Discovering Community

This article was originally printed in the Spring 2023 Westminster Bulletin

Through Chapel Talks, a Faculty Member
Finds Her Footing in the Community

By Shana Russell P’26
Associate Director of College Counseling, John Hay Society Advisor, Chapel Coordinator

When I was first invited to interview at Westminster for a college counseling position in early March 2020, I spent the days leading up to my interview watching several Chapel Talks on YouTube to get to know the school, the students and the community. 

While I was originally intending to watch these talks as a way to figure out how to harness my expertise and make a case for why I would fit into this community, I found myself drawn to the incredible maturity of these students and the courage it took to share their stories. Some talks were sad and some were funny, but they were all inspiring. I knew immediately that I wanted to be a part of this community.

By the time I arrived on campus in August 2020, we were in the middle of COVID, and most of my day was spent online, teaching Fifth Form English and conducting college counseling meetings. Most introductions to my colleagues and students were either through a computer screen or from behind a mask. I desperately needed a way to connect with those around me and feel like I belonged at Westminster. 

To find my footing in the community, I turned to watching the Chapel Talks again, and I felt like they allowed me to understand and grow into life on the Hill.

Then, at the beginning of this year, I had the honor of becoming the faculty advisor to the John Hay Society, a student-run program of about 25 students from the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Form who manage the Andrews Memorial Chapel, from straightening the hymnals in each row to directing students into the chapel and being the heart and soul of the candlelight service every winter. The Chapel Talk program would not be what it is today without the commitment of the students in John Hay and our school’s culture of kindness. 

While many schools have student speaker programs, I feel that our chapel talks, held every Tuesday and Friday, are more intimate and compelling — and far less scripted. Giving a chapel talk can be a significant rite of passage in a student’s Westminster career because it highlights his or her courage, writing and public speaking skills. Each student works exceptionally hard on their talk. There isn’t a formula or a template for the talks. Students can speak on any topic, but many choose to discuss their growth during their time on the Hill. They often include favorite songs and quotes. Some feature musical performances by friends; this year, several students read poems.

Our students feel at home at Westminster, so they are compelled to share their stories and to make sure others feel at home, too. It is this sense of belonging, of mutual support, understanding and compassion that gives each of our speakers the courage to tell their unique stories.

As the advisor to John Hay, I work one-on-one with student speakers to home in on the message they would like to convey and how best to address their fellow students. Sometimes this process is easy, as with Sixth Former Tia McDonald’s beautifully written and performed chapel talk in January about the death of her cousin and finding her place on the Hill. Sometimes it takes many more hours of writing, rewriting and practicing. That said, chapel talks are a beautiful representation of who students are and who they have become.

Sixth Former Maggie McCarthy’s talk at the beginning of the school year is one of my favorites this year. As the president of the John Hay Society, the oldest student organization on campus, she spoke about how Andrews Memorial Chapel is her happy place. While Maggie is always bubbly and talkative, her talk was more measured when she spoke about how the chapel has grounded her in her most difficult moments on the Hill and lifted her up during some of her happiest moments. 

My predecessor, Amy Stevens P’07, ’09, ’12, did an incredible job growing the chapel program into a hallmark of the Westminster experience, and I am committed to tending the garden that she has planted. It is an honor to oversee a program that has allowed me to feel that I, too, belong in this community. 

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