Flourishing at College: Alumnae/i Share the Impact of a White Mountain Education

The White Mountain School’s unique profile and strong academic reputation have yielded consistent results in college admissions. The School has a track record for positive outcomes and matching students with schools that will best help them meet their academic, career, and personal goals. This year is no exception under the experienced guidance of Erik Bertelsen, the interim director of college counseling, who has been assisted throughout the year by Barbara Buckley, who will succeed Erik in the position beginning in fall 2020.

White Mountain students are considered attractive candidates for admission to a range of colleges and universities that recognize the high standards of the School’s programs. Colleges are interested in students who are engaged and successful both in and outside of the classroom. White Mountain’s breadth of experiential, co-curricular, service-learning, and athletic offerings help develop well-rounded, prepared candidates for higher education, even under the latest form of emergency remote teaching and learning. Additionally, the self-awareness and self-advocacy skills developed throughout a student’s time at White Mountain help them flourish in college and beyond.

Several White Mountain alumnae/i currently attending college recently shared how their time at the School prepared them for their first year in higher education.


Maria Cartagena ’18

Maria Cartagena '19The transition from White Mountain to larger cities and campuses is not always smooth. Maria notes, “Coming from a place like White Mountain certainly helped me adjust in different ways. I was already accustomed to being surrounded by all different types of people, to being away from home, and I also felt pretty comfortable interacting with my professors because of the relationships I had formed with faculty and staff at White Mountain.”

Throughout her time at White Mountain, Maria says that the classes and activities she participated in did influence her choice to study architecture and sustainable development at Barnard College. “There were a number of classes and activities at White Mountain that I give credit to for making me the person that I am today,” explains Maria. “I would say that my favorite Field Courses were the geology trip where we went rock climbing on Mount Lemmon in the Coronado National Forest north of Tucson, Arizona. At 9,159 feet, it is the highest point in the Santa Catalina Mountains.” She also cites a farm-to-table field course where her group visited two local farms in New Hampshire and Vermont as significant influencers.

Outside of these formative trips, Maria’s interests in architecture and sustainability grew during the time she spent in the Catherine Houghton Arts Center, as she often participated in ceramics and art as classes and hobbies. She was fascinated by the building’s eco-friendly solar panels, geothermal heating, and pellet heating system. The courses and activities in White Mountain’s Sustainability Department helped continue to grow her interest, leading to her choice of major today.

Maria’s advice to students considering White Mountain is, “Take it all in and appreciate all of the opportunities that are presented. Especially as someone who grew up in a low-income neighborhood with little to no access to these outdoor activities, getting over the fear and stepping out to do things so radically out of my comfort zone was just loads of fun.”

Maria also stresses, “Be super kind to your faculty and staff and take the time to get to know them and make meaningful relationships with them and your friends. A lot of the faculty are super interesting people, so take advantage of that!”


Jianghang “Derek” Li ’17

Fin McGrath '18, Derek Li '17, Hayden Alden '18, and Maren Scott '17.

Fin McGrath ’18, Derek Li ’17, Hayden Alden ’18, and Maren Scott ’17.

Derek is studying aerospace engineering at Virginia Tech and, when interviewed for this article, was studying in an exchange program in Hamburg, Germany, but returned to the United States amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Derek recalls that as a first-year college student, there were lots of challenges and concerns. Attending an undergraduate university with a population of over 25,000 was initially terrifying after graduating from a high school with less than 150 students. However, he says that the preparation he received in the form of academics, athletics, and social life at White Mountain quickly helped him succeed, and his full embrace of the School’s mission of “Curiosity. Courage. Compassion” has continued to serve him well, as it did as a White Mountain student.

“Being brave and courageous grants me opportunities to talk to my classmates and professors without any obstacles,” explains Derek. “I was always asking myself what brings me to college, and that is the result of being curious. After all, one should be compassionate towards the people around us. Those three keywords are the real reasons that have driven me this far on my journey.”

After three years at Virginia Tech, Derek says he realized that going to college is a collaborative way to identify problems, develop an efficient method to approach them, and always seek the truth. “Because White Mountain is a small community, students and faculty are tied to each other; it is the best way for a student to figure out what they want to achieve in the future at the best stage.”

When he was a student, Derek was especially shaped by courses in computer game design, physics, and Murder in Literature. He recalls the Field Courses he participated in as being “magnificent,” especially Land of Fire and Ice: The Geography and Geology of Iceland, and Backcountry Skiing in Idaho, respectively. “I made lifetime friends and learned valuable lessons during these times.”

