Backpacking through the Trinity Alps, kayaking down the Salmon River, conversing with local school children in rural Chile…these experiences are just the norm at the Alzar School. And Elena Press, a sophomore at Upper Dublin High School, located outside of Philadelphia, was one of just ten participants in its Fall 2013 session. From mid-August through the end of December, Elena attended the fully accredited semester school, partaking in the schools “Six Foundations:” leadership training, academics, outdoor adventure, service learning, cultural exchange, and environmental stewardship. The school, based on a 100-acre campus in Cascade, Idaho, is for motivated sophomore and junior students. Students participate in significant outdoor expeditions, learning to whitewater kayak, backpack, rock climb, surf, ski, snowshoe, and more. Its academics are challenging, all honors and Advanced Placement, and the leadership opportunities that are provided are what Elena describes as “once-in-a-lifetime.” But these high level courses are distinctly different from those familiar to a traditional high school. The Alzar School emphasizes critical analysis, creative thinking, and effective communication, while using its unique resources to provide a vast variety of hands-on experiences for its students.
Elena Press elaborates:
Before beginning the process, I was hesitant to depart my highly regarded high school, as well as the town I had lived in my whole life. Leaving behind friends, family, school, clubs, and activities would be an immense sacrifice. Of most concern, since I was missing a semester of my customary education, was how this would impact my future? A typical worry of many teenagers is college. Many students, including me, wonder: What classes should I take? How can I earn the best grades? Should I get more involved in my community and service projects? How many awards can I receive in my high school years? Yet colleges love seeing students partake in unique activities and take risks, two items surely fulfilled by an experience at the Alzar School!
A frequent activity of the students at the Alzar School is kayaking. Students kayak in Idaho, Oregon, California and Chile, providing many opportunities for a first-time kayaker, like me, to increase their knowledge of this riveting sport. I vividly remember staring with wide eyes and quaking in fear as I gingerly paddled in my kayak, mortified at the prospect of going down Snow Hole, a Class IV rapid. My instructors insured me that I was capable and reviewed the line with me multiple times. Then, I went down. I did it! And I flipped over and swam out. Consequently, I discovered that kayaking is absolutely thrilling; you can choose to challenge yourself however much you desire. The uncertainty of being under the water’s influence taught me to push myself, but kayaking is all about community; my friends and I learned many lessons from each other, and constantly supported and cheered one another on, whether doing a flip in the air, or leading down a rapid for the first time. This is one of the reasons why the Alzar School integrates a large amount of kayaking into the students’ time. The school considers it a great medium for empowering young leaders.
Of the five months spent at the Alzar School, students spend two weeks traveling through the Northwest, six weeks in Chile, and the remainder of the time in Idaho. When traveling to Chile, students fully immerse themselves in the culture, vastly improving their Spanish skills by participating in a homestay program, attending a Chilean school and conversing with locals. By traveling through Chile, I discovered that smiles and laughter can break even the strongest barriers of age, language, and culture. The traveling opportunities are not presented purely to allow the students to experience new places, but to open their hearts and minds to other parts of the world, and an unknown culture. All these contribute to the ultimate goal…to empower and teach young individuals to become leaders in our world today.
Throughout the semester, I learned to plan and lead expeditions and service projects. Alumni continue to develop the leadership skills they acquired from their time at the Alzar School by creating a Culminating Leadership Project to make a difference in their home communities and the world. The goal of my CLP, Girls Outdoor, is to foster an appreciation of the environment by exposing young girls to the outdoors. I’m planning and taking 19 Girl Scouts on a three day camping trip. This will involve, among other things, teaching them Leave No Trace principles, risk management, and camping planning.
My semester at the Alzar School was the peak of my high school career and a highlight of my life. The greatest benefits that I acquired from the experience were figuring out who I am as a person and becoming confident in that person, while gaining a support group of the most incredible lifelong friends and mentors from all over the world. From chopping wood, to teaching Chilean kids how to kayak, I’ve never had more fun doing anything. I overcame limits, fell a lot and laughed even more, and found out quite a bit about myself in the process. I wish that every high school student could partake in an experience like the Alzar School offered me.
Elena encourages anyone who is interested in the Alzar School to check it out. For more information, visit www.alzarschool.org