While some 450 students across Forest Lake will soon accept their high school diplomas here in Forest Lake, one student from Scandia will be switching her tassel in California.

Aria Norcross, a high school senior, has spent the last two years completing her education through Stanford Online High School, a school for gifted students founded in 2006 by the California-based university. The school is an internationally accredited high school, offering higher level courses online to students across the globe. Norcross initially found out about the school through a friend at an advanced math class she was taking through a program at the University of Minnesota.

“He was telling me about it, and how he now spoke like five languages. I thought: ‘Everyone at the school’s a genius. I’ll never get in, but I should at least try,’” Norcross said.

To her surprise and excitement, she was accepted for the following school year, beginning her junior year of high school.

New school, new opportunities

Aria jumped into her new schooling, adapting to an untraditional school setting — on her computer, alone in her room, or hanging out at a coffee shop or library. At SOHS, as it’s known to the students, each class meets twice a week in a virtual classroom.

“There’s a text chat, and you press a button to raise your hand. It’s very similar to a normal classroom,” Norcross said, adding that it took a little while to get used to.

One of the big draws to the school for Norcross was the unique classes they offered. Since enrolling in SOHS at the beginning of last year, she’s focused on classes in philosophy, a curiosity that’s turned into a passion. She has taken classes like “Democracy of Freedom and Rule of Law,” a political philosophy class, and “Studies of the Mind,” a class that studies how philosophy, psychology and neuroscience work together.

“I’m taking three [philosophy classes] this year, which is really fun because not a lot of high schools offer philosophy, and that’s my intended major in college too. It’s just my big interest,” Norcross said.

Her interest in philosophy was furthered by participating in a club offered through the high school called Ethics Bowl, which is a competitive team event similar to a debate club.

“It’s something I hadn’t heard of, and I ended up becoming super passionate about it,” Norcross said.

During the summer before she began SOHS, Norcross attended a weeklong summer camp held by the school and took a class that was a mini-version of the club. She was immediately hooked and signed up to participate. Last year, Norcross was on a team of five students from SOHS that ended up taking second place at the national competition. This year, she helped her team make it into the quarterfinal rounds at nationals by sounding off on issues like gun control or the implications in developing technology.

“There was a case about data violence, which is essentially racism in technology. Things like facial recognition that doesn’t recognize black people, or how Facebook flags Native American names as fake, and how to deal with that,” Norcross said. “That’s probably what I find I’m most passionate about it, because we’re debating things that matter to us.”

This year she helped her team take the regional championship, held at University of California - Santa Cruz this winter, by discussing and presenting on virtue-ethics.

“It’s an ethical theory that’s about being a virtuous person and finding the golden mean between two extremes. … That [round] went really great, and it was apparently our best round ever,” Norcross said.

After the team was crowned regional champs, they only had six weeks to prepare 16 cases for the national competition. After a rough round early on in the competition, they battled their way back to the quarterfinals, where they ultimately lost in a case about whether the FBI can use DNA from home genetic test kits to find suspects in crimes.

“We did really well. I was on a team of all seniors last year, so I feel like they knew what they were doing, and I was just figuring it out, but I learned a lot from them, and this year I felt like the expert, so it was really fun,” Norcross said. She also said that though they lost, the highlight of the meet was getting great reviews from a well-known philosopher. “[Susan Wolf] was our judge, and she voted for us, so we felt pretty proud about that.”

While the extracurricular opportunities themselves may be different from a traditional high school, so are her classmates. Most of them are scattered from coast to coast, but some are international students.

“I definitely think it brought in new perspectives into my life that I hadn’t considered before. It’s nothing super dramatic, but just talking to people from different places and who’ve experienced different things. Forest Lake’s a wonderful community, but it’s like everyone has a similar experience just because we live in the same area, which is just natural. Meeting people from around the world is so different, even just across the country to internationally,” Norcross said.

Relationships, new and old

While the online school opened up many opportunities for Norcross, it was also hard to let go of the traditional high school experience she had at Forest Lake Area High School, especially since many of her friendships had started from kindergarten.

“That was difficult. I put [telling them] off, which I probably shouldn’t have. It was summer time, maybe a month in, and I was like ‘By the way, I’m not coming back next year.’ Those were very difficult conversations,” Norcross said. “But my best friend was so supportive. She was like ‘I know this is what’s best for you, and I’m happy for you.’”

There are some aspects of a traditional high school she misses, like catching up with her friends over lunch or seeing each other in the hallways, but since Norcross is still in the area, she makes the high school home and sees her friends often.

“I do feel left out sometimes,” Norcross said. “A lot does happen during the school day. You wouldn’t think that, but a lot does happen, though, when I’m not there, which is kind of a bummer.”

There is one big upside to not being in a traditional school according to Norcross, and that’s “no drama.”

Though Norcross may be attending another high school, she is active in FLAHS’s National Honor Society and still attends school events, like sporting events, homecoming celebrations and school dances. She is still active in the community, volunteering her time in the after-school program at Scandia Elementary School and working as a waitress on Fridays, her days off of school, and she participates in the Augsburg University Suzuki Talent Education as a violinist.

“It’s not like I’m at boarding school,” she said. “It’s nice to stay involved [in the community].”

Though maintaining those lifelong friendships is important to Norcross, she has also found new friends through her high school from around the globe and travels to hang out with them a few times a year.

“Most online schools are local, so the fact it was international was super cool, and the connections I’ve made are pretty amazing,” Norcross said. “It’s kind of fun, because when you go to meet up with people, there’s none of the high school drama because you only see each other for a few days. You just have to pack it all into a few days, which is really fun, because you have so much to talk about.”

An Ivy-League future

Norcross, who earlier this year was named as a National Merit Scholar semifinalist, will be headed to Connecticut to begin her collegiate experience at Yale University in August. She said it was a visit to the school that solidified that’s where she wanted to attend, but first she needed to get in, a process even she was nervous about.

“I applied to a lot of colleges because I am a very anxious person and just was scared I wouldn’t get in anywhere. … I didn’t think I’d get in [to Yale],” Norcross said. She applied, and during her in-person interviews, she was told that while any school would be lucky to have her, 20% of applicants are highly-qualified and only 5% get in. “So at that point, it almost becomes random and it’s just what they are looking for that year.”

Norcross first received letters of acceptance from other schools like Duke, Georgetown and Cornell, and when she got that Yale letter of acceptance, she still didn’t want to rush into a decision, even though that was her first choice. Though Duke was a contender, ultimately, she chose Yale.

“I just like the culture at Yale; it’s super collaborative and everyone is just so excited to be there,” she said. Her plans are to major in philosophy as pre-law and then continue to get a law degree.

For the high school senior, one thing she’s valued is the support each community she’s built offers.

“I feel really lucky I found this specific online school because it offers so many opportunities and different challenging classes, but also because it has kids from around the country and world even. … The things I discovered, like philosophy, and the things I’ve learned too have been kind of amazing,” Norcross said. “I also feel really lucky that as I’m doing this, I’ve been able to stay involved in the Forest Lake community, because it is a wonderful community. … I just feel like I have all these different communities, around the world, in Minnesota, here in Forest Lake, and I just feel like that’s really cool and it’s very valuable to me.”

Hannah Davis is the Area Editor at the Forest Lake Times. You can contact her at hannah.davis@ecm-inc.com or (763)233-0709

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