Q & A with the Head: An Interview with Julia de la Torre

When you’re leading a school of 700 students and over 150 faculty and staff, you are gifted with a diversity of perspectives and life experiences. I am looking forward to getting to know Moorestown Friends School, so that we can see what kind of future we can build for the school together.

– Julia de la Torre

 

Julia de la Torre began her tenure as Head of School in July. She is the ninth Head of School in what is considered the “modern era” at Moorestown Friends (post-1920, after the school reconsolidated on one property). She is the first female Head of School in Moorestown Friends School history. The Among Friends staff posed a number of questions to Julia prior to the beginning of the school year.

 

For the hundreds of Moorestown Friends School community members eager to get to know you…what would you like people to know most about you?
What a hard question! I would like people to know that I love talking to people and I invite anyone who sees me on campus to just introduce themselves. I may need to ask you your name more than once, but I’m eager to get to know everyone in our community. In terms of who I am, my multicultural heritage and my global interests are most central to my identity. I love learning other languages and connecting with people through travel, culture, food, and art.

 

During the interview process at Moorestown Friends, what stood out to you about the school and the community?
The authenticity of the people is what stood out most to me while interviewing here. From students, to staff, to faculty, to parents, to alumni – everyone seemed to share a clear sense of place in the Moorestown Friends community. This feeling of belonging permeated the school and gave me the sense that MFS was real and true. Since arriving here, I continue to be inspired by the lived mission of the school, the commitment to the school’s history, and the value that everyone places on the individual qualities and contributions of every community member.

 

You moved to Moorestown in late June and began officially on July 2. How did you spend your summer at MFS getting acclimated to the school and the South Jersey area?
We have spent a good deal of time buried in boxes, but we have emerged and are starting to get to know our surroundings. I have spent most of my summer at school, getting to know my new colleagues. I am meeting with every School Committee member, as well as every faculty and staff member, so I have enjoyed getting to know the strengths of the school through their personal experiences. My son, Evan, participated in the Summer Scholars program at MFS, so I have also enjoyed watching him explore the school and meet new friends. Together with my husband Patrick, we have ventured several times up Main Street, from Carollo’s to Passariello’s and everything in between. We even took a week to do excursions into Philadelphia and Camden, checking out the Zoo, Please Touch Museum, the Adventure Aquarium, and more. We love recommendations, so please feel free to share your favorite places for us to explore.

 

You have quite a diverse personal and professional background. Born to a German mother and an Argentine father, you’ve stated that you were raised in a household that “valued cultural understanding, empathy, and human connection through commonality and difference.” Could you elaborate further on your family and your background?
Growing up, I didn’t know a single kid who came from a multicultural family…or at least that was my perception. I grew up at a time in our country where “other” or “multiracial” wasn’t a checkbox option on application forms, and people needed to decide with which culture they most affiliated. That’s a hard choice to make for a child. Although I connected easily with my classmates, there was always a part of my identity that felt singular and unique. I was the only kid in my class who enjoyed both mate (an Argentine tea drink) and marzipan as part of my childhood. As I grew older, I realized that this unique aspect of my cultural identity was not only something to celebrate, but it was more common than I realized. As an educator and school leader, my hope is to encourage all of us to share the details and stories of our cultural backgrounds, so that we see the richness it contributes to the community. My parents cultivated in me the importance of seeing the humanity in others, so that is what I bring to Moorestown Friends School.

 

You speak often about your undergraduate experience at Haverford College. How did Haverford impact you during these formative years?
Haverford was my first introduction to Quakerism, and Quaker values were present throughout my college experience. Decisions affecting the student body were made through consensus, the Honor Code was rooted in trust and respect for others, and the success of the individual was tied to the success of the community as a whole. I made friends at Haverford that are for life — not only because we had this shared college experience, but because we found in each other a mutual commitment to these core tenets. Haverford has and will continue to shape my ideals in education, and I look forward to bringing these values and experiences with me to Moorestown Friends School.

