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Beyond the Books

Piper McGavin

Discovering and overcoming a fear of heights to rappel down a rock wall, transcending a language barrier to aid new immigrants and leading worn out campers through a nine-portage canoe trip: these are just a few of the things that don’t appear on Piper McGavin’s academic transcript.

A top Grade 12 student with ambitions to study international law, Piper has been as busy outside the classroom as in it since Grade 7. “Knowing that I have things to look forward to apart from schoolwork keeps me focused,” she says. “It’s energizing, and it makes me want to do my best in school.”

As a member of the Model U.N., the award-winning swim team, the Service Learning Student Council and the student ambassador program, her hours outside of school are precious and few. Yet over the past few years she has made time to volunteer regularly as a children’s tennis coach, learn to play guitar from scratch, spend time in Mexico working with illegal migrants and to travel to Costa Rica to help build a school.

“If it’s something you’re passionate about, you can find ways to make that balance achievable,” she says. “It’s important to be involved in things outside of academics; otherwise you end up putting too much pressure on yourself. BSS is a great school for understanding that academics is not your entire life, and shouldn’t be. They make it very attainable to be able to do many different things.”

Piper recently received the highest level of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award for her many and diverse co-curricular commitments. The Award was established in 1956 by His Royal Highness Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, to encourage personal development and community involvement in young people. It now runs in more than 140 countries.

At BSS, students can get a sneak peek into the rigours of this prestigious international award in Grade 7 and 8 by pursuing
the Statten and Northway Outdoor Education Awards. “These are essentially junior Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards with the same requirements, but shorter time demands,” says Allyson Brown, Director of Outdoor and Experiential Education and Service Learning, at BSS and the advisor for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

Ms. Brown, who is also president of the Council of Outdoor Educators of Ontario, organizes all of the outdoor experiences for girls in Grade 7 to 12. From dog sledding and winter camping in Algonquin Park to rock climbing on the Niagara Escarpment, the mandatory Middle School trips are designed to build relationships, teamwork and leadership. “It’s a chance for students to develop community living skills and step out of their comfort zones to try something completely new,” says Ms. Brown.

Starting in Grade 9, the outdoor ventures are optional and branch out to also include canoeing, cycling and hiking. These journeys are longer and more strenuous, presenting “a fairly steep learning curve” for some girls, says Ms. Brown, but it’s all done in a supportive environment that nurtures confidence. The excursions allow participants to meet the Adventurous Journey requirements of the Duke of Edinburgh’s award.

The rock climbing trip in Grade 8 resulted in “one of the scarier moments of my life,” jokes Piper, but getting through it was one of the most gratifying. It also launched her pursuit of the bronze level Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, which soon
led to silver in Grade 10 and gold last year.

In addition to the Adventurous Journey category, award candidates set and achieve personal goals in the areas of Service, Skills and Physical Recreation at each level. Though students must work on the award outside of school hours, the holistic educational approach at BSS supports all of these goals, says Ms. Brown. “The award challenges girls to grow in physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual domains – echoing the values in the Signature of a BSS Girl. Dedicating yourself to the award and its real-life, meaningful experiences, as Piper did, requires grit. She embodies the balance that we strive for in a BSS girl.”

The Service Learning Student Council, which connects not-for-profit organizations with students who want to help, provides ample opportunities for fulfilling the Award’s Service component. Whether girls are interested in helping at homeless shelters and charity marathons, as Piper did, or tutoring at underserved schools, collecting holiday gifts for families in need or raising money for HIV-positive youth, there are countless ways to connect to the local and international communities. “Ethical citizenship is part of the BSS Signature, and what better way to learn about that than by giving back,” says Ms. Brown, who oversees the council with colleague Charlotte Fleming.

As of closing Chapel in May, 168 girls were actively pursuing the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. In the 2014–15 school year, 16 students earned the bronze award, 10 the silver, and five the gold. Piper is rare in attaining gold by the end of Grade 11.

Her advice to students who are wary of jeopardizing their high marks with outside interests is simple. “Get involved and find your passions, and then you’ll find the time for everything. Confronting a challenge, seeing your progress and succeeding keeps you happy and motivated. It’s a great feeling.”

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By: Megan Easton

Megan Easton is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor with a focus on education and health.