This article is part of the 2022-2023 Guide to Baltimore Independent Schools.
Baltimore has a rich culture and history of independent schools. These institutions dispense inspiring mentors, instill enduring values, and provide foundational experiences. We sat down with four graduates of Baltimore’s independent schools, all at different points in their professional lives, to discuss their education’s lifelong impact on them.
As a lower school student at McDonogh School, Leena Rao had a ready response when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up: a professional tennis player. When she had the opportunity to meet her hero, celebrated tennis player and 1979 McDonogh graduate Pam Shriver, it was a moment she never forgot.
“I can still remember the joy on my face when I got to meet this icon that I worshipped,” Rao says. Shriver was on campus for Founder’s Day, an annual tradition at McDonogh where the entire community pauses to remember the alumni who have passed away in the last year. John Grega, McDonogh’s religious studies teacher, selected Rao to say the Benediction and introduced her to Shriver afterward.
Rao graduated from McDonogh School in 1999 and remembers Mr. Grega as “a really wonderful teacher” who introduced students to a diverse range of world religions and holidays in his teaching. “We would always celebrate Kwanzaa, Diwali, Christmas, and Hanukkah,” Rao says.
Upon reflection, Mr. Grega’s impact on Rao far surpassed that one moment when he introduced her to her hero. “To have a religion teacher at that age is truly amazing because it really symbolizes McDonogh’s ethos around openness and acceptance of all cultures,” Rao says.
Mia Gogel attended Jemicy School from 2005 through 2012, and she did not have to think long when reflecting on the lifelong impact of her experience. “Jemicy taught me grit and the ability to persevere.” As a student with a learning disability, Gogel had to overcome a lack of self-confidence. “I just didn’t believe in myself, which was holding me back,” she says.
Everything changed for Gogel when she arrived at Jemicy, thanks to her one-on-one tutoring sessions with Steven Brown. “I remember him drawing on a piece of paper, a circle that represented the confidence I had in myself and a [larger] circle that represented the confidence he had in me,” she says. “[he would] erase mine to make it bigger and tell me: You’re not going to be able to succeed in your academics if you never believe in yourself.” That reassurance was exactly what Gogel needed. “Having someone just constantly believing in me made me believe I could achieve something I didn’t think was possible,” she says.
As the associate director of government affairs for Baltimore County, Gogel consistently approaches the complexity of the legislative process with this same drive and confidence that she credits to her experience at Jemicy. “Attempting to pass legislation is a series of overcoming obstacles, with no definite chance of success,” she says. “Sometimes you just have to wait to come back the next year or next cycle and do it over again.”
After her time at Jemicy, Gogel transitioned to the Friends School of Baltimore for high school. Two tenets of her Friends’ education stick with her through her work today: stewardship and community.
“Stewardship was ingrained into my education,” Gogel says. “Thinking about what it means to be a steward of the environment and the obligation we all have to take care of each other and be not just an individual, but part of something bigger.”
Gogel recalls days when the school would go into Baltimore City neighborhoods and participate in garden clean-ups or community walks. “That was like, a really impactful experience — walking through a place and getting to know it and then serving it alongside community members,” she says.
Michael Leonard graduated from Loyola Blakefield in 1986. Loyola has been a part of the Leonard family for three generations. Michael’s father graduated in 1960. His oldest son Davis graduated in 2019, and his youngest son Gavin will be a senior this year. It was the school’s value proposition that drew the family to Loyola. “My education taught me to be a man for others, both professionally and personally,” Leonard says.
In his 31 years working in financial services, Leonard keeps Loyola’s mantra at the forefront of his mind. “I think the number one thing that I can kind of correlate to my whole life that came from my schooling was that element of being a man for others and giving back,” he says. Whether he is mentoring interns at his company or serving as the president of the National Association of Insurance & Financial Advisors’ Baltimore Charitable Foundation, Leonard lives out the values Loyola Blakefield imparted to him.
Jack Sheehy had the privilege to be part of a storied tradition at The Park School of Baltimore – writing for The Postscript. The school’s newspaper has been published for most of the school’s history and, at one point, was mailed out to every Park family. “Since I first read the paper in fifth grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer,” says Sheehy, who wrote his first article during the fall of his first year of high school and rose to be a co-editor in chief by his senior year in 2017.
His experience underscored a tenet of his Park education: collaboration. “I was still in high school and [had to] manage a staff of writers and think through difficult situations… I started to learn how to work with and manage people in those situations,” Sheehy says. That emphasis on collaboration lends itself well to Sheehy’s profession as an associate on a research team for a DC advocacy nonprofit. “[Collaboration] is something I do all the time at work today,” he says. “I started learning that when I was little at Park and it’s still very relevant for me today.”
Rao worked on McDonogh’s school newspaper, The Week, and recalls an experience similar to Sheehy’s. “Doing something as a team and being able to manage other editors, that’s something that not a lot of 16- and 17-year-olds get to do. And McDonogh gave me that opportunity,” says Rao, who now covers the fast-paced world of finance and technology as an editor on the venture capital and startups desk at Insider.
Rao explains that McDonogh’s challenging academic environment, paired with the expectation that students would also engage in school-related activities outside of the classroom, instilled in her a strong work ethic. Far removed from choir rehearsals and tennis practices of her youth, Rao says that as a working mother she continues to rely on the time management and balancing skills she learned at McDonogh.
Independent schools foster not only academic and career success, but also lifelong allegiances to alma maters and forever friendships.
For Sheehy, it began with collaboration—from Park’s printing press to the baseball diamond. He played first base for Park’s baseball team, where communication and teamwork were vital. “People of all different baseball playing backgrounds and levels of experiences could come together,” he says. That fraternity of baseball carries over to this day. Less than a week after speaking for this story, Sheehy returned to Park to man his familiar first base during an alumni baseball game.
Leonard still meets regularly with his Loyola classmates in Baltimore to feed the hungry or run clothing drives. Of his long-lasting bonds with those he met at Loyola, Leonard explains: “Some of the guys I met the first day, freshman year, are my closest friends today: each other’s best men in weddings, godparents to children, people who are loyal, and have your back, and are there without question.”
While every independent school student’s experience differs, these alums’ reflections illuminate a shared sentiment: The lasting impact of these institutions influences the personal and professional lives of all who pass through them.