Ann Pollina, the longtime Head of Westover School, was the most influential person I’ve ever met.
As I’m cautious to use superlatives (academia shuns strong or direct language), let me explain how I reached this conclusion. If we measure global contribution and influence by the quantity and quality of lives improved, then Ann would be a leading influencer and contributor to the world. Unlike most influential people, Ann was not polarizing; sensing her genuinely kind intentions, everyone loved her. Regardless of how long they knew Ann, people provide similar descriptions of Ann’s character, pointing to her unique warmth, sharp mind, radiant smile, indomitable spirit, and authentic interest in people and ideas. She profoundly influenced everyone she met.
As a leader of Westover School for over 40 years, Ann built an inimitable community that gives teenage girls the space, resources, and confidence to truly be themselves and become their best selves. Teenage girls, whose rapidly growing brains are exquisitely sensitive to psychosocial cues, may be the most malleable people on the planet. Therefore, empowering high school girls to make beneficial choices, enjoy lasting friendships, pursue intellectual/artistic/athletic endeavors to the point of failure, laugh freely, and love themselves sets their lives on favorable trajectories. Ann’s teaching and presence directly changed the lives of about 9,000 girls who went through Westover during her tenure, and she indirectly influenced countless people connected to them. As Westover girls are not just impressive, but also distinctively outward-facing, Ann’s influence has been amplified exponentially. That is, Ann influenced influencers; she led leaders and taught teachers. This powerful network effect, coupled with her tireless work to improve the lives of people everywhere, including educating girls in Rwanda and innumerable STEM initiatives, makes it impossible to estimate how many people Ann influenced, and therefore I’ll focus on the quality, not quantity, of Ann’s influence.
Ann fully loved life. Anyone who met her immediately knew that she loved her work, loved intellectual pursuits, loved her community, loved connecting with and helping people, loved teaching, loved celebrating your wins, and loved her family. She was magnetic, and I prize her thoughtful advice because she lived the life of passion and purpose for which I strive. She demonstrated that it was possible to embody rare combinations of traits; she taught me that one could be simultaneously intelligent yet emotive, strategic yet loving, open yet effective, rigorous yet generous.
Ann spent her entire career at Westover. An enthusiastic and gifted teacher, she could have taken more ‘prestigious’ jobs, perhaps becoming a professor at a brand-name college, but it’s evident that her priority was always to have the greatest impact. Interestingly, I think many Westover students made a similar choice as Ann did, choosing to matriculate for the community’s intangible values beyond rankings. I believe Ann intelligently focused her influence on the inflection points of motivated young women on the brink of defining their personalities and professional pursuits. As an efficiency junkie, I am awed by how much life-enhancement leverage Ann created. In a world in which too many girls think they’re bad at math and limit themselves, Ann empowered young women to believe that we could succeed in technical fields like science and engineering. Ultimately, she instilled in us the belief that we could achieve anything we wanted so long as we worked hard and operated with kindness and integrity. Elementary school is too early, college too late for the foundational confidence, inspiration, and opportunities that Ann offered.
Attending Westover has been my greatest blessing, and my experience there appreciates each year. While I love and am grateful for my education at Carnegie Mellon and Yale, Westover had the most significant impact on my personal and professional development, and I’ve never encountered anyone like Ann, its leader. Her warmth, dedication, brilliance, creativity, passion, humility, and clairvoyance were unparalleled. I had the privilege of working with her on various STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) initiatives after I graduated from Westover, when I could perceive her through the lens of a more fully-formed adult. She floored me. Ann lit up rooms with her burning desire to advance STEM education (not just for women – for everyone) and to lift up every person in difficult circumstances. She was always delighted to see me after graduation, asking poignant questions and gifting me with soul-filling compliments. Her belief in my abilities carried me through tough times when I felt stupid and unworthy, and many of my fondest memories originate from Westover, from Ann’s legacy.
And what a legacy Ann created. My dad jokes that few Westover graduates don’t get advanced degrees, and I’ve been delighted to discover that no matter which career path my peers are dominating, ranging from scientific research to poetry to finance to innovative nonprofits, Westover girls are thoughtful global contributors. Ann created a culture that focuses not only on achievement, but also on promoting social justice, genuine connections, deep appreciation for beauty, and meaningful service.
I’m finding that larger-than-life, incredibly inspiring people are taken from this world too quickly, and the untimely passing of Ann Pollina fits into this puzzling paradigm. My heart aches for her lovely family and countless friends, and I sincerely hope she knows how many people she significantly touched. While I’ve been lucky to rub shoulders with many impressive people, none radiated the soulful, quiet, powerful influence that Ann did. Her smile was contagious, comments were witty, presence was comforting, teaching was brilliant, and her life was a gift to the world. Ann will be missed dearly, and the seeds she planted will live on in me and countless others. In fact, just today I realized that the very concept of sociable science originated at Westover, as Ann was the first to show me that one could be an unapologetic nerd while still meaningfully connecting with people. I can only hope to contribute a fraction of the joy, inspiration, knowledge, grace, and empowerment that Ann gave to the world.