2021 by Laila Davson ’22 

We keep referring to it: summer of 2020. The mass protests and heightened awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement as a result of the tragic murder of George Floyd, characteristics of summer 2020, have left a long-lasting footprint in the way we live. Conversations about social justice became crucial in households, workplaces, and more relevantly, education institutions.

Thanks to social media, students in private education institutions, particularly those considered predominantly white institutions (PWI), were able to share their concerning experiences of bias with not only other students, but society as a whole. As a result, it’s become the responsibility of these institutions to take action to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) on their campuses.

Blair is an example of an institution that experienced this during summer 2020, and since then has created DEI initiatives that have had great success on campus. One of the newest initiatives Blair has adopted is the Belonging and Equity Committee, a student leadership position that began at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. Belonging and Equity is a group of 13 selected juniors and seniors who develop programming, facilitate discussion, and conduct outreach in order to promote DEI at Blair.

I got the chance to interview three committee members, Ola Udensi ’22, a rules and discipline liaison and yearbook editor, Fiona Han ’23, a director of external outreach and oracle writer, and Carnegie Johnson ’23, another rules and discipline liaison and varsity basketball player, to share some thoughts about the year ahead on B&E.

They all expressed their excitement about being on the committee, especially highlighting the potential impact they could make being among the first members. This could be a challenge for them, as Fiona notes, since they won’t have experiences and advice from a preceding year to learn from. However, both Carnegie and Ola agreed that this is an opportunity for them to fill that gap for future committee members by “setting a precedent.”

We discussed other potential challenges for B&E such as reaching the students that often tune DEI discussions out (Carnegie), educating without pressure (Ola), and executing fully on the initiatives and ideas they put forth (Fiona). As a member myself, I can agree that during this school year, these may be some of B&E’s biggest challenges. However, as we host more events, we remind ourselves of best practices in small ways, whether that is taking time out of our schedules to meet with colleagues or reminding individuals that pronouns don’t need to be forced out of someone.

B&E did get the opportunity to put these best practices to work during Blair’s student orientation. The committee hosted identity seminars where students first convened with their class in the auditorium to complete an identity inventory, and then were broken up into smaller groups led by each member to discuss the different terms in depth and what value they hold to different people.

I asked Ola, Carnegie, and Fiona how they felt this project played out, and, although pleased to have such important conversations, they concurred that the results from their discussions were not very conclusive. It was difficult to tell whether students learned from, enjoyed, or disliked the seminars. So, in order to fill this void for them (and myself), I interviewed three other Blair students, Zoe Lament ’22, an Annie prefect and Senior Class Council member, Sage Christensen ’23, a new junior and Oracle writer from Maryland, and Jackie Neary ’24, Oracle writer and basketball player.

It was heartwarming to hear that all three students found the identity discussions a fulfilling experience. There was little to no conflict across the three of their groups, and from their responses, it seemed that the smaller group discussions opened up a safe space to be vulnerable, whether that was to share an experience or ask a clarifying question. Additionally, although they cited different levels of knowledge, with Zoe feeling familiar with the information, and Sage and Jackie feeling new to the information, each of them was able to pinpoint something that they learned from the conversation. Sage highlighted her new understanding of the privilege that an education at Blair provides each student. Jackie’s highlight was being able to empathize with her classmates through shared facets of their identity. Zoe’s highlight was a short tangential discussion of homophobia in the Black community brought up by her classmate Olivia Thompson ’22. Overall, these students concurred that B&E’s efforts were successful.

Even in these successes, however, both Sage and Zoe noted that they were hungry for deeper conversation. This will be one of the biggest areas for improvement for B&E to explore. Personally, I agree with Ola’s take on tackling this. She says, “As peer educators, we need to commit to educating ourselves and keeping up with issues outside of Blair.” This will be crucial for us to avoid the phenomenon that Fiona describes: a committee that is “all talk and no action”; since we will be able to take more effective action if we are equipped with the proper information. The fact that the committee members already understand this makes me confident that as B&E evolves, we can create a community that is comfortable with more in-depth conversations, creating a more inclusive environment for everyone.

To conclude, be on the lookout for more events and information that B&E announces! Feel free to email a member with any questions, suggestions, or feedback from an event. These interviewees have expressed their dedication to this work, so don’t be shy about helping us help Blair become more inclusive!

