A Semester in the Snow

A Semester in the Snow

SNOW BUNNY Senior Gretchen O’Brien chose to study at the High Mountain Institute in Colorado last spring, where she was challenged both inside and outside the classroom.
SNOW BUNNY Senior Gretchen O’Brien chose to study at the High Mountain Institute in Colorado last spring, where she was challenged both inside and outside the classroom. PHOTO PROVIDED BY GRETCHEN O’BRIEN

Spring 2013, I left everything I knew, the school I attended for 14 years, and the twin sister I had been attached to for 17 years, packed up and flew to Leadville, Colo., to attend the High Mountain Institute. I went assuming my camping experience would be something like spending three nights in the backyard of the school when in reality, I slept in the canyons of Utah for two weeks, learned how to telemark ski, and built a quiglo out of the snow right under my feet. Those four months were the most fun, rewarding months I have ever had.

It was not easy to leave, and not only because I was leaving my school, my friends, and my family, but college was a concern as well. For many of us, since the beginning of freshman year, college is always in the back of our mind. Am I getting good grades? Should I do more community service? How many awards can I win in the span of four years? So as sophomores, when administrators from multiple semester-away schools come to Hockaday to give a presentation about their semester-away school, we can’t help but think, “Hmm that sounds fun…but would a college like it?”

The answer is YES; colleges really do like seeing students taking risks and being involved in activities that are different.

However, if you are teaching yourself how to play the tuba with your feet because you think a college would like that, you are wasting your time. Do something you love, not that you think a college might love. I know plenty of you might be rolling your eyes at my ‘naïve’ knowledge of what colleges do and don’t like, but really deep down you know I am right.

I went to HMI to see what life is like outside of Hockaday, to make choices without consulting my twin sister first, and to seize an opportunity that will probably never be given to me again. Christopher Barnes, one of the heads and directors of HMI, told our semester class that we are one in a million because no one is crazy enough to sleep out in Colorado mountains piled with 6 feet of snow, in below freezing weather, for ten days.

In Colorado, I was not stressed. I did not know I could be in an environment where my stress level did not reach a 12 on a one-through-10 scale. I even took all my AP classes, took three AP exams, and took the SAT without having a major breakdown. Going to HMI gave me a chance to go to a school which is as academically challenging as Hockaday and still have fun.

I also wrote the majority of my college essays about this experience, and had fun writing them too. I got to write pages and pages bragging about my experience and, through college interviews and conversations with administrators, I could tell people were really interested in what I did.

I do not regret one thing from leaving junior year half way through to go to school located in a tiny town of Colorado with only 41 other kids. Coming back was not too much of a challenge either; my friends still loved me, the school work was still as hard as it was when I left, and applying to college was as stressful for me as it was for the next senior.

Although coming back was pretty much the same as when I left, I grew so much more as a person. HMI taught me more than I have learned at Hockaday in the past fifteen years. It taught me how to be a leader and a follower; it taught me not to be disappointed with my failures; HMI even allowed me to play even though I was still in school. For example, almost every day the students would have a free period and instead of stressing about workload, we would go do an activity like rock climbing, walking dogs, or baking cupcakes. Could you imagine everyone at Hockaday being perfectly content with cutting out a Y-period in the middle of the week to go on a walk together?

If you take anything away from my article I hope it’s these two things: one, that semester school is awesome, especially HMI, so if you are interested you should do it. Second, don’t base your high school activities on what you can put on your resume or what colleges like, do something because you enjoy it. Wouldn’t you like to be one in a million?

– Gretchen O’Brien