Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Quentin McDowell of Mercersburg Academy Is Helping To Change Our World
Establish the highest expectations early on with the idea that you can always relax them if needed; it’s much harder to move in the opposite direction. I quickly learned this as a dorm parent on campus. I left my light on and door open to give the impression that I was going to be on duty all night. That allowed me to both earn student trust and establish the right boundaries.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Quentin McDowell.
Quentin McDowell is Mercersburg Academy’s head of school. He previously served Mercersburg in various capacities, including associate head of school for external relations (2019–2021), assistant head of school for enrollment (2016–2019), senior associate director of admission and financial aid (2012–2016), and director of summer and extended programs (2008–2012), and history teacher (2007). Quentin also served as the head boys’ varsity soccer coach for eight years, leading the Blue Storm to its first-ever Mid-Atlantic Prep League championship and the PAISAA state championship game in 2014.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was in high school in a small logging and fishing community in Washington State, I met a man through a Jesuit volunteer program who told me I should look into boarding school. It was a very foreign concept, but after doing some research, my parents decided to send me across the country to a school in New Hampshire. For the first time, I was asked to think critically, to rise up and be challenged, and to better myself. I had teachers who were investing their entire lives and spirits and energy to educate students in a transformative way, both because they wanted to give of themselves and because it was fulfilling work. That one year changed the trajectory of my career, because when I later asked myself what I wanted to do with my life, I realized I wanted to make the same kind of impact for others.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I started in my current role in quite an abrupt way — I was filling in as acting head of school during an unplanned transition. That was challenging in its own right, but this new job also started during the first year of a global pandemic. I hadn’t necessarily seen myself in this role for a few more years and it was quite a baptism by fire. The first day I stood in front of all 250 of our employees was very eye-opening. I saw the breadth and depth of the work ahead of me and how this job would broaden my lens from an individualistic scope into a much more holistic organizational perspective. I knew I would have to take a step back and learn how to serve everyone.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on, I served as the secretary for the board of regents, and we were engaged in selecting the next board chair. It was a very tense and sober moment with everyone voting, and I was responsible for tallying the vote. As I delivered the results to the chair of the committee, he looked at me and said, “that doesn’t sound right.” I realized that I had failed to tell him that I was color-blind, and the entire voting process was color coded. And so I’d of course mixed up colors, which led to the wrong tally. We quickly cleared it up but the incident also reminded me that I need to be able to just be really honest and vulnerable and not let my pride stand in the way of my doing a good job.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
We know that schools like ours have traditionally served populations of privilege and wealth. One of the great things that we have done over the past several decades is to be very concerted in our efforts to broaden the access to Mercersburg Academy for more students of diverse backgrounds — socioeconomically, ethnically, racially, religiously. We’re not only granting and creating opportunities to those who may not have previously had access to places like this, but we’re also providing a more realistic environment, one that reflects the outside world. Many of our graduates will go on to lead and manage in positions of power and opportunity. We believe that the things that they learn here about character, about inclusion, about appreciation of self and others will go a long way in terms of how they lead and manage organizations in the future. We have been really thoughtful in trying to create a strong sense of inclusion and belonging for all of our community members: Yes, our historically challenged and marginalized communities within our campus, but also all of our student body, so that everyone has the ability to bring their full self to the table at all times. That sense of really understanding and knowing who you are and what you can do is an enormous gift for kids.
Finally, we are also endeavoring over the course of the next year to build a full-fledged civic education program for our students, to help kids learn to take the time to suspend judgment, to listen to hear, not just listen to respond, to be okay being uncomfortable and recognizing the distinct difference between discomfort and lack of safety. I do believe that our civic education program, once up and running, will be an incredible asset to not only our kids, but to the organizations that they run and to the overall societies that they that they live in, whether they’re domestic or international.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
A young man from Togo in West Africa came to the U.S. through a lottery with his family, and he got involved in a youth soccer club in the Bronx. Through a series of networks and connections, I connected with him and we were able to ultimately make it possible for him to attend Mercersberg Academy, where he had an incredible experience over the course of two years. He went on to attend Muhlenberg College and is now at Fordham Law School. His time here was pivotal in his journey from somewhat difficult conditions to an accomplished academic career and many opportunities ahead of him. He plans to continue to take what he has learned at Mercersburg to serve others in a way that will better their lives.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
We find ourselves as a society in a really divided place, and that division can either break us apart or can serve as a catalyst for positive change that really reunites us, differences and all. Three things we can be doing:
- In the educational community, we can teach our students about being active participants in our society and teach them in the kind of environment and conditions that will model the larger world.