(Copyright Laila Davson 2021)


 

Orchestra

A wonderful evening of music and magic was in store for the Blair community! On Friday, November 19, the Symphony Orchestra, Singers, Chamber Choir and Jazz Ensemble presented the School’s annual Fall Concert in the Armstrong-Hipkins Center for the Arts’ DuBois Theatre. Reuniting on stage for the first time since 2019, our musicians performed a range of works showcasing the skills they’ve mastered this fall.

Performing arts department chair Jennifer Pagotto noted that the musical lineup for the evening included several pieces that were especially enjoyable for students to learn. Among the pieces presented by the Symphony Orchestra are “Russian Sailor’s Dance by Reinhold Glière, “The Horizon” by Yukiko Nishimura and the classic “Pirates of the Caribbean” by Klaus Badelt, arranged by Ted Ricketts.

The Jazz Ensemble also performed a number of both classic and contemporary pieces, including “Chameleon” by Herbie Hanock, “Stolen Moments” by Oliver Nelson, arranged by Mike Kamuf, and “Só Danço Sambaby Antonio Carlos Jobim and Norman Gimbel, arranged by Mark Taylor.

Chloe Lau ’23, who plays the harp in Blair’s Symphony Orchestra, was excited to take the stage again without the COVID-19 restrictions implemented in the 2020-21 school year. “With more time together, the hard work of every member in the orchestra has turned into fruition,” she said. “I was looking forward to showcasing our pieces in the Fall Concert once again, especially for our classic, Pirates of the Caribbean.’ ”

Blair’s vocalists then stepped into the spotlight, under the direction of Blair’s Director of Vocal Music Ryan Manni, offering a varied Fall Concert repertoire. Performance highlights included “Sunset” by Thomas LaVoy, featuring Maria Strulistova ’22 on piano, which was commissioned by the choirs of Blair Academy and dedicated to the class of 2020 as a part of the Dreamsong commissioning project.

Other pieces included “Summertime” by George Evans, “Down in the River to Pray” arranged by Jace Wittig, and “Witness” arranged by Dick Bolks. “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down” arranged by Caldwell and Ivory and “Your Soul Is Song” by Jake Runestad will both feature guest accompanist Kathleen Decker on piano.

Nikki Kirkwood ’22 and Sadie Donnelly ’22, who have both been members of the Singers since beginning their time at Blair, credited the program for growing their love of music. Singers as a group, Sadie noted, are supportive and brighten her day at every class meeting and concert. Looking to the Fall Concert, both singers were excited to share their hard work this semester with the entire Blair community.

Since the start of the school year, Mrs. Pagotto and Mr. Manni have looked forward to getting the group back on stage together for a real concert in DuBois Theatre. 

Students Christen ‘The Shipyard,’  Blair’s New Outdoor Basketball Court

Teachers, coaches and students bedecked in sweatshirts and blue-and-white jerseys gathered on the thick grass of Blair’s athletic fields on Tuesday, November 9, joining Head of School Peter G. Curran and Director of Athletics Paul Clavel ’88 to celebrate the dedication of Blair’s newly constructed outdoor basketball court. 

Standing before the crowd and the crisp new court, Mr. Clavel said he was excited about this addition to Blair’s sports complex, which will afford the entire community greater opportunity to sharpen their athletic skills and stay active. Students will be able to play a quick game or just shoot the ball with friends. “One takeaway from the pandemic is that students really enjoy playing basketball outside,” Mr. Clavel noted before the event. “I am delighted that we’ve added this court to Blair’s athletic complex.”  
 
With its open accessibility and outdoor lights, “The court makes it easy for students to play pickup games, and those are indispensable for building basketball skills and confidence in young athletes,” Mr. Clavel offered.


 Located next to the Siegel Property in the far corner of Blair’s athletic fields, the court is the result of the generosity of two anonymous donors, whose only request was that Blair students name the court. To that end, Blair created a March Madness–style bracket last year and the entire school voted, every three days, until a winning name emerged.  

“The Shipyard it is!” Associate Dean of Students Rod Gerdsen said before the event. “I can’t believe ‘the Thunderdome’ didn’t make it!” he joked. 

Tuesday’s celebration ended as representatives from each student class council took to the new court, facing off to determine the ultimate “Knockout” champion and claim bragging rights before digging into cider donuts and iced coffee.