 

Your master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education is in International Educational Policy. You have spent time in Moldova with the Peace Corps, served as a high school French teacher and department chair, and served as the Executive Director for a non-profit focused on global education and citizenship. How does this global education and experience fuel your philosophies about learning?
I believe that in today’s world, we are so interconnected that it’s our responsibility as educators to make sure our students have access to and direct relationships with people from around the world. Our ideas become richer and better by exchanging viewpoints with diverse groups of people, so teaching and learning for me has always been centered around multiple perspectives. My two years living and working in Moldova helped me realize that we can connect with people on a human level, regardless of language, history, or economic status. If we are open to the humanity in others, we are able to see a new dimension of our own selves. Since my Peace Corps service, I have dedicated my professional life to teaching students about the world and equipping teachers with accurate and balanced information, so that they, too, can develop students’ cultural fluency.

 

Could you please trace the origins of your strong commitment to independent schools?
I attended a religiously-affiliated independent school in Houston, Texas for 12 years. My graduating class was 35 girls, and those classmates were my family throughout my schooling. Even though we all live in disparate parts of the country now, we have a shared experience that brings us back. I remember my teachers best, and some of my earliest memories are of reading books in the circus- themed library when I was in lower school there. I went on to serve as a teacher and administrator in independent schools in Colorado and Michigan. Even though each school is unique in its mission and programs, the value of people and relationships remains strong in every community. I believe that we teach children first and content second, so if we’re doing right by our students, we are helping them discover and nurture their strengths while meeting their fullest potential. That is what makes an independent school so special, in my view.

 

You are the first female Head of School in the 233-year history of Moorestown Friends School. Have you reflected on the significance of this moment and what it means for the school?
I am still processing what this moment means for the school and the community. Moorestown Friends School has been beautifully led by so many heads of school before me, and I look forward to building on their experiences and charting my own path of leadership. I am a product of single-sex primary and secondary education, and I have worked in organizations with exceptional examples of female leaders. In addition, the field of education is heavily dominated by women, especially in classrooms. For this reason, it has never seemed unusual to me to aspire to be a head of school as a woman. In our country, however, although we are making great strides, women are still very much in the minority in terms of senior leadership in schools. I hope to serve the school to the best of my abilities and to show young women just one example of what leadership can look like in schools today. On a personal level, I’m excited for my 4-year old son, Evan, to see his mom in leadership. I hope that by the time he finishes school, it will be more common to see both men and women at the forefront of change in education.

 

How would you define your leadership style?
Communicative and collaborative. I always come up with better ideas when I join in conversation with my family, friends, and colleagues. I take on the energy shared by others and love the generative nature of school leadership. When you’re leading a school of 700 students and over 150 faculty and staff, you are gifted with a diversity of perspectives and life experiences, all on one campus. As a leader, I enjoy tapping into those experiences in order to shape the ideas I bring to any school community. I am looking forward to getting to know Moorestown Friends School, so that we can see what kind of future we can build for the school together.

 

Could you share details about your family?
My husband, Patrick, and I are delighted to join the Moorestown Friends community as parents to our son Evan, who is starting in Pre-K this year. Patrick has worked for nearly 30 years in IT and database development but has always had a deep love of woodworking. This year, he has decided that with our fresh start in New Jersey he is going to do woodworking full-time and looks forward to the daily creative process. Stop by my office to see a custom-made conference table and desk, made by Patrick from locally-sourced New Jersey walnut. Evan is a curious 4-year old who loves dinosaurs, dragons, and penguins. One fun fact to know is that Evan has my last name – de la Torre – in an effort to maintain our connection to the Argentine side of my family. We chose his first name “Evan” to connect him to Patrick’s last name, which is Evans.

 

Food is a love and passion of yours. What is it about food that stokes that passion?
Food has always served as a focal point for gathering people across space and time. It fosters connections between people and serves as a starting point for discussions, relationships, and new ideas. Food also ushers us through celebrations and accompanies us through mourning. I love how food is both universally understood as a source of life, while also being uniquely represented and consumed in various cultures throughout the world. As I have learned to cook throughout my life, I have enjoyed the creative outlet it provides. It is a reflective process that centers me and allows me to share a part of myself with others. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t love food; it’s my goal to help people enjoy the cultural exploration it can provide.

 

Next: Service Award – Bill ’58 and Mary Teale ’58