A few of the Port Chester High School students working on service projects to earn the Seal of Global Competence and Leadership on their diplomas pose by the lockers after sharing their thoughts. From the left: Ashley Garcia, Andrea Tigselema, Edzani Kelapile, Megan Sical, Dianna Duchi, Jennifer Lopez, Samia Juarez and Lesly Morocho.
Sarah Wolpoff|Westmore News
A few of the Port Chester High School students working on service projects to earn the Seal of Global Competence and Leadership on their diplomas pose by the lockers after sharing their thoughts. From the left: Ashley Garcia, Andrea Tigselema, Edzani Kelapile, Megan Sical, Dianna Duchi, Jennifer Lopez, Samia Juarez and Lesly Morocho. Sarah Wolpoff|Westmore News

It makes Port Chester High School Assistant Principal Luke Sotherden feel inspired to reminisce about organizing a blood donation bank on his own as a teenager.

He took on the difficult project, which he recalls being a huge success, to fulfill the community service requirement necessary to become an Eagle Scout, the highest rank attainable in the Boy Scouts. The experience stuck with him, largely as an ideal model for education. Through a hands-on project that made a philanthropic impact, he truly understood all the values and skills he learned in the Scouts.

Now, he wants to bring the same idea to the high school.

“I’ve always looked for an avenue to teach character and try and get kids involved with bettering their community. In many ways, global competence projects implement those things about Scouting,” Sotherden said. “I really think it solidifies their classroom knowledge. The whole point is to get kids to be problem solvers. It’s not just about learning facts—I can teach anyone a two-step equation. It’s what you do with that knowledge that matters.”

Global competency—understanding the human rights issues and values shared across the world—is a critical aspect of 21st century academia and character building. In fact, many Port Chester High School classes already incorporate an element of global education into the curriculum. And under Sotherden’s philosophy, the grasp for those concepts becomes much stronger when students actively take that knowledge to the real world in a tangible way.

This year, for the first time, a handful of graduating seniors will be leaving with proof that they took charge in not just understanding global issues but doing something about them. Those students receiving a diploma distinctly marked by the new Seal of Global Competence and Leadership took classes that ignited a passion for bettering the world and independently developed their own service project to benefit a specific problem or demographic they were drawn to.

Most of those going after the seal say this is just the beginning of a lifetime of service.

“What I loved about Scouting is you really had to put into practice the skills you learned. The merit badges required for the Eagle rank all tied into citizenship in the community, citizenship in the nation and citizenship in the world,” Sotherden said. “Those also tie very closely to this seal.”

What is the seal?

Sotherden and a few teachers fathomed the seal after attending a One World conference last year—an international program originating in Port Chester that connects schools across the world while building compassion by focusing on the United Nations human rights and sustainable development goals, such as ending hunger and poverty or promoting health, peace or climate action.

Realizing global competence is already being applied in most classroom subjects, a committee of teachers representing all high school departments collaborated in establishing the criteria for the seal. Now three of them—Jeffrey Kravitz, Rigoberto Martinez and Joseph Gilson—are actively guiding interested students through the process.

To qualify for the seal, which is loosely modeled off the state-recognized Seal of Biliteracy, students first need to earn five “points” from the curriculum. This comes from doing well in a wide range of AP and IB classes or on Regents exams—a list teachers compiled after careful thought to ensure each option has a strong element of global education.

“We wanted to create some sort of application where students feel they can actually qualify and apply for it, in a sense,” Kravitz explained, noting that way students feel a genuine sense of achievement. “A check off the boxes to see if they could be credible. We found that more kids than we thought could achieve it.”

And that was purposeful. The Seal of Global Competence and Leadership is designed to be attainable to anyone willing to put in the work. It gives students who traditionally take little interest in high-level academia an opportunity to excel in school in a meaningful, different way.

While there are a handful of top students always seeking out any new opportunity, Gilson said of the nearly two dozen students who have expressed interest in the seal so far, many of them are not the expected high achievers.

The second phase in earning the seal involves students creating their own service project.

“They’re learning all these great skills in their classes, but now it’s ‘what are you going to do with that knowledge?’” Sotherden said. “The idea is to get them to use that knowledge and put it into action to better the community. They’ve learned about issues, they’ve become passionate about issues, now put that into play.”

Though students are encouraged to work together while developing the project and doing the work, the task itself needs to be individually thought of, crafted and implemented. The mentors are there to help encourage and keep them on the right track, but aside from that they’re relatively removed from the process.

“It’s beautiful. Because as teachers, as far as the school day goes, we’re always just adding the next thing to their to-do list. But with organic projects like this, that’s real life,” Martinez said. “Things happen organically, but you have to plan and have a vision for what you want. No one is going to give you a blueprint and say ‘Here, kiddo. This is the plan for your life.’ It happens organically with a lot of thought, and we’re here to promote that growth and thought.”

Benefits to self and society

The Seal of Global Competence and Leadership has clear advantages to education by encouraging students to put academic worldwide issues in a real-life context. Kravitz said it promotes a complete perspective on reality.

“It gives them accountability. I think one of the biggest jobs we have as teachers is popping the bubble your student lives in,” Kravitz said. “For them to say, ‘wow, there’s so much more out there.’ Whether it’s good or bad, for students to see that and want to give back to those in need, this whole thing becomes bigger than all of us.”

“It gets students to be more aware of their community and think of creative ways to give back,” Martinez added. “There’s the application format to qualify, but the main thing is the service project and the purpose of that is so students have an understanding of who they are, how they fit in their community and how to give back.”