Now the only March Madness brackets will be for students’ outdoor tournaments on their new favorite court. Open daily for the enjoyment of all members of the Blair community, The Shipyard is lined with three pickleball courts as well as a basketball court. Community members are welcome to play as often as they like; court time does not need to be reserved. 
 

Vice President & Head of Video for The Arena Group, Alan Springer, Visits Skeptics

Blair Academy was pleased to welcome renowned sports journalist Mr. Alan Springer to the Society of Skeptics on November 16 at 7 p.m. With over 28 years’ of experience working in the sports industry as a journalist and recently named Vice President and Head of Video for The Arena Group, Mr. Springer spoke to Blair students about his professional journey.  He allowed students to lead the conversation, a teaching method that has perpetually worked for him. Watch his presentation below:

 


“[We may discuss] a little bit of everything, including the production company I launched, called Springtime Media, to the multiple projects I’ve led, such as my recent project with American tennis player Billie Jean King’s Women’s Sports Foundation,”  Mr. Springer said in preparation for the Society of Skeptics event. “But I really want to let the students drive the conversation.”
 
“I was happy to discuss whatever would be best for the students. I always feel like I learn more from them than they do from me,” said Mr. Springer.
 
Not long after starting as a sports journalist for a local Los Angeles, California, CBS affiliate in 1993, Mr. Springer quickly climbed the production ladder to start what would become his lifelong career as a video producer for various media outlets including Fox Sports Net, CBS News, Turner Sports, and most recently, Sports Illustrated. Mr. Springer embraced his passions and interests early on. For him, sports journalism was an industry with which he had already been familiar, having grown up under a veteran sports journalist for a father. 

“I had a pretty good idea, since my father was a sports journalist for 35 years. You could say it’s in my blood. I got into sports production early because I saw an opportunity to do something I was really passionate about. That led me to other opportunities and down this path that I’m on now,” said Mr. Springer. 

No matter how naturally he came by his passions and interests, Mr. Springer found that the promotions and work to get to his position did not come easily. He reiterated how important it is for students to work hard, and most of all, to network well.

“Focus on networking and relationships. Take advantage, nicely, of all the people in your life who can help you network and from whom you can learn more,” said Mr. Springer. “Also, be open to learning. That was the biggest thing for me. Even with this opportunity [with The Arena Group] for me, it’s a learning experience. To learn from students and help us better navigate the content we consume.”


History of Skeptics

The Society of Skeptics was established as a forum for students and faculty to discuss and debate important global issues; it has grown to become one of the premier high school lecture series in the United States. Each week, speakers from the political, social, scientific, economic and literary arenas share their unique perspectives with students, who are encouraged to engage with presenters, asking questions and debating points of view.

The program, which is funded in part by the Class of 1968 Society of Skeptics Endowment Fund, is an outgrowth of the Blair International Society, begun in 1937. Forty years later, former history department chair Elliott Trommald, PhD, Hon. ’65, established the modern Skeptics program as a regular forum for student discussion and debate; history teacher Martin Miller, PhD, took over in the mid-1980s and molded the program into a weekly lecture series, one that has since continued without interruption. Under the tutelage of Dr. Miller and his successor, history department chair Jason Beck, Skeptics has featured a wide variety of speakers who are thought-provoking, engaging, accomplished in their respective fields and often controversial.

For a listing of upcoming Skeptics programs, please visit Blair’s website.

College Sports Signing

Surrounded by excited family and friends, Blair Bucs took the next step in their athletic careers this week, signing their National Letters of Intent (NLI)  on November 10 in the Hardwick Hall courtyard. A National Letter of Intent is an agreement binding a student-athlete and an NLI member institution. Nine seniors signed their NLIs while their family, friends and members of the Blair community gathered to celebrate the students’ milestone. All nine athletes have committed to Division I schools. In addition, two Bucs accepted athletic commitments to the United States Naval Academy and the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is the first signing of the year and encompasses a wide variety of sports; prospective college athletes will have additional chances to sign in the weeks to come. Congrats, Bucs!

