No one on the Mayfield administrative team can remember how, or exactly when, the decision was made to invite alums back to assist in the reopening of campus for hybrid learning. But once the idea was proposed, the decision was unanimous. As teachers and students moved back to campus, there would be more technology needs to be met in the classroom for those still learning or teaching from home. For health and safety reasons, it would be necessary to supervise all the students during their free periods in ways never required before. As Head of School Kate Morin explains, “We needed more eyes and more boots on the ground.”
So why not recruit local Mayfield alums for these paid positions? Many recent college grads or college students had returned to their childhood homes around Pasadena during COVID. It was a group of people who were already invested in the school, a kind of ready-made brain trust. “Our alums are so impressive, we just thought that was the natural place to start,” explained Toi Webster Treister '82, Assistant Head of School for Academics, who helped devise and execute the alum plan.
A natural place, indeed, but this was not a tactic other schools were utilizing for their reopening models. It was an initiative unique to Mayfield. And “impressive” was an understatement, considering the talents and abilities that came forth. To name a few,* there was Sara Lydon ’19, a student at Dartmouth in biomedical engineering. There was Anna Arboles ’13, a professional musician and tour manager, who graduated from the USC music program. Emily Monroe ’14 graduated from Santa Clara University with a major in business management, and is now in her final year at USC Gould School of Law. Jocelyn Gaona ’15 graduated from the University of Notre Dame, majoring in neuroscience and behavior, minoring in Latino studies, and is heading to Michigan State University College of Human Medicine to pursue her medical degree this fall. Julia Morreale ’15 studied psychology at Drew University and aims to apply to grad schools to pursue genetic counseling. Leah Carter ’08 graduated with a B.S. in biophysics, the first woman of color to do so in the history of USC, and then went on to Trinity School of Medicine, having finished her medical degree a few months ago.
Without a doubt, this was a deeply overqualified group to execute duties that Sara Lydon described as: “making sure that students are keeping their masks on, remaining socially distanced, and wiping down their spaces after each class.” These tasks weren’t identical to each alum—they adapted to the school’s changing needs. And although all of the alums were accomplished, they weren’t all so early in their careers either.
Sr. Sheila McNiff ’56, SHCJ was called to religious life while she was still a Mayfield student, eventually becoming a sister of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. She is not just an alum, or a Sister of the Holy Child Jesus, she’s also a Mayfield trustee. She’s been a principal at schools as local as Mayfield Junior School and as distant as St. Anne's in Otukpo, Nigeria. She is an experienced educator, therapist, counselor and chaplain. But such is Sr. Sheila’s dedication to Mayfield and her “roll up your sleeves” attitude that she sat on the North Lawn almost every weekday morning, overseeing students finishing their homework assignments in the morning mist, six feet apart.
Most of the positions filled by the alums weren’t exactly glamorous, yet they shared an overall sense of enthusiasm in their desire to help out. Julia Morreale describes the moment the invitation from Mayfield “popped up” in her email box: “I was like, perfect, awesome—I can't sign up fast enough!” And Leah Carter echoes the sentiment, saying, “I jumped at the opportunity to just get to be back on campus in any capacity.” There was a communal understanding there was work to be done, and no job was too small. Mrs. Treister praises the way the alums have played a pivotal role in this unprecedented time, saying they were “critical in their flexibility to just pivot on a moment's notice.”
Like many alums, Jocelyn Gaona remained in Pasadena while widespread COVID restricted her movements. And although she will now be heading to Michigan to start medical school in person, she had personal reasons to help her alma mater during this COVID-driven pause. “My younger sister [Vanessa Gaona '20] graduated last year and I saw how she missed out on being on campus for her final few months. I wanted to aid Mayfield in bringing the students back so that they could enjoy a part of the school year...on campus,” Jocelyn said. “My Mayfield family has given me so much that I really wanted to help in any way that I could.”
