When Chesed Chap began her studies at Patagonia Union High School, she was presented with a number of opportunities to expand her horizons. And she took advantage of them.
From playing tennis and soccer to leading a steel drum band, she’s pursued a number of new extracurricular interests while maintaining a 4.4 GPA and ultimately graduating as valedictorian of the Class of 2021.
The fact that she went to a small school opened a lot of doors for her, she said.
“I think I really thrived here. I think big schools have their advantages, but the advantage of going to a small school is, you don’t have to prove yourself for any of these opportunities. You can just join and it really gives you the opportunity to grow,” she said during an on-campus interview last month.
“I’m not an athletic person. If I went to a bigger high school, I wouldn’t be able to play soccer or tennis. And I’ve grown as a player in those things. Even with student government. You just have this way of joining so many different things and getting to know your classmates in so many different spheres. I think it really helps to build community, being small,” she said.
Chap has gone to small schools her whole life, having grown up in Sonoita before moving to Patagonia when she was 11. She started at the Elgin School for her elementary education, went to the Patagonia Montessori School for middle school and then to PUHS for high school.
“I really liked science at first, I thought that was super fun,” she said of her transition to high school. “Also, there was a really robust art scene back in my freshman year. We had music – I grew up as a strings player and then I began to play steel drums in the ensemble, so that was a lot of fun. And we had fall play and spring musical back then, which were really popular, and so those were good creative outlets for me.”
She also developed her creative side by attending, and then helping to instruct, classes at the Patagonia Creative Arts Association. She also adapted J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” – a novel she loves so much, she quoted from it in her valedictory speech at graduation – into a play that was performed at the Tin Shed Theater in Patagonia.
Chap applied to college through QuestBridge, a program that matches low-income, high-achieving students with partner schools that provide the students with full four-year scholarships. She was admitted to and decided to attend Yale University in New Haven, Conn., where she’ll major in theater studies.
She explained that there are generally two options for undergraduate theater students: a bachelor of fine arts (B.F.A.) program, or a bachelor of arts (B.A.) track that allows for a broader liberal arts curriculum.
“Yale had that (the B.A. degree) while also having a really competitive theater field and a lot of extracurricular theater. So even though the theater major at Yale is small, I like that because it allows me to get to know people and it sort of mirrors this community,” she said, adding: “It also has this really robust extracurricular scene where you don’t necessarily have to major in it to be involved.”
As for her long-term goals, she said she sees herself in the sphere of theater or screenwriting.
“But I also want to go to graduate school and get my master’s,” which would allow her to be a professor of theater, she said.
‘Room for everybody’
Asked about the teachers at PUHS who had had an especially big impact on her, Chap had difficulty narrowing down the list.
She started with Jason Schreiber, a music teacher she met her freshman year. “He was like the backbone and driving force of everything creative and artsy here,” she said.
Gilbert Melancon “really provided just a great foundation for my math skills that really carried me a lot throughout high school,” she said, and Allison Lemmons, her science teacher for four years, “is just like the funniest person I’ve ever met – and she’s a really good teacher.”
She also cited English teacher Journee Hayes and former history teacher, now superintendent, Kenny Hayes. “They’ve become just a pillar of what Patagonia is, and I appreciate that a lot,” she said.
Her father Peter has been a big influence as well. He was a teacher for 20-plus years, and now works flipping homes. When Chesed was younger, he got involved in horse racing and tried painting for a while, she recalled.
“I think something he always taught me, and it might have something to do with him being a teacher, but just that you can learn from every experience. And it’s never too late to try something new or to enter a field that seems improbable or sort of frivolous, and that you can do whatever you want,” she said.
Chap was on the yearbook staff at PUHS all four years and participated in student government for three years, serving as vice-president at one point. She was also the steel band president, working with her peers to keep the ensemble active after they lost their music class.
“It doesn’t really matter what playing level you’re at, there’s room for everybody in the band,” she said. “And we would play songs that we liked, it wasn’t like you’re playing Beethoven every day. We would play super fun songs and we could choose the songs.”
The PUHS band had the chance to join up with likeminded peers at the Fields of Steel event at Catalina Foothills High School, which Chap described as “about 200 people all playing in a mass band together.”
“I think my favorite memory from high school was playing at that. That was a lot of fun,” she said.
Her final thoughts on high school:
“I think the best thing I learned throughout high school is to just say yes to everything, whether or not you think you’ll enjoy it,” she said. “I’ve never regretted saying yes to something and trying something new in high school. It led me to finding things I didn’t quite like or jibe with, but it also led me to really loving theater, and that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.
“Even when you’re at a small school, there’s plenty of opportunities if you just look for them,” she said.