Soccer: Marisa Snee '22

College Sports Signing

Crew: Dylan Bentley '22 & Petra Csanyi '22

College Sports Signing
College Sports Signing

Basketball: Tara Daye Johnson '22, Ally Lovisolo '22, Brady Muller '22 & Otega Oweh '22

College Sports Signing
College Sports Signing

Wrestling: Louis Colaiocco '22, Marc Koch '22, TJ Stewart '22 & Danny Wask '22

College Sports Signing
Melissa Clark ’05 Stars in PBS’s ‘Drive By History: Eats’

What would George Washington have eaten? Thanks to her starring role in the television series “Drive By History: Eats,” Melissa F. Clark ’05 knows the answer. This fall, the Blair alum secured the role of chef on PBS’s new series that dives into New Jersey’s culinary past, recreating recipes from renowned moments in Garden State history. In the first episode, Melissa and historian Dr. Libby O’Connell explore a meal designed to curry George Washington’s favor at The Hermitage in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. Using ingredients that would have been on hand during the summer of 1778 and employing the food trends popular during the period, Melissa dishes up a delectable fried breaded chicken with sorrel sauce and raspberry fool for dessert. 

In subsequent episodes, Melissa prepares recipes from World War I that reflect the war effort to go meatless and wheatless, and she examines the culinary legacy of the Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation in Parsippany, New Jersey. 

Melissa says that she especially enjoys teasing out the flavors of fresh, local ingredients when she is preparing mouth-watering cuisine from past eras. “‘[Farm to table] happens to be what I was trained in. I’m very passionate about getting into those seasonal moments,’” she told the cameras in the first episode about George Washington.

Be sure to join Melissa for “Drive By History: Eats,” airing Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on PBS. Currently being filmed, the second season will debut in 2022.
 

Bucs Bring Home the Kelley-Potter Cup!

In a dramatic conclusion to a spirited day of competition, Blair Academy brought the Kelley-Potter Cup home to Blairstown for the first time since 2013! Just moments before, the varsity football team celebrated a 39-7 victory over the Falcons as students stormed Hampshire Field in celebration.

As the sun faded on Blair’s campus, Head of School Peter G. Curran and Peddie Headmaster Peter Quinn spoke to a cheering crowd of students as Mr. Curran welcomed the Cup home to Blair. This year marks the eighth time Blair has won the Kelley-Potter Cup since its inception in 1988.

“On Saturday, you demonstrated hard work, dedication, grit and great sportsmanship,” Head of School Peter G. Curran told students at Monday School Meeting following the Bucs’ big win. “Many alums, past parents, Trustees, prospective families and current parents were on campus celebrating this age-old tradition and cheering you on; I am thrilled that they had the opportunity to see not only Blair’s spirit, but also your athletic achievements and our character. Blair is all about it being together as a community and, as you think about the future, I hope Peddie Day is an occasion you will mark on your calendar for many years to come, and that you will return to campus often for it…whether you are one year away from graduation or 50, it’s great having so many people who care so deeply for Blair and one another on this campus.”

Over the course of the day’s competition, the Bucs brought home seven wins, with the Falcons winning five. Girls’ junior varsity soccer ended in a 0-0 stalemate. Parents, families, friends and Blair alumni were present on campus to support athletes in their various competitions. 

The Kelley-Potter Cup is named in honor of James R. Kelley, retired headmaster of Blair Academy and the late F. Edward Potter Jr., former headmaster of the Peddie School. The Cup represents the highest ideals of fair play, competition and sportsmanship.

The Peddie Day scoreboard is posted below. More photos from the day will be posted on Blair’s Photoshelter page over the next few days.

Wins & Losses:

Varsity football: W (39-7)

JV football (played on 11/1): W (33-0)

Boys’ cross country: L (19-40)

Girls’ cross country: L (13-37)

Boys’ varsity soccer: L (1-2)

Boys’ JV soccer: W (2-0)

Boys’ thirds soccer: W (5-0)

Girls’ varsity soccer: W (1-0)

Girls’ JV soccer: T (0-0)

Varsity field hockey: W (5-0)

JV field hockey: W (4-0)

Girls’ varsity tennis: L (2-5)

Girls’ JV tennis (played on 11/1): L (1-4)

 

Dr. Benjamin Schwartz P'21 Visits Society of Skeptics

Northwell Health’s Eastern Region Director of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at South Shore University Hospital, Dr. Benjamin Schwartz P’21, revisited Blair Academy to deliver his second Society of Skeptics talk on the history of robotic surgery, the development of the daVinci® Surgical System robot, which he brought to Blair once before in 2018, and what he believes the future of robots will look like.

