Near the end of her freshman year in 2017, sophomore Kendall Champlin decided that the Alzar School was the place for her. Located in Cascade, Idaho, Alzar is an academic and leadership-based school meant to help students balance their academic, social and extracurricular lives.
“You have super rigorous academic work with non-stop deadlines and papers due, but at the same time you are incorporating the outdoors, like kayaking or backpacking,” Champlin said.
Champlin discovered Alzar through her friends who went to Asheville High School, and from there, she began her research on the school’s academics, price, and overall purpose.
“I looked into it and thought it would be a really cool opportunity, so I told my parents that it was something that I wanted to do and they were okay with it,” Champlin said.
Champlin had six classes every day from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Saturday. Even though students had a day off on Sunday, Champlin said that they could often be found in study halls catching up on work from the prior week.
“They were long, long days. (On Sundays) we normally had a lot of study hall to get caught up on all the work that we did. A lot of the times you had the option to go kayaking throughout the day, and if we all came together as a school to go white water kayaking, we would vote and see if it was something we wanted to do,” Champlin said.
Academics are the basis of the school, but Alzar does not entail a basic school environment. While Alzar has a main school campus with the usual desks and whiteboards, the group would likely be found out by the river, out in the field, or even in their kayaks.
For Champlin, some of the outdoor activities were new to her. Kayaking was something she had never tried before, but she soon realized it was something that came naturally to her.
“My first time kayaking, I was very very nervous, and my instructor told me that I could pre-pull my skirt, what keeps you in your kayak, just in case I flipped. But I decided to just go for it and see what happened, and I successfully made it down the Class III rapid by myself. It was a really eventful day for me,” Champlin said.
Alzar is a semester-long school for both 10th and 11th graders. The school’s “Six Foundations” are: Academics, Leadership Training, Outdoor Adventure, Cultural Exchange, Service Learning and Environmental Stewardship. For academics, the school offers both honors credit and Advanced Placement classes. All students participate in math, science, history, English, foreign language, leadership, and physical education classes. Each subject has several options depending on grade and placement in past academics.
For the application process, she did a basic online application and then a Skype interview.
“The admissions director asked me a whole bunch of questions about my life and what I like to do, and after that, they decided whether you are accepted or denied. Luckily, I was accepted,” Champlin said.
Upon arrival to Alzar, Champlin only vaguely knew one student from Christ School. Although she did not know anyone in the beginning, she said she grew very close to about 20 of the 32 students.
“I didn’t think they (the student from Christ School) were going to the same semester, but when I arrived in Idaho, we both ended up being there. It ended up being really cool that we were both from Asheville because it was something we could relate back to,” Champlin said.
Champlin said that most students in her group were from the U.S., but about four or five were from another country. Champlin is still in contact with many of the people she met at Alzar today.
“The people I was closer with or lived in the same yurt with, which is where we lived on expeditions, I talk to them on a daily basis,” Champlin said.
The group of 32 students participated in expeditions that combined kayaking and backpacking, both extremely new to Champlin.
“We went on three trips throughout the semester where we would normally be out in the woods for 20 days — 10 of those days would be backpacking, and the other 10 would be kayaking.”
On the expeditions, the students were without cell phones and other outside influences. Students were still expected to do academic work on the expeditions, but at the same time, they were learning new outdoor skills. The last expedition Champlin’s group participated on was in Chilean Patagonia.
While Champlin attended Alzar, the students used technology for academics, and all work was done on personal iPads. However, she was only ever in contact with her parents if she was free from school work, which she said was very rare.
“I didn’t really have time (to speak on the phone) even though it was something I wanted to do. I would Snapchat once or twice a day, but other than that, I was always super super busy with the things I had to get done,” Champlin siad.
She never really had the time to talk with friends in North Carolina because of her rigorous schedule.
“Whenever I had free time to talk and I was not super tired or had a bunch of work, I would always call my parents,” Champlin said.
One of the most memorable moments Champlin has from the school was the very last day before they all flew home.
“On the last day of school, since all of our stuff was packed up, we all slept in the main school building together. We didn’t necessarily sleep. We stayed up all night watching movies and reminiscing on all our memories. It was super fun, being together with everyone for such a long period of time on the last day,” Champlin said.
After she was home in North Carolina, she had to begin transitioning back to Roberson.
“The transition there was a lot easier than the transition back. Going there I didn’t really know what to expect, it was really like jumping into the deep end of the pool, but coming back, I knew what TC was like. Alzar had 32 students and now every single one of my classes at TC has over 32 students. It was really overwhelming from what I was used to, but after the first week and a half it became easier,” Champlin said.
Overall, Champlin said that the transition back was not too difficult for her, and she quickly fell back into her friend groups from freshman year.
While they were similar to the academic requirements of Roberson, some of her classes taken at Alzar did not fully transfer over, so Champlin is currently retaking some classes.
“Since TC Roberson works on a block schedule, and we do all the classes in a semester, I only learned half the curriculum [at Alzar] I had to come back and retake some of my classes, but all of my credits transferred so I still have the same amount of credits as every other sophomore, but I do have to retake half of chemistry,” Champlin said.
She is also retaking English and math, but she is currently on pace and in line with every other sophomore at Roberson.
While many of the outdoor activities at Alzar were difficult, Champlin said she discovered things about herself that she never knew before. Her new friends also helped her learn through these new experiences.
“I was super super nervous about people being better than me (at backpacking and kayaking) or having a lot more endurance. I always thought of myself as a super scrawny kind of person and carrying a 70 pound backpack did not seem like something I was going to be good at, but everyone else was pretty much in the same dilemma as me and had either done one or even none (backpacking trip). We all worked through it together,” Champlin said.