BRATTLEBORO >> Breanna Sheehan, a senior at Brattleboro Union High School, is headed to Dartmouth College, and she wants to encourage younger students thinking about college to aim high.
"I always wanted to go to college," she recalled. "Neither of my parents graduated from college, so it was never something that was forced upon me, but I always felt like I wanted to go to college and further my education."
She and her family began looking at colleges toward the middle of her junior year, but she didn't start looking at more competitive colleges until the end of that year. Her criteria was "First and foremost I had to be close to home — at least within a couple hours — so I looked in New England. I'm very close to my family. I have a very big family, and I couldn't imagine going somewhere where I couldn't at least drive home on a weekend if I needed them, so that was the first thing I needed in a college.
"I wanted a college that was going to be one of those schools where you go, 'Wow' — not exactly a name-brand school, but a school I'm proud to go to and that has a lot of history," she continued. "With my parents not having gone to college, I was kind of my own, so those were the basics that came to mind for me. Ironically, I was looking to be around bigger cities, like Boston."
She was planning to apply to Harvard through its Early Action admissions program, but then in October she attended a three-day program for Native American students at Dartmouth.
"That was the clincher for me," she said. "I am Elnu Abenaki. The people I met and the atmosphere on campus really got me."
During the visit, she stayed on campus, and students in the Native Americans at Dartmouth program hosted her.
"They were just very helpful, helping us with financial aid, and we got to sit in on classes, and it's an hour from my house," Sheehan noted, "so all around it ended up being perfect for me."
She was delighted to discover the Native American community at Dartmouth, which was founded as a school for Native Americans.
"That didn't exactly happen — it ended up being pretty much just like a lot of the Ivies," she said.
According to the Dartmouth website, the college recommitted to welcoming Native American students in 1970, and since nearly 700 have attended the college.
Sheehan said that her family has been active in the Native American community in New England.
"We were recognized by the state of Vermont in 2011," she said. "My family really began to trace our heritage probably 20 years ago. My dad and my uncle and my aunts were very involved, and that generation of the tribe was very involved in reestablishing the tribe and the traditions, and I've been involved since I was born.
"We do events at historical places throughout New England," she continued. We dress in traditional clothing and build traditional villages, and we teach the public about the traditions of the Abenaki people.
"In the past couple years I've definitely lost touch a bit with my community and the tribe and the events that we do," she commented. "It was such a large part of my childhood and my life, and I didn't realize until I went to Dartmouth that it was something that I wanted and needed. Being around other Native students who understand and who have those values and live that life will be really good for me."
On Dec. 16, 2015, at exactly four o'clock, Sheehan learned that Dartmouth had accepted her and offered scholarships totaling $56,000 of the $68,000 annual cost.
"It's literally unbelievable," she commented.
Based on her own experience, she had words of encouragement for other students engaged in applying for college.
"Start early, take your SATs or ACTs early," she advised. Noting that counselors often advise students to apply to some "reach" schools, some "target" schools, where they have a good chance of being admitted, and some "safety" schools, encouraged students to dream big.
"Give yourself a chance," she said. "You don't know if you can do it unless you try for them and I never would have thought that I could have gotten into Dartmouth. A lot of people think that it's unaffordable but people try to make it affordable and to help you — so just try."
Sheehan has taken advantage of both academic and extracurricular opportunities at BUHS, including courses for college credit through the Windham Regional Collegiate High School
"I've taken accelerated courses all throughout high school," she said. "I've taken four dual-credit courses — I took Algebra 2 for college credit, I took two Project Lead the way courses — they are in the biomedical field — and then I took Good, Evil and Power, which is a dual-credit English class. On top of that I've taken accelerated courses any chance I could — not necessarily for college, but just to challenge myself."
She emphasized the importance of extra-curricular activities in her education.
"The extracurriculars that I've been a part of have had a huge impact on the person I am, and how I've blossomed throughout high school," she commented. "I've played soccer all four years, lacrosse all four years, and I've been in a capella groups all four years. Those are the three most important and impactful ones."
In January she hosted her partner in the BUHS Costa Rica Exchange, and in early April she will travel to Costa Rica to return the visit.
"I really enjoy Spanish — I've found that language was something not that I excelled at, but that I found rewarding," she said. "When I saw the opportunity I thought, What a great idea, it's going to be fun. It's a great learning opportunity.
Looking ahead, Sheehan is not sure of an exact career path.
"At this point I know I would like to be involved in the medical field," she said. "I intend to major in biology and follow a pre-med track and see what happens from there — if I enjoy it, and if not, I find something else, I guess."
She said that the BUHS Science Department inspired her to go into medicine.
"Every teacher that I had taught me in a way that made science really interesting and real," she said. "It just had a huge impact on how I want to spend my life, and I want to thank all the teachers I've had a million times over for it."
Maggie Brown Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com.