The daVinci® surgical system robot allows surgeons to perform complex, minimally invasive procedures with precision and accuracy using robotic technology. The system is a cutting-edge platform designed to expand the surgeon’s capabilities and offer different options to patients. Students were excited yet again to work with daVinci. To watch his presentation, click below:

“I think what was unexpected during our previous visit to Blair was how the students and teachers were able to use the experience, of experiencing the robot and understanding its use, and applying those topics to the subjects they were presently studying at Blair,” said Dr. Schwartz of his first visit. 

Before leading the development of daVinci, Dr. Schwartz served as a gynecologic oncologist and was a fellow in the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American College of Surgeons, as well as a diplomate of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In 2015, he was named the regional director of obstetrics and gynecology for Northwell Health’s eastern region as well as the chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at South Shore University Hospital in Bay Shore, New York. Dr. Schwartz oversees women’s inpatient and outpatient care and is Northwell’s lead clinician for the development of post-graduate programs.

Dr. Schwartz obtained his medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine after graduating from Dartmouth College. He completed his residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where he served as administrative chief resident. During his residency, Dr. Schwartz completed a Galloway Fellowship in gynecologic oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He then completed subspecialty training in a three-year fellowship in gynecologic oncology at the Cleveland Clinic.

“It’s very exciting for me to speak to high school students because I see them as our future,” said Dr. Schwartz, whose daughter, Abby, graduated from Blair Academy this past May. “Having an opportunity like Skeptics to explore students’ interests and to have better insight into the different professions there are in the world, I think, is a unique experience offered at Blair that isn’t offered anywhere else.”

Of the many lessons Dr. Schwartz plans to offered during his talk, he emphasized two: Be passionate about what one does and be creative.

“It’s really important to be passionate about what you do, and I hope that the students gained some insight not only into my enthusiasm in my professional career, but also the enthusiasm among the engineers and the technicians and the nurses and everyone on the healthcare team,” said Dr. Schwartz. “Also, to be innovative and to be creative. It’s hard to imagine if we said to folks in the healthcare industry 20 years ago that one day, we’d have robots doing surgical procedures, I’m sure everyone would giggle and laugh and now there are thousands of robots all over the world—all because someone was creative and innovative.”


History of Skeptics

The Society of Skeptics was established as a forum for students and faculty to discuss and debate important global issues; it has grown to become one of the premier high school lecture series in the United States. Each week, speakers from the political, social, scientific, economic and literary arenas share their unique perspectives with students, who are encouraged to engage with presenters, asking questions and debating points of view.

The program, which is funded in part by the Class of 1968 Society of Skeptics Endowment Fund, is an outgrowth of the Blair International Society, begun in 1937. Forty years later, former history department chair Elliott Trommald, PhD, Hon. ’65, established the modern Skeptics program as a regular forum for student discussion and debate; history teacher Martin Miller, PhD, took over in the mid-1980s and molded the program into a weekly lecture series, one that has since continued without interruption. Under the tutelage of Dr. Miller and his successor, history department chair Jason Beck, Skeptics has featured a wide variety of speakers who are thought-provoking, engaging, accomplished in their respective fields and often controversial.

For a listing of upcoming Skeptics programs, please visit Blair’s website.

Celebrating Blair's Peddie Day from Coast to Coast

Members of the Blair alumni community, from as far away as San Francisco and Palm Beach to as close as New York City and Philadelphia, gathered in their respective cities on Wednesday, November 3, to celebrate upcoming Peddie Day—New Jersey’s oldest prep school football rivalry and Blair’s unique celebration of school spirit—that occurs every year on the first weekend in November.

Peddie Day Gatherings, which bring together alumni and parents in celebrations from coast to coast, continue to grow. This year’s event marks the largest number of participants and cities than ever before. Receptions were held in Boston, MA; Charlotte, NC; Chicago, IL; Dallas, TX; Denver, CO; Easton, PA; Los Angeles, CA; New York City; Palm Beach, FL; Philadelphia, PA; San Francisco, CA; and Washington, D.C.