One of the primary joys for these alums seems to have been reconnecting with the Mayfield community again. Julia Morreale says that “a lot of the other TAs are either from my graduating year or one or two years above mine. So a lot of them are familiar faces...and tons of familiar faces around campus too, since I'm a ‘baby graduate.’” And some alums have even found new friends!
Anna Arboles and Julie Sanchez Brehove ‘11 didn’t know each other well when they were students—Mrs. Brehove is two years older than Anna. But when Anna subbed for one of Mrs. Brehove’s classes this year, she found herself sharing stories with the class about Mrs. Brehove and her twin sister Elizabeth Sanchez ‘11. Anna remarked that she and Mrs. Brehove have now “struck up a friendship” and says just being at Mayfield makes her feel “welcomed back with open arms.”
There have been professional connections during this alum re-engagement too. Leah Carter, who will be heading to her residency in family medicine at Charles Drew University soon, shared her time and medical acumen, helping School Nurse Cathy Cota (Rachel ’04 & Carolyn ’06) in the health and attendance office. Leah explained they did “contact tracing and COVID test tracking to ensure everyone on campus was as protected as possible.”
During a year in which health concerns were critical for all school operations, having someone with such incredible medical competence was hugely beneficial. “Leah was invaluable to me during the reopening of school,” says Nurse Cota. “I don’t know how I would have done it without her.”
Between COVID and the renovation work being done on Strub Hall, the alums also remarked on seeing their old campus in a new way. Julia Morreale loved “so many of the classrooms that I associated with certain things that are completely flip-flopped, like the Living Room being a classroom!” Sara Lydon also remarked on the ingenuity of repurposing spaces, saying, “I thought that moving the Senior Locker Room outside, that was pretty cool. And how they still painted that wall? That took me by surprise.” She added, “It was impressive to see all the outdoor areas used. I always loved spending my free periods outside, so it's nice that a bunch of people are now outside a lot.”
Returning to 500 Bellefontaine brought up many moments of self-reflection among the alums, with some identifying tools they acquired as students at Mayfield that served them later in their professional lives. Anna Arboles works as a musician and with other musicians, but is emphatic that the tactics she picked up from science teacher Theresa Peters are things she uses constantly in her professional life. “AP Bio really taught me how to navigate a huge magnitude of information, how to approach work...I learned time management...it taught me how to approach information, basically.” She says, “No class prepared me more for the world than AP Bio!” Sara Lydon realized that Mayfield gave her “a good foundation for dealing with competitive classes.” And she adds Mayfield helped her face difficulties in other forms too. “I have a good mindset to take them,” she says, “A growth mindset.”
Leah Carter was thoughtful about the way Mayfield shaped her idea of service, especially as she prepares for her residency, heading into “the most resource-poor regions in Los Angeles.” She thought a lot about Sr. Barbara Mullen, SHCJ. “I try to live a service-driven life," Leah says, but she also recalled Sr. Barbara sharing something meaningful about self-care during her senior seminars: “Young women need to be more selfish sometimes!" Impressions like this have formed Leah’s motivation and endurance, especially for the ambitious projects she takes on. “I'm excited to be able to give back to my community,” she says, “And even more thankful that I get to train so close to home.”
It was an experiment to employ Mayfield alums on campus at the end of a very unusual school year. And just days after the school term has ended, Mayfield remains indebted to the contributions that all of the alums have made, large and small. It was a remarkable way to see the “Actions Not Words” motto made manifest, time and time again. Or, as Kate Morin says, “Once a Mayfielder, always a Mayfielder.”
*Mayfield is also grateful for the assistance of Carina Benzinger ‘12, Carolyn Lo Coco ‘18, Amanda Mar ‘20, Claire McDermott ‘08 (daughter of social studies teacher Anne Hartfield ‘77) and Lauren Romo ‘15. We are also grateful for the contributions of Olivia Treister (daughter of Assistant Head of School Toi Webster Treister ’82) who didn’t graduate from Mayfield, but is forever an honorary alum!