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Whistler meets world

As the graduating class of 2011 moves out into the world, they'll not quickly forget the town that shaped them

It's easy to wax nostalgic about high school. Especially if the experience included countless hours on skies, snowboards, bikes and enjoying lakes and mountains.

That's the case for the 2011 graduates of Whistler Secondary School who, though ebullient over future plans and independence, have not overlooked the influence of their community on who they will become.

Like every class that dons caps and gowns each June, this year's graduating students are a compilation of scholars, athletes and artists, each with a contribution to make. The thing about the class of 2011 that sets them apart is their intellectual intensity.

"This year's grad class has been marked by academic excellence," said Whistler Secondary School Principal Bev Oakley. "For example, there are not too many schools where a student with an 85 per cent class average over their Grade 11 and 12 years does not even make it into the top quarter of the grad class but this was the case with this grad class."

In speaking to students about future plans and past experiences, there's a distinct lack of the quintessential teen angst - it's as if the brisk mountain air flushed it out of them. Alix Arcalean, 18, has her sights set on medical school and has been accepted at the University of British Columbia to pursue a bachelor's degree in science.

"A few years ago I was thinking I'd go into dentistry and now I want to go to med school, that's my focus," she said. "I want to work with Doctors Without Borders for a few years because I've always wanted to volunteer in Africa but it's really expensive for my parents to send me with a group."

Arcalean first discovered an interest in medicine through the lifeguarding courses she took in Whistler. While she admits she might have a temporary case of the heebie-jeebies when dealing with some of the more unpleasant sides of the human body, she's confident she'll get over it.

"My mom's a nurse and she said when she had to deal with her first patient she almost froze up and fainted, but she said she got over it and I will too - she promised," said Arcalean with a laugh.

While her new home on the UBC campus will surely be filled with a myriad of distractions, she's aware nothing will be like Whistler. Though it's a little early to tell whether or not she'll end up back here, Arcalean, who participated in the school musical for three years while juggling fundraisers, student council and leadership, says she will always come back.

"I loved growing up here, it is kind of the Whistler bubble but we're such a tight community that everyone knows each other," she said. "I don't go a day without seeing about 30 people I know, it just seems like everybody's got your back and you have so many connections and you learn how to use those connections and also there is so much to do, so then managing my time - I feel like I'm really good at that."

While Arcalean examines all that happens benath the skin, classmate Brendan Grills will be surveying the open skies through a combined bachelor of science and commercial pilot's license program at the University of Waterloo.

"Nowadays a lot of airlines require their pilots to have a bachelor's degree in either science or business or an applicable degree so it's easier to get them both done at once than doing them separately," he said. "I've always loved to fly and my grandpa was a pilot during World War II and it seemed like something I didn't see myself getting sick of doing - I guess I'll find out."

To whet his appetite before school starts in the fall, Grills has a number of glider pilot classes lined up this summer, along with an introductory flight given to him as a birthday present from his parents. An avid skier who starred in the school musical, the 18-year-old laughs at the prospect of heading east when his father did the exact opposite at this juncture in his life.

"There's not much in the way of skiing in Onterrible and it's funny, the first thing my dad did when he graduated was leave Ontario," he said. "He got the hell out of dodge and came out west and I'm doing the exact opposite so I think he's wondering what I'm doing but I'll be back whenever I can."

Leaving the lush topography of Whistler for the undoubtedly much grayer mountaintops of Burnaby, graduate Ani Tchakarova doesn't plan on letting any moss grow on her heels. Armed with three scholarships - one $4,000 entrance scholarship from Simon Fraser University and two local endowments from the Gibbons Hospitality Group and the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, the 18-year-old is already narrowing in on exchange programs available through the commerce department after she completes her first year.

"I didn't really know what I wanted to go into but commerce seemed to be the most broad major to take and seemed like you could get the best jobs with it," she said pragmatically. "Next year I want to do an exchange program so I can go study abroad in Thailand or Australia."

When not volunteering with the Big Brothers and Big Sisters organizations, all atmosphere at Whistler Secondary made everything about school "really fun."

"It's a small school so every teacher knows every student personally and they could help you out any time you needed them after school," she said. "I'm definitely going to miss the kids and Whistler is such a beautiful place - you go to SFU and everything is so gray and then you come to Whistler... you don't really realize how lucky you are until you look around and see how beautiful it is, it's so green and relaxed, too. Everything in the city is so fast."

Whistler soccer star Cam Baker always knew his love of sport would take him somewhere, so he's ecstatic about being invited back to UBC Okanagan's August training camp which, while not a guarantee, is a positive indicator for landing a spot on the varsity team.

"I have a really good chance to make the team, coach said, and there is scholarship money available, so it's an awesome opportunity," said the 17-year-old, who has been playing soccer since he was four and credits his early Whistler coaches for making the game fun. "I'm going to go into business in university and play soccer and hopefully from there I can - best case scenario - I can keep playing soccer and play professionally somewhere. The Whitecaps would be awesome, that would be a dream come true to play in Vancouver professionally if that's possible."

Principal Oakley sees many a student reach the end of the line and pass through her school's doors - as an educator it's her primary goal to see happy, well rounded and curious students graduate. Overseeing a small school filled with students who regularly juggle a quiver of extra-curricular activities, she's always proud of each graduating class, but while achievement is expected, positive attitudes in adolescents are harder to control.

"Many of our grads are elite athletes as well as top academics achievers. This is not unusual for a Whistler Secondary grad class, but what sets this class apart is that they are so darn nice," she said. "This year's grads for the most part are very appreciative of the support they have received from their teachers, parents and the Whistler community as a whole. They have put that appreciation into action by working in partnership with staff to support the teaching and learning in classes and mentoring younger students in order to help them achieve success in whatever area they choose to pursue.

" Staff and parents alike have commented repeatedly on what a pleasure it has been to work with this grad class. They will be missed."