The Road Less Traveled

Julia Pike, Editor-in-Chief

“I personally thought that attending a semester school was a life-changing experience. It was the most challenging thing I have ever done. Some of the things we did there seemed impossible, and looking back it was such a rewarding experience,” says Elly Blum. Last year, Elly attended the High Mountain Institute, a four-month semester program in the mountains of Colorado. The Semester Schools Network, an alliance for all the semester schools in the country, explained that semester schools “ deliver powerful outcomes for students—from challenging them academically, to expanding their views of the world, to helping them understand themselves as learners, to teaching them the value of participation in a small community.” In the past, Berkeley Carroll has sent students to five semester schools: Oxbow (in California), the High Mountain Institute (in Colorado), Chewonki (in Maine), the Mountain School (in Vermont), and the Island School (in the Bahamas), all of which are part of the Semester Schools Network. Four of the five schools are environmentally focused, and one, Oxbow, is an art school.

The decision to attend a semester school is not an easy one. Students, the majority of whom have never lived away from home, must leave their beloved families, friends, and school community to attend an entirely new place for four months. Students often have little to no contact with friends or family due to limited internet connection and cell-phone reception.However, for many students, the possible reward is greater than the risk. Alex Pachter, a junior who will be attending the High Mountain Institute in the spring, explained, “I didn’t choose to go to the High Mountain Institute as an ‘escape’. I love my friends, my classes, and life at Berkeley Carroll; but I saw an opportunity to expand my horizons and take a once-in-a-lifetime chance.” When asked about their experience, many students stressed the idea that semester schools were not an opportunity to “escape” from their current environment, something many high schools students may assume them to be, but merely a way to change up routines and explore new interests. Peper Carroll, a senior who attended Oxbow, explained, “I decided to go to Oxbow because I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn in a completely different environment; plus, I love art and I thought it would be fun to go study and do art for a semester.”

This specialized aspect of the semester programs is another attraction. Suzanne Fogarty, Director of the Upper School, explained, “These semester schools also offer fieldwork that [Berkeley Carroll] can’t. So, going to the Mountain School, you’re living on an organic farm; when you take the Environmental Science course at the Mountain School, they use their campus as the lab, and that’s an incredible thing. So, the kind of learning you can do about science, about oceanography, about the humanities, is going to take advantage of the fact that they’re using their surroundings.” Semester schools offer students the chance to focus on aspects of the world that they’re interested in, and do hands-on work on topics associated with those interests, that can’t be offered at regular high schools. “They do a really great job taking you outside to learn more than you ever wanted to know about the outdoors (rain or shine!) and they also do outdoor activities which are more about wilderness training,” explains senior Cooper Lippert, who attended the Mountain School last fall. He also added that one of the main focuses at the Mountain School was work on the school’s organic farm. “Everyone does work on the farm, in the shape of chores in the morning and work period right after lunch for three hours! It can be fun, grueling, rewarding, or menial depending what you end up doing. It makes you really appreciate farmers a lot more, and how intensive working on a farm can be.”

Students who had attended the programs also emphasized the change in environment these schools offered. Peper Carroll explained:

“The whole dynamic was completely different from anything I’d ever experienced. Sharing a space with someone for such a long time allows you to get to know them on an intimate and personal level that you could never get just by seeing them at school everyday. I got close to people and formed new friendships that could only have been formed through living together for four months. Everyone in the program came from different places around the country, had different backgrounds, and different beliefs. They all had really interesting things to say and speaking to everyone opened my mind to a lot of subjects, issues, and values I’d never really thought about.”

Ms. Fogarty echoed these sentiments, explaining that at semester schools, “you are with a group of students from other schools, which is great exposure. You learn how to make connections with students from bigger public schools or boarding schools, and even schools like BC. So, the relationships you develop when you have that opportunity of living away from what’s really familiar to you are extremely important.” Living with people other than your family is clearly a very different experience, and a social challenge that students will experience in college. Another important aspect of the semester schools is that they are in some ways preparation for the social challenges and opportunities that students will experience in college. “It’s important for students to have this experience at this specific time in their life because it’s a taste of what it means to be away. In your junior year you’re only two years away from college, so if you go away for a semester in your junior year, it’s perfect timing, because you’re at that cusp of being half-way through high school, ready for more, ready for that greater challenge of independence,” explained Suzanne Fogarty. Many students emphasized the increased independence they experienced while at semester programs. They offered students a chance to navigate living without their normal support systems of parents and familiar authority figures, teaching them to trust their own decisions. At semester schools, students have to rise to the occasion and take care of themselves in a lot of ways, although these schools offer support systems, such as advisors, college counselors, and teachers, as well.

This semester, I will be attending the Mountain School for four months. On February first, my family’s minivan, packed with my suitcases filled with empty notebooks and new pencils, flannel-lined jeans and down jackets, will drive through the school’s gates and up the long, sloping drive to the main house. I will check in, shake countless hands and undoubtedly forget dozens of names. I’ll unload my belongings into my empty dorm room and meet my new roommate. I’ll have to say goodbye to my family, give seemingly endless hugs and promises to call and write often. Then, I will watch my family drive away, and once the car is out of sight, I will turn around and I will begin what I hope will be an incredible four months. Alex Pachter, who is going to the High Mountain Institute next semester, said, “I’m excited to wake up every morning knowing that the day is going to be special and I’ll be learning how to be the best version of myself. I’m also excited to say I lived in an igloo, climbed to the peak of mountains, all the while being at school! Fingers crossed I don’t get altitude poisoning!”