- As a society, we should set better expectations for how we communicate, especially with kids, to help them see the value in bridging this gap.
- Politicians can model the kind of behavior that we want to see from our students. We are yearning to see more openness, more dialogue, more engagement from our leaders in Washington and state and local offices. More calling in and less calling out.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I was at a United States Naval Academy graduation ceremony a few years ago where I heard a Marine Corps General talk about how every graduate was going on to become a Marines’ lieutenant, with an emphasis on the plural to show that they were there to serve all, the whole of the institution and the people in it — essentially serving the people who you once believed served you. So my job as a leader is to serve the needs of everyone at the school, to help partner with them, to make sure that the organization advances in really healthy and positive ways. Leaders need to be willing to provide clear communication and a shared vision. And they need to be the greatest champion of the very causes and services that they or the organization provides.
When I first took over as the head of our organization, I quickly realized that although I knew a lot about our overall work, there was even more I did not know. I had domain expertise in a multitude of areas, but certainly not all. For example, I remember sitting down with the dean of curricular innovation in my first couple of weeks and it was abundantly clear that his understanding of academic curricula was far beyond my own. I walked away from our meeting thinking to myself, “how can I get out of his way and shift from leader to partner, so we can collectively move our educational model forward?” In other words, how could I best serve him as he best serves our institution?
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Establish the highest expectations early on with the idea that you can always relax them if needed; it’s much harder to move in the opposite direction. I quickly learned this as a dorm parent on campus. I left my light on and door open to give the impression that I was going to be on duty all night. That allowed me to both earn student trust and establish the right boundaries.
- Remember that everyone brings a lot of life experience with them, and often you are not aware of what that experience is. This was a lesson I learned as a soccer coach. I had a student who was always showing up late for practice and I was giving him a hard time about it until I learned more about the difficulties he was facing at home. It’s important to show people compassion and not be quick to make assumptions — to give people a space to talk about what might be the real root of the problem.
- You get what you give.This is true for all aspects of life, but the more you invest in your job, your education, your well-being the more benefits you will reap over time. I learned this from watching my dad who worked in construction and who had a very strong work ethic.
- Beware of the person who only has answers. A lot of us, especially at the leadership level, have a desire to always prove that we know what is going on, and we know the right thing to do. But being vulnerable enough to ask a question ultimately makes you a much stronger leader who truly has more of the answers. I had a coworker who had an “all answers” approach until someone pointed it out to him. From then on, he was much more open and the difference for the group dynamic was absolutely transformational.
- Know who you are working with. By this I mean, really get to know and understand your coworkers, what motivates them, their learning style, their background. This not only helps improve communication and morale but it helps you maximize these relationships and create a more productive working environment. I had a colleague who wasn’t contributing to meetings and I would have assumed she was disengaged until I got to know her better and realized she was someone who didn’t like to jump in and spitball ideas in a big group. She was more willing to contribute one on one. Once we established this, I adjusted my expectations and changed the way meetings were run to be more inclusive to her.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If I could inspire a movement, it would be to ask people to put down their arms, in terms of this fight over ideas and ideologies and politics and to take the time to come back together and to talk openly and freely and return our discourse to a level of dignity and respect. To allow for a diversity of ideas that is the very core of what we are as a society and how we built our country.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was a kid, I was working for my father at about 5:30, 6 in the morning in coastal Washington state, and it was rainy and cold. And I was standing under the awning of his workshop, with my hands in my pockets to keep them warm. My dad was in the office finishing some paperwork and he came out and he said, “What are you doing out here?” And I told him, “I’m just waiting for you.”
He went back into his office. And about 10 minutes later, he emerged with a yellow pad of paper that had a list of things across the whole first page and half of the back of it. He said, “That’s all the stuff you could have been doing when you were standing around with your hands in your pockets.” I think a lot about that quote: There’s always something I can be doing, to be productive, to be impactful, to add value to a situation or an environment. Sometimes it’s okay to take a break and to rest. But when there’s work to be done, you don’t want to be the person standing around with your hands in your pockets.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
A former NFL player for the Baltimore Colts named Joe Ehrmann. He is the central figure in The Season of Life by Jeffrey Marks, and in that book, he talks a lot about our role in shaping the lives of young men and helping them see the value that they have as fathers, sons, brothers, husbands and teammates. He was not afraid to tell the players he coached that he loved them, and he meant it. That singular read shifted my lens on coaching and then ultimately my work as an educator. Because of him, I’m always trying to make sure that we look beyond the product of the classroom, the product of the field, to see the product of the relationship and character development and growth of another person. We should always be asking ourselves “what are we really trying to do here?” and reconnecting to that purpose.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!