However, educators and students believe the benefit of this new program is far reaching and pertains to multiple levels.

For many students, Martinez said the idea of such independence in a project is daunting at first. In the modern age of technology, students are glued to their cellphones and digitized conversations, and as a result they see a lot of youth suffer from social anxiety.

There’s a lack of communication skills because they aren’t practicing communication skills, Martinez said. But the service project forces them out of that comfort zone by building up this ability that’s critical to future success.

“For us, this is 100 percent about giving back to our community. But an add-on to that is also all the skills learned through this project,” Martinez said. “It’s going to help you with your career. The interpersonal skills, the communication and just in a sense being the ringleader. Being able to lead, saying ‘I need you here. I need you to do this.’ If you can do that well, that’s how you make the big bucks.”

Beyond the benefits to humanity and personal growth, attaining the Seal of Global Competence and Leadership undeniably looks good on a college application.

Writing an essay about a complex service project for humanity will go a lot further than using the cliché “I possess strong leadership skills” lines, the teachers laughed, which is especially important for students who don’t typically do well on tests.

“This isn’t something nationally recognized at the moment, but when you talk about kids separating themselves when they apply for college, there’s thousands of kids applying for the same seat at every school,” Sotherden said. “What are they going to do to separate themselves? This is an opportunity for a kid to say, ‘I completed this service project that my school recognizes as being good for our community, our world, our nation.”

Students becoming global leaders

A member of the Pride of Port Chester color guard, junior Samia Juarez described how before some performances the team selects “secret buddies” and they exchange sweet notes of encouragement.

“It makes you feel special, knowing you’re not alone,” Juarez said. “Sometimes when you’re going through a tough time you feel alone, but you’re really not. Sharing a cute little note like that makes the other person know they have people there supporting them.”

The ritual means to a lot to Juarez and has clearly made an impact on her high school experience. That’s why she wants to pay it forward to other vulnerable groups in the community. Attempting to earn the Seal of Global Competence and Leadership next year, Juarez is planning to make cards with sweet notes along with friendship bracelets and wants to distribute them to hospital and nursing home patients.

Collaborating with other students, as the mentors encourage, Juarez is working together with juniors Megan Sical and Diana Duchi to raise money for their projects.

Ideally, they’d like to host a bake sale which will ultimately benefit the greater community, as Duchi wants to donate supplies to the homeless in New York City and Sical wants to make care packages for patrons of the Port Chester Senior Center.

“I wanted to that because when I was in eighth grade, we went to visit the seniors,” Sical said. “To see their faces, just the joy from that one visit made me want to continue going there.”

Other students, such as sophomore Ashley Garcia, went more global minded with their projects. Last summer, a fire for service work was ignited in Garcia’s heart when she made hanging plant beds in the Weber Drive Community Garden with peers in STEER for Student Athletes.

After that experience, she heard about the new seal program and didn’t hesitate. She’s already completed her project. Working again with STEER, Garcia collected numerous bags of clothing, sports apparel, house supplies, first aid items and toiletries. Ultimately, they will be delivered to a youth basketball program in Haiti.

Garcia said there’s no doubt she’ll continue doing service projects, regardless of any academic accolades associated. Others going through the experience are on the same wavelength.

“I’m definitely going to continue. Because I want to explore the world and see where I can make a difference,” said senior Lesly Morocho, who traveled to Nicaragua over spring break last year to serve food and build houses in an impoverished community.

“I learned that coming back here, even though I’m a minority, I should appreciate what I have. Because they have less than we think they do and they’re still happy, regardless of that injustice,” she said. “It kind of made me open my eyes to see different things happening in the world that are troubled and still need fixing.”

Moving forward

Like any new program, this first year of implementing the Seal of Global Competence and Leadership is trial and error. The educators and administrators overseeing the system are open to adjustments as time goes on.

Gilson said right now they’re focused on keeping the trajectory moving forward—getting more students interested in earning the achievement.

Part of that momentum is expected to naturally continue. Gilson noted that because in Port Chester graduation draws a huge crowd from the general community, more people will be learning about the seal every year as more students attain it.

Plus, kids talk. Kravitz thinks that as more current applicants do good deeds and get recognized for their philanthropic work, other students will see it’s a doable undertaking and become interested in experiencing the same thing.

“I think it’s such a good idea to have something like this at school, and I was personally inspired by my teachers and mentors who’ve been promoting this. So, I kind of took that same initiative,” Morocho confirmed. “To be the person that mentors other kids. To be that face for some kids that’s, ‘if that person can do it, so can I.’ I’m going to try to continue that at school, because I think other kids need that inspiration going forward.”

Next year, the teachers said they may establish a project fair, where students can make displays featuring what they did and talk to peers about the program.

“That would be great, because it gives students the opportunity to have an informal conversation with another student,” Kravitz said. “To say what it’s all about, where they don’t have to present on a stage or anything. A one-on-one opportunity to explain their project to a kid who may be curious about getting involved.”

Long-term, Gilson said he wants to collaborate with the One World Clubs currently active at all the elementary schools which have the same goals and focus the Seal of Global Competence and Leadership promotes.

For inspiration, they could even invite the young students to the theoretical project fair.

“As these kids will be rising up with One World, we can help them take all that they’ve already done and build on it more once they get here. They can build on a project they did in elementary school or do something they didn’t get the chance to do but wanted to,” Gilson said. “That would make it a whole district initiative.”

The idea is, years from now, a diploma from Port Chester High School could indicate that from K-12, students mastered a thorough global education to take forward.