Each location gave attendees the opportunity to socialize while enjoying a variety of appetizers and refreshments. A special thank-you to Curt Huegel ’86, Bill and Courtney Hyder P’23, Tom Kehoe ’83, Nicole (Nicusanti) Tipton ’93, Diane Haviland P’93, Amy (Paul) Jablonski ’99, Paul Jablonski ’00, Chrissy (Devenny) Thompson ’08 and Emily Collins ’11 who helped host events in their respective cities. 

“Peddie Day traditions are rooted in the Blair community and these gatherings are a way for alumni and parents to celebrate this tradition prior to the athletic competitions. These gatherings have grown over the years and we are excited to bring together alumni and parents to share in the excitement and help further new Peddie Day traditions,” said Shaunna Murphy, director of alumni relations. 

To view pictures of the gatherings, scroll above.  

Nurturing Blair's Budding Writers

Charles Dickens famously lined porcelain figures across his desk to keep him company as he worked to meet impending deadlines. Victor Hugo locked his clothes away so he wouldn’t be tempted to leave before his daily writing was complete. Writers are notorious for fostering peculiar habits to put words on the page. While their habits differ, most authors share one thing in common: To hone their craft, all writers practice. According to bestselling novelist Stephen King, good writers are made, not born. Mr. King makes it a daily ritual to draft 2,000 words, a practice shared by Jack London, Norman Mailer and many other professional writers. Author Malcolm Gladwell notes that success in any profession often requires one element: “You need to have practised, to have apprenticed, for 10,000 hours before you get good.” 

Blair English department chair James Moore embraces this philosophy, providing opportunities for Blair’s budding authors to practice early and often. Last year, the School introduced J-term, a two-week learning opportunity during which students intensively study a subject that interests them. The J-term course titled “Where Have You Come From, Where Are You Now?” provided students with the time and space to interview and profile Blair alumni from around the world, learning how to tell someone’s story and sharpening their writing skills.

What follows are excerpts from four articles by Mr. Moore’s 2021 J-term students. The pieces showcase not only how distinguished Blair alumni have made a global impact, but also just how exceptional writing is developed at Blair.


Mikal Davis-West ’01’s Journey to Success
By Michael Mangino ’23

(Profile chronicling how the women in Mikal Davis-West ’01’s life, and his early educational experiences, helped shape and set him up for success at a prestigious law firm.)

“Mikal Davis-West sits across from a hopeful graduate of law school, asking questions to unveil the mind of this potential future employee. He watches the nervous new lawyer choosing his words, as he reminisces on his own past. In the position that once intimidated him, and staring back at the position he was in, he ponders the path to his success. He thinks about his gratefulness for being in such a powerful position, and his gratitude for the people that helped him make it happen. Becoming a lawyer at one of the largest legal firms in the world required an immense amount of work, which started in Newark, NJ, in 1993.…”


Timeless: A Venture Into the Curriculum Vitae of a Buccaneer Film Prodigy, Lukas Dong ’15
By Apple Wu ’24

(Profile of film prodigy Lukas Dong ’15, who, at the age of 17, became the youngest director to receive the Best American Short Documentary Award from the American Documentary Film Festival.)

“A lone chandelier sits on the streets of Vancouver, magnificent and spinning, a sight to behold. It is in no fancy ballroom and obviously does not belong here. But it draws people all the same, and receives much more attention than its fellows that have hung, gathering dust, on the high unreachable ceilings where they seem to belong. Somehow, this particular out-of-place chandelier is an emblem of where art is  accessible to all, not just to the nobles in their grandeur. The spinning chandelier is an emblem of where art and daily life interact, explains Lukas Dong ’15. He shows that in one of his newest music videos, Rising Chandelier.…” 


Emily Downs ’01: Success & Pizza
By Alexander Grizzetti ’22

(Profile of chef and small business owner Emily Downs ’01, who is combining her passions for farm-to-table foods with innovative pizza delivery.)

“Emily Downs is a small business owner making a big impact in the pizza world today. Downs never imagined she would have a culinary profession, yet when it came to making pizzas, she had a real gift. Working for top restaurants around the country, Downs found her passion for pizza and bread making, and ran with it. Despite many obstacles along the way, including the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has destroyed so many local businesses, Emily Downs’ pizza and bread business has managed to prosper. The business’ continued success stems from Emily’s determination and passion for cooking.…”


Technology for Society: Avishek Kumar ’05 
By Molly Wu ’23

(Profile of University of Chicago data scientist Avishek Kumar ’05, whose work has led to a means to detect lead poisoning in children that is three times more efficient than current systems.)

