“The Institute at Havergal” Builds Passionate Young Innovators

I remember the days when I was in high school and the meaning of “volunteerism” and “community service” started to take shape for me. Back then it meant occasionally helping out at a soup kitchen or spending time at a women’s shelter. I remember hosting bake sales to raise money for children’s charities, teaching literacy classes and going to the Don Valley Park to pick up garbage once a year.

But recently I had a conversation with one of Toronto’s top all-girls independent schools and I discovered that what “being of service” meant when I was growing up has been taken to a whole new level today.

Ann Peel is the director of Havergal College’s ‘The Institute’, which is dedicated to creating young women who are fully engaged global citizens and active problem solvers.

The Institute was formed in 2006/2007 after the school reflected on its mission: to prepare young women to make a difference in the world. Upon review of the school’s programs, they realized that the school needed to renew investment in its mission, focusing on how the mission might guide the school in a 21st century context.

With the help of renowned writer, designer and innovation strategist, Bruce Mau, Havergal set out to develop an approach that would truly empower the girls to make a difference.

Whole-child approach

“We wanted to look at the student as a whole child and person. We wanted to honour her academic life, co-curricular life and who she would be in the world. We wanted young woman to know what’s going on and to have a vision for a kind of world and actively contribute to it,” Peel says.

What fascinated me when I talked to Peel was the school’s core philosophy about how they were going to do this.

“Volunteerism is often focused on ‘I am helping you’. Helping is a disabling word. Instead, the focus should be on collaboration and recognizing each person’s humanity. We need to take a step back and not assume what kind of life you think will be meaningful to others,” Peel says.

The Institute’s programs work on developing the girls’ global capacity and ability to integrate with others and learn from another’s perspective in order to address world issues.

As an anthropologist, I loved this! In essence, The Institute is teaching the girls to truly humble themselves.

The programs that The Institute offer range from national and international cultural exchanges and excursions that partner with alumnae running social change projects to an in-school innovation lab. The lab is a place where girls can go with ideas to make a difference, such as to create a play about water conservation and get coached on how to make it happen.

All of the ideas are student-initiated and explored fully with the lab’s coaches. Coaches always say “yes” to an idea – they mentor the girls and ask them questions. Together, they explore the options the possible ways forward.

In addition to the excursions and the lab, the school holds “Institute days” where they bring in guest lecturers, such as designers or innovation experts to facilitate dialogue and conversation about how students can apply their problem solving and innovation skills in the future.

“The desired outcome is that we encourage our students to be experiential problem solvers who can work effectively with others from whatever background they are coming from,” Peel explains.

“In society, girls are socialized to conform – they just want to know the answer and do the right thing,” she says. “At Havergal, we’re trying to ‘unlearn’ what girls are socialized to do, and say ‘it’s ok to be curious, innovative, take risks, push back, and act on your ideas.”

So far, the programs of the Institute have been a huge success. Twenty five percent of the Havergal students go on an excursion and over half of the grade 9-12 students are involved in weekly community partnerships. A student-run summer camp has been born out of The Institute as well as a TEDx Havergal College event launching this fall.

So why is this approach so valuable today?

“The problems of the world are changing so much,” Peel says, “For example, it is not as simple as providing food to reduce poverty. Every issue is so complex and multi-faceted. Solutions require collaboration, creative thinking and partnership.”

As a result, The Institute teaches the girls the qualities that will empower them to make that difference – openness, curiosity, comfort with open ended problems, taking risks, and getting along with people who could be different from themselves.  

As the school’s programs continue to evolve, I can only imagine what kind of young women leaders will emerge into the world in the coming years.  

Peel adds, When you enable young people to see their own power, then the magic happens and there is no stopping them."


Courtney Lawrence is a freelance writer, researcher, innovation consultant and yoga instructor. She has a passion for sharing human stories and building connections between groups of people. She has her own blog that explores spirituality and social relationships. www.courtneylawrence.ca


Shout Out from an Old Girl

Wow! What a cool flashback to my days "behind the ivy." The Institute was introduced in my senior year -- glad to see that it's grown and that HC is still doing such good work. Love the "whole child" approach.

Keep it up, Havergators!

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