Derek says that he chose White Mountain because he was tired of the city and wanted to be in a smaller, more intimate environment that could him concentrate on what he needed and wanted to do—which he says the School did. Citing his four years at White Mountain as the “best of his life,” Derek remains close friends with many classmates. “The days I had at White Mountain were not always smooth because it is impossible to have an entirely successful life, but the experience was priceless,” he says. “If you are ever confused and lost, pause for a second and think about what you want to achieve. You can only proceed with a clear goal.”


Yalda Mauj ’19

Yalda Mauj '19'For Yalda Mauj ’19, the first word that comes to mind when she thinks about White Mountain is “unforgettable.” Yalda, who came to White Mountain from Afghanistan, is currently finishing her first year studying computer science at Brandeis University. She remained at Brandeis after the school closed due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions domestically and abroad, and says “In the midst of all that’s going around the world due to COVID-19, it’s important to look out and support one another to the best of our ability. It’s an honor to be a recent alumna of The White Mountain School and to represent the School and its values wherever I go.”

Yalda says her time at White Mountain helped her step out of her comfort zone and explore the things and places that taught her more about herself. During her four years at the School, she participated in various clubs and sports and took classes that were interesting but challenging. She explored new areas of interest through Field Courses and mini-LASR projects and grew stronger as a person in different leadership positions. “Many things I did at White Mountain were physically and emotionally challenging at times, but I like to think it made me a stronger and wiser person at the end of the day,” she explains.

Like Derek, Yalda remembers Land of Fire and Ice: The Geography and Geology of Iceland as her favorite Field Course. Through it, she had the opportunity to explore the beautiful country and to study its geologic history, geothermal energy, and regional weather and climate. Learning about how Iceland uses natural resources for energy inspired her to examine Afghanistan’s renewable energy plan and compare it to other countries with successful energy models for her LASR project. Through the School’s Inquiry, Innovation, and Impact Lab (I^3 Lab), Yalda took her favorite course, Programming to Design and Fabricate, where she took on prototyping and testing using Arduino kits to build mini-circuits. She says that learning about coding and programming—and developing the necessary, related skills in decision-making, problem-solving, system-thinking, and reasoning for these subjects—sparked her interest in computer science as a potential college major. “I enjoy programming, and more importantly, I enjoy the feeling of satisfaction I get when I create something functional through programming,” Yalda explains.

As she transitioned to college, Yalda says she realized how important it is to be a well-rounded and open-minded student willing to try new things. She explains that college is different from White Mountain in the sense that there isn’t always someone advising and encouraging you to step out of your comfort zone. However, she says she is learning to go after what she wants, as well as figuring out when and how to push herself best. “I believe White Mountain did a great job of providing me with opportunities and the support to explore through different forms and mediums,” says Yalda. “I have learned to understand that it’s okay to be uncomfortable and to have my ideas and beliefs challenged by others because it helped me broaden my perspective and knowledge of this world.”

Yalda advises potential White Mountain students to be open to trying new things and getting to know more people. “It’s a small community, and there is a good chance you will have to speak to everyone at some point, and it might as well be meaningful and memorable. The friendships I have built at White Mountain are some of the strongest relationships in my life right now. I still talk to my advisor, teachers, and students who are currently attending White Mountain.” She recommends taking advantage of the leadership opportunities at White Mountain since it is an opportunity to work with students, faculty, and staff and helps develop life skills in communication, listening, and organization.


Victoria “Tori” Breen ’17

Tori Breen '18Tori grew up at White Mountain and spent 17 years living on campus before graduating and enrolling at the University of Minnesota—however, she says White Mountain will always be home to her. Currently majoring in dance and minoring in sustainability studies, Tori says her experiences at White Mountain—starting clubs, being in leadership positions, and seeking out opportunities beyond typical classwork—were all beneficial and helped her find fulfilling educational experiences and communities in the initial transition to a large university. “White Mountain’s focus on self-driven learning and the potential for independent work in most courses was good preparation for projects and papers in college,” explains Tori. “Even outside of the classroom, the opportunity for creating your own experience at White Mountain has been hugely helpful for me.”

