Mercersburg Provides "Roots and Wings in Equal Measure"
By Ivy Chan '24
Danielle Dahlstrom '93 works in the field of international security, specifically looking at nuclear issues. Dahlstrom started her career following a dream to be broadcasting in New York where she worked for NBC, but she gradually realized that "she wanted to be on the other side of the story, shaping it from the inside and on the ground."
Dahlstrom has worked in many international contexts, largely within the United Nations system. Her most recent focus has been on nuclear terrorism and ways to counter it globally. She served as an adviser to the World Institute of Nuclear Security Gender Champions Programme, an outreach officer in the Division of Nuclear Security at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and a public information officer at the IAEA. Dahlstrom shares that some of her proudest professional moments are the ones for which there isn't great fanfare. "Working with different governments, I played a role in shifting the narrative on several very charged issues, bringing people closer together where they otherwise could not agree." Dahlstrom shares another proud career moment–being a working mother: "I have two children and they see me working and making hard decisions and traveling, while still being the room mother and making costumes and cookies along the way." When her son broke his arm in second grade while she was in Kazakhstan for work, she was racked with guilt. He told his teacher that his mother wasn't there because she was out fighting bad guys with words, not with guns. It was humbling and reassuring in equal measure that on some level, he understood her commitment to giving back.
As a member of the Alumni Council as well as the Reunion Committee, Dahlstrom looks forward to the upcoming reunion in June. Feeling a deep connection to her class, Dahlstrom organized virtual happy hours as a way to connect during COVID-19. "I hadn't seen some of the faces in 10 or 15 years, and it felt like not a minute had passed. We grew up together and we are the keepers of each other's story. The first meeting that everyone logged onto lasted for four hours, and only ended because the sun was starting to come up (in Austria) where I live!" Her excitement for the reunion can only be explained by the lasting connections and friendships she made at Mercersburg. Dahlstrom reveals, "I am so excited to go back and to be in the company of my oldest friends. When I see a hint of the chapel spire for the first time, I feel an immediate sense of place, belonging, and family. When we are together again, the world feels righted somehow, if only momentarily. We see each other through the eyes of our teenage selves, so it proves to be a reunion on many levels!
Mercersburg helped Dahlstrom significantly as the Academy enabled her to find her voice. Dahlstrom recalls, "I was very shy when I came in as a 9th grader. During the four years I spent at Mercersburg, I found my voice. I was taught how to think critically and to determine what was important to me, all in the context of examining difficult questions and issues. I was always being pushed and encouraged to speak up. Mercersburg gave a shy girl a platform to find her voice and the courage to use it."
Dahlstrom had many fond memories during her time at Mercersburg. Declamation (go Irving!), among other highlights, made it difficult to choose a specific favorite because of her four years at Mercersburg and her affection for the library. But, she still shares with a laugh, "Many of my favorite memories would probably be a collection of dinners at Ford Hall! Racing back from sports to make it on time, seated with an unexpected assortment of students and teachers that rotated every two weeks; I loved the sense of ritual, community and connection it created, and the occasional chance to find kindred spirits in the most unlikely of places, like the Blue Coat/White Coat line!"
Dahlstrom's advice to current students is to own their own truths, and to abide by them no matter how scary, even if only quietly at first. From there, she encourages students to "seek advice from those people who have already taken the path that they too dare to tread. She elaborates, "It is easy to look at friends or family and ask ‘what is the best decision for me?’ but in my experience, it is more valuable to seek the advice of people who have made decisions that are in line with your values and priorities and the vision you have for your life."
While the world feels chaotic and upside down, Dahlstrom's goal moving forward is to be present both personally and professionally. She says, "This is important because I think we can make a lot of big plans, but sometimes life has other things in store. That is the beauty of it, I suppose." She also stresses the importance of appreciating the little things: She is grateful for time with her children and parents and the insights and lessons they provide her.
Looking ahead, Dahlstrom explains that "the Mercersburg community is global in reach and representation. Currently, over 1,300 constituents, including alumni, current parents and friends from 131 countries, are ‘painting the world blue.’ As a member of the Alumni Council, my goal is to create an International Network to connect this unique demographic and continue to grow an alumni community of support. Whenever you are traveling or going out into the world, one can always connect with Mercersburg. In the meantime, my door is always open in Vienna!"
Dahlstrom's Mercersburg priorities are twofold. First, she hopes "to attract and engage current students, to learn from them as to how to advance this International Network so it has real utility and can deliver meaningful impact." Second, she wants to encourage as many people as possible to come back to the upcoming June reunion.
Dahlstrom emphasizes the tremendous tie she has with Mercersburg, which she describes as one "that can never be undone. It has been a remarkable journey, but somehow all roads, literal and figurative, always lead me back to (ZIP code) 17236." Dahlstrom further explains her important connection with the Academy, saying: "I maintain that the Class of 1993 is the best ever, but there is a rival on the horizon with members from the Class of 1971. I connected with Alumni Council member Scott Cummings, when he came through Austria with his wife Philae. New friends quickly became old friends over the course of a drink that became an even longer lunch the next day. Mercersburg meals are still my best memories in the making, even after all these years! The Academy really continues to be a very important part of my life and identity."
"For students currently at Mercersburg," she says, "don't let a minute pass without really looking around and seeing what a tremendous and unrivaled opportunity you have to follow your passions. I cannot wait to read about how you change the world!"
It is a tremendous homage to Mercersburg that alumni such as Dahlstrom want to return after they have bravely tackled difficult world problems. Dahlstrom concludes her message by saying, "Mercersburg Academy gives people roots and wings in equal measure, and that has been a very profound gift for me."
- Living the Values