“As a graduate student at Arizona State University, armed with an education in physics and a strong interest in public policy, Dr. Avishek Kumar entered a contest organized by the Clinton Foundation in 2014. For the contest, Dr. Kumar designed an app that reminds people to take medicine. ‘The app went nowhere,’ said Dr. Kumar, ‘but I did take a picture with Chelsea Clinton.’ The influence of this seemingly failed project on Dr. Kumar was long-lasting—It led him to the epiphany that it is indeed possible to incorporate his technical skills with his passion to make a social impact, ultimately shaping him as the data scientist whom people admire today.…”


Students interested in learning the craft of storytelling have rich opportunity at Blair. While the J-term course chronicling the adventures of some of our most interesting alumni is not available this winter, Department chair Jim Moore recommends that students write for the school newspaper, The Oracle, which features creative articles as well as reporting, and delve into the School’s Narrative Writing course, which has recently expanded to include eleventh-grade students. We look forward to hearing all our students’ stories—and supporting the young journalists, playwrights and novelists in our midst!

Dungeons & Dragons Came to Life in 'She Kills Monsters'

The Blair Academy Players presented “She Kills Monsters” on October 28, 29 and 30 at 7:30 p.m. in the Armstrong-Hipkins Center for the Arts’ Wean Theatre. Written by Qui Nguyen, “She Kills Monsters” is an epic, raucous journey of a young woman on a mission to connect with her late sister, complete with swords, fantasts, ’90s pop culture and ogres! 
 
“She Kills Monsters” tells the story of Agnes Evans (played by Alex Schamberger ’22) who loses her parents and little sister Tilly Evans (played by Leilah Elkholy ’25) in a car accident. Agnes discovers that Tilly was an avid participant of the roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons, and through playing a module that Tilly had written, Agnes embarks into the reality and fantasy world that her sister inhabited.
 
Cheyenne Joachim ’25, Serena Khanna ’25, Grant Breckenridge ’24, and Eli Maloney ’25 make up the adventurers whom Agnes meets in the fantasy world of the game, while Julian Perello ’24 portrays the game’s dungeon master. Marc Lui ’23 portrays Agnes’ confused boyfriend who has to discover what his girlfriend is up to playing the fantasy game, while Amalia Scripsick ’23 and Teodora Vukosavljevic ’25 entertain the audience in several roles. Playing various monsters who attack the intrepid band are Kennedy Henry ’25 and Char Yeiy ’25. The narrator is Hanna Wilke ’23.
 
“ ‘She Kills Monsters’ has become one of the most popular plays in American high schools and colleges,” said veteran Blair theatre teacher and director Craig Evans. “The Blair Academy Players were excited to be performing such a provocative play for its first production of the year.”

This production was intended for mature audiences; due to space constraints in the theatre, it was not open to the public.

Family Weekend Returns to Blairstown

Family Weekend is always a much-anticipated event for the Blair Academy community every fall. For the first time since 2019, families gathered from near and far, returning to Blairstown to celebrate in person! Over the course of three days, parents were provided with the opportunity to meet their child’s teachers, watch their student perform on stage or on the athletic fields, and tour our beautiful campus. 
 
“We are so excited to finally welcome all our families back to campus,” said Assistant Director of Advancement for Parent Relations Susan Long. “We do our best to make it an exciting program that gives everyone the opportunity to be enriched in the tradition of Blair Academy, and I hope our families were able to immerse themselves in the experience the weekend provided.”

The always-engaging event aimed to give parents and loved ones a chance to experience daily life at Blair as well as get to know other Blair families. The weekend began on Thursday evening at nearby Brook Hollow Winery, where Blair hosted a reception at which parents could mix and mingle. The activities continued on Friday morning with a 5K run and golf scramble, as well as the opportunity to attend a class or visit the archives in Timken Library.
 
Later on Friday, parents watched athletic practices and attended workshops on topics such as signature Blair programs or planning for college. Families also had the opportunity to attend the dedication of Blair’s state-of-the-art new Crew Training Center, located on Park Street.