Tori shares the following advice for students who are considering White Mountain, “White Mountain allowed me to investigate the process of learning and think deeply about things that actually matter to me and to think about the state of the world, not just memorize information. I am so grateful for this kind of learning.”


Pyper Williams ’18

Pyper Williams '18Pyper says she misses White Mountain every day, and that “gratitude” comes to mind when thinking of the School. “The education I received at White Mountain was extraordinary. One of the greatest things about my experience was obtaining a deep value for the natural world and the power of the authentic,” she explains.

Currently studying at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles, she quickly discovered that acting is fundamentally based in truth and authenticity and has discovered many crucial parallels between nature and acting. Because White Mountain’s curriculum is rooted in student-driven inquiry, Pyper says she became someone who always wanted to know more. “At acting school, they tell us that an actor’s work is never done; there is always more to discover about your character, and you can always go deeper. I found that being curious is imperative in my acting work, and the deeper my work, the more compelling and believable my performance will be.”

In the Black Box Theater at White Mountain, Pyper says she gained a solid foundation and knowledge of the art form that informs her work today. She knew she wanted to be an actor before high school, so White Mountain’s arts offerings were a huge draw. She also recalls how rock climbing led to her strong friendships and relationships with other students and teachers. Pyper says she especially loved the days in the spring and fall when students ventured into the woods, spending time in nature. She recently finished writing a one-woman show about a Field Course spent rafting down the whitewaters of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon—another memorable experience and one of her favorite memories at White Mountain that took place outside.

Pyper encourages both current and prospective students considering White Mountain to appreciate each day. “The School has so many invaluable opportunities at your disposal, she says. “So, when a door opens, be courageous, and walk through it. You never know where it might lead—trust me; I live in Hollywood now!” It wasn’t until after Pyper left White Mountain that she realized how unique and special the experience was. She realized that no one had a high school experience like she had. “Appreciate the School’s uniqueness. I urge you to get outdoors as much as you can, whether it be for a sport, Field Courses, or weekend activities,” urges Pyper. “The things I learned and the memories I made there are unlike any other, and have made me the person I am today. I cannot thank my teachers, staff members, and the community of this little school in the woods enough. I love White Mountain and feel very lucky to be an alumna. Reminiscing on my time at White Mountain has brightened my day!”


Fatimata Cham ’19

Fatimata Cham '19For Fatimata, who is finishing her first year at Lafayette College, the education and experiences at White Mountain helped her better understand the School’s community and different perspectives and cultures. Today, “friendship” is the word she most associates with the School.

At Lafayette, Fatimata says she is surrounded by people from all different backgrounds, and events such as the School’s International Night have allowed her to engage with these diverse peers successfully. She also says that serving on the School’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee and creating her own club at White Mountain helped her develop the leadership skills she regularly uses in college. White Mountain’s small community allowed her to form close relationships with the faculty and staff. In college, this has helped her build meaningful relationships with her professors. Experiences such as LASR projects and foreign language classes have helped her gain a deeper appreciation for inquiry-driven engagement in college.

When she was at White Mountain, Fatimata says courses focused on Black and Latinx American literature were her favorite. Additionally, she says history courses gave her more in-depth insight into the political system of the U.S. and its effects on marginalized peoples domestically and internationally. In particular, Fatimata recalls how impactful a world history course on the Democratic Republic of the Congo was for her, helping her understand the role that the world plays in the Congo’s continued disenfranchisement. She often referenced this course in an international and comparative politics course she took at Lafayette. “Had it not been for this history class, I would not be as knowledgeable as I am today. I am grateful for the skills gained in each of these pursuits,” she explains. In addition to French and LASR projects, Fatimata says she also enjoyed religion and philosophy courses. Her favorite activities included the Diversity Club and the International Student Mentor Program, among others. Determined to make the world a better place, Fatimata is currently planning on a double major in government and law and international affairs with a minor in religion and philosophy.

She instructs students considering White Mountain to allow themselves the opportunity to grow. “I think as teenagers, we are constantly growing mentally and physically, and high school is a vital time in your life to grow,” explains Fatimata. “Allow yourself to try new things, explore new horizons. The sky is not the limit, but only the beginning.”


Founded in 1886 and set in the beautiful White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, The White Mountain School is a coeducational college-preparatory boarding and day school for 135 students grades 9-12/PG. Our mission is to be a school of inquiry and engagement. Grounded in an Episcopal heritage, White Mountain prepares and inspires students to lead lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion.

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