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Alumni Talk About Life After MCS

Thursday, February 15, 2018

What happens after students leave Manhattan Country School? And how well prepared are they? Current and recently accepted MCS families got the answers to these questions and more at Tuesday evening’s panel discussion: Oh, The Places You’ll Go: Alumni Talk About Life After MCS.  

The panel featured:

  • Viviana Benitez ’94, associate producer at Lincoln Center for Performing Arts, parent of a 4-5s MCS student, graduate of Friends Seminary and the University of Rochester
  • Anaïs O. ’17, freshman at Ethical Culture Fieldston School
  • Ava Huang, mother of Anaïs and MCS eighth-grader Nico
  • Daniel M. ’15, junior at Elisabeth Irwin High School (LREI)
  • Roger Mintz, MCS trustee and father of Daniel
  • Renèe Campbell ’95, vice president at JPMorgan Chase, former MCS trustee, graduate of Bronx High School of Science and Yale University

Liam Pleven ’79, an editor at The Wall Street Journal and a graduate of The Lenox School (now Birch Wathen Lenox School) and Swarthmore College, moderated the event.

Whether one is a parent of a soon-to-be 4-5s student or a rising middle schooler, readiness for high school is often top of mind. The panelists offered examples of how their alma mater helped them develop academically, socially and emotionally and successfully make the transition to secondary school.

“MCS offers a class that is engineered and structured to give you the skills,” said Daniel, of the studying and test-taking abilities he honed while at MCS. “They begin by teaching you about the brain and how it works and how memory works.... and then they give you a foundation to help you study and manage your time.”

“Each year ramps to prepare you so that high school isn’t a shock to your system,” Ava explained. “It’s very, very well thought out in terms of the curriculum, the emphasis on writing, what they’re teaching you in math, in science and even how [the students] have to manage their schedules. It’s not the same schedule everyday. It starts shifting and so is starts to mimic what high school will be like.”

“Anaïs was accepted to Trinity, Horace Mann, Fieldston,” added Ava, “so rest assured your kids will be well prepared.”

Several panelists commented on how MCS taught them to see beyond their immediate circle and to think deeply when making their observations. “In addition to a very strong academic grounding, [MCS] also gives you a good standpoint from which to view the world,” said Daniel. “....You get to look at worldly events through a critical lens and you get a much better understanding of what’s going on around you. You gain a very good amount of social awareness.”

“MCS really teaches you to think critically,” added Anaïs. “Seeing the world through a different lens helps you when you go into a different world that isn’t MCS. You’re able to share your ideas clearly and thoughtfully.”

“There is a common theme around understanding differences and having an appreciation of difference that MCS really instills through the conversations that happen every day with students themselves and with students and their teachers,” said Ava. “The children here really find their own voice and a confidence to share their own opinions and they are often advocates for others around them to be more socially aware.”

2018 MCS Alumni Panel

Self confidence and self awareness were shared touchpoints in the panelists’ responses.

Renèe said that, in addition to fostering her academic skills, MCS prepared her to make decisions for herself. A passing conversation she had with the Upper School director when she was an eighth-grader trying to make her high school decision is just one example of this.

“She said ‘Renee, remember three things about yourself: you’re a woman, you’re an immigrant and you are black. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel grateful that they have accepted you. You are bringing as much to them as they are bringing to you. Remember that when you make your decision.’...It helped me make my choice then, but it has literally helped me make my choice at multiple junctures in my life since then.” When she was accepted to Yale, but didn’t receive a great financial aid package, when she was offered a position at an asset management firm and when she won a Fulbright scholarship to study in South Africa are just a few examples of times she applied this mindset later in life.

While MCS has families across the socioeconomic spectrum, MCS students may encounter more classmates from privileged backgrounds or who have a sense of entitlement after they graduate. “I went to a high school where there was a lot of that,” said Viviana, who attended Friends Seminary. “I was able to navigate four years of that by being myself and finding allies. MCS was really important for me to get a sense of my identity and feel strong about myself.”

Current and alumni MCS families often talk about how being a member of the MCS community has enriched their lives. Roger was a new single parent when his son started at MCS. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he confessed. “It was the other parents in [my son’s] class who not only taught me about what I needed to know about school, but also about being a parent.”

Viviana said she has lost touch with her high school classmates, but many friendships formed at MCS have endured. Renee shared an anecdote about running into the mother of an MCS schoolmate who was a couple of years her junior at a Duane Reade years after graduating. “She hadn’t seen me in over a decade, but we remembered each other and we just chatted like we had known each other forever,” said Renèe.

Liam recounted a story of an impromptu visit to the MCS Farm. He said he couldn't have been back to the Farm more than once or twice in the 20 years since he had graduated and he wasn’t sure if there would be anyone there who would remember him. As soon as he got out of his car, the farm director (who had been a teacher at the Farm during Liam’s time at MCS) bounded out the front door of the farmhouse and shouted “Liam!” as if time had never passed. These are just a few examples of the strong bonds that are formed during a family’s time at MCS.  

While the panelists represented different MCS eras, the unique experience of having been an MCS student creates a common bond. It’s an experience that can be difficult for those who haven't attended MCS to understand. The rich diversity of the community, a progressive academic program that encourages student inquiry, the commitment to social justice and sustainability and spending 17 weeks at a farm in the Catskills are not common characteristics of elementary schools. In speaking with others about his time at MCS, Liam said he talks about the sliding-scale tuition program and the unique community it creates and the school’s graduation requirements—which include being able to milk a cow and manage barn chores, bake with yeast, create an original textile and prepare a meal for one’s entire class—to explain what made his elementary school experience one of a kind. “When you answer the question of what makes your grade school so unusual with those two things, people don’t go away thinking ‘Oh, it was just like mine.’”

Learn more about Manhattan Country School's alumni.