An evening all-parents’ assembly with Head of School Peter G. Curran was followed by Blair on Stage, a performing arts event that showcased the repertoires of the Symphony Orchestra, Singers and the cast of the Blair Academy Players’ production of “She Kills Monsters.”
 
On Saturday morning, families were invited to enjoy breakfast before meeting each of their child’s teachers. The day ended with an additional opportunity for parents to attend a college-planning workshop as well as cheer on the Bucs on the athletic fields as they took on rival The Hill School.
 
More photos of Family Weekend 2021 can be found on Blair’s Photoshelter channel.
 

MUSH Co-Founder & Blair Alumna Ashley Thompson Returned for Society of Skeptics

Ashley Thompson 08 co-founded MUSH in 2015 with the conviction that convenient, delicious and nutritious food can elevate the world in powerful ways.

At a young age, Ashley took great interest in the growing health crisis in America. She developed the belief that better outcomes in life begin with better food and knew, someday, she’d make her life’s purpose to shape the world positively through this lens.

However, Ashley’s early career path did not exactly put her on a health-and-wellness trajectory. After earning a degree in economics and mathematics from Columbia University in 2011, Ashley worked on Wall Street as a trading analyst at Goldman Sachs. During the first few months, Goldman’s intense, fast-paced environment and long hours shed light on the difficulty of eating well in modern-day America. A huge white space of delicious and portable nutrition existed, and it intrigued her far more than Eurodollar futures. After contemplating her own desire to buy snacks that balance simplicity, flavor and sustenance, she decided to commercialize what she initially created as a “hack” as a kid: cereal and oatmeal soaked in milk. That hack eventually became MUSH, a fast-growing brand on a mission to make a difference.

On Tuesday, October 26, Ms. Thompson returned to Blair to talk to students about entrepreneurship and lessons learned along the way. Watch her presentation below:

“I started MUSH because I believe that easy, delicious and nutritious food can elevate the world in powerful ways. Better outcomes in life begin with better food, so I wanted to help improve the physical and mental health of people everywhere,” said Ms. Thompson, whose goal is to help people unlock their highest potential through good nutrition.

For an audience of high school students, Ms. Thompson particularly emphasized the importance of health and wellness and how to maintain a good balance, all while reminiscing about her days as a former Blair Buccaneer. 

“I like to think of it as work/life harmony because there’s nothing equal about work and life when you’re running a business. The lines become so blurred at times; it’s hard to distinguish between the two. In fact, they often become one and the same,” said Ms. Thompson. 

“I truly enjoy it, though. I derive so much happiness from pursuing my highest potential, and that’s exactly what this journey enables me to do. I’ll always be driven by my desire to improve, evolve and achieve even more today than I did yesterday. I think this quote from ‘El Enemigo Del Pueblo’ really sums it all up: ‘At the end of the journey, we remember only one battle: the one we fought against ourselves, the original enemy, the one that defined us.’ ”

When asked for advice on how to reach Ms. Thompson’s level of achievement, especially after leaving the halls of Blair, the alumna had one key message: Trust your instincts. 

“Listen to your gut. As a founder, you’ll gain the power of intuition, plus tons of critical data, through observation. You might not realize it, but your natural instincts as an entrepreneur will give you a tremendous advantage. Listen to your gut and lean into it, with conviction.”

History of Skeptics
 
The Society of Skeptics was established as a forum for students and faculty to discuss and debate important global issues; it has grown to become one of the premier high school lecture series in the United States. Each week, speakers from the political, social, scientific, economic and literary arenas share their unique perspectives with students, who are encouraged to engage with presenters, asking questions and debating points of view.

The program, which is funded in part by the Class of 1968 Society of Skeptics Endowment Fund, is an outgrowth of the Blair International Society, begun in 1937. Forty years later, former history department chair Elliott Trommald, PhD, Hon. ’65, established the modern Skeptics program as a regular forum for student discussion and debate; history teacher Martin Miller, PhD, took over in the mid-1980s and molded the program into a weekly lecture series, one that has since continued without interruption. Under the tutelage of Dr. Miller and his successor, history department chair Jason Beck, Skeptics has featured a wide variety of speakers who are thought-provoking, engaging, accomplished in their respective fields and often controversial.

For a listing of upcoming Skeptics programs, please visit Blair’s website.