If there was one thing Lena Badr didn’t expect to learn in her senior year of high school, it was how to gut a deer.
Badr, a 2011 graduate of the Madeira School in McLean, signed up for an internship with Fairfax wildlife biologist Victoria Monroe through the school’s co-curriculum program, which for five weeks each year allows students to learn outside the classroom by taking on community service projects, apprenticeships on Capitol Hill and internships.
“I had no idea what bio research was going to be,” she says. She pictured collecting water samples and “hugging trees.”
Instead, Badr found herself learning how to hitch a trailer to a truck and, yes, how to skin and gut a deer, two skills she never expected to acquire as a 17-year-old private-school girl.
“It gave me great insight into female leadership in a male-dominated field. [Gutting a deer] has no direct application to my job. But I learned it at 17, under a microscope.”
Badr, now in a senior role at a consulting firm, says the feeling of being under a microscope “doesn’t stop in government contracting, when everyone you work with is a retired general.” She credits the ability to handle that feeling, and to thrive under the microscope, to her years at Madeira.
“I’m super biased and can’t shut up about Madeira,” says Badr, who graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in biomedical engineering and physics.
Longtime school loyalty is not uncommon for private-school graduates in the area. While private schools are often touted as best for strong academics, it’s often the intangibles that students look back fondly on, from lifelong friendships formed to sparking an interest in a career path early on.
Ellie Hohenstein, now a rising junior at Drexel University, has been part of the Pinecrest School community since she was 3 years old.
Hohenstein attended Pinecrest in Annandale from preschool through sixth grade, as far as the school goes, and spent her summers at the school’s summer camp, Pinecrest Pavilion, first as a camper and then as a counselor once she was old enough.
“Pinecrest taught me what a community should be,” she says. “Because of Pinecrest, I know that a school or a workplace can be a positive place where everyone benefits, so that’s what I [seek out in my adult life].”
Avery Miller, class of 1986 at Madeira, also still maintains a strong relationship with her alma mater, as a board member and as a parent. Her daughter, Aves Mocek, graduated from Madeira in 2019 and is now a sophomore at Tulane University.
Like Badr, Miller was shaped by Madeira’s 50-year-old co-curricular program, though she actually did find the beginnings of her career.
Through the junior co-curriculum, which places students at Capitol Hill apprenticeships, Miller did an internship in the press office of Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore. (now deceased), and a lifelong passion for journalism—and a sense of ambition—was born.
Miller was on the lowest rung of the ladder, and she learned to make the best of it. When her supervisor asked her to call tiny newspapers in Oregon to pitch stories, she would do it, then ask to do more the next day. “You figure out how you can be helpful, how you can be useful and not just sit there and file your nails,” she says. “These young women are learning how to be useful, how to go beyond what young people are expected to do.”
Miller was able to turn her Madeira internships into summer jobs by learning how to advocate for herself and doing the work no one else wanted to do. “Madeira told you to put yourself out there,” she says. “We learned what a hungry worker looks like. Now I find there are entry-level workers who want to be an executive after six months.”
As a senior, Miller shadowed R.W. “Johnny” Apple, Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, and took on the role of editor of the school newspaper. Her experience earned her an internship at ABC News the summer after her freshman year of college, and 25 years later, she still works there.
“Madeira was ahead of so many schools,” she says. “High school students can learn what their passion is.”
Ambition was also instilled in Pinecrest students. Hohenstein says that her time at the school, even as a young child, gave her a sense of purpose.
“Something from Pinecrest that I still carry with me today is the drive to take projects further and not do the bare minimum amount of work,” she says. “Throughout middle and high school, and even into college, having these experiences shaped how I went about big projects for my classes. Instead of looking at what would be the most direct way to fulfill the assignments, my brain was trained to instead look at other ways that might be more fun or creative to get the same thing done.”
Without the pressure of state standardized tests to be beholden to, private schools have the opportunity to focus on holistic learning.
“It was expected that you have to try everything; you can’t be good at everything, but you can hopefully learn and find pleasure in it,” says Lolly Rivas, a 2005 graduate of the Potomac School in McLean. “People were encouraged to step out of their boxes.”
Rivas was a natural athlete, she says, and excelled at field hockey, squash, lacrosse and track, but just being a jock wasn’t an option. She also had to take part in art and music, joining the handbell choir in seventh and eighth grades and taking photography and theater classes in high school.
Being encouraged from a young age to enjoy and try things that she doesn’t naturally excel at has helped her to be a more well-rounded adult, Rivas says. It’s a lesson she hopes to pass on to her 2-year-old daughter, Louise, whom she calls Weezy.
It was also at the Potomac School that Rivas developed her passion for service. As a student, she started a community service club and helped arrange projects with DC-area nonprofits, including Community of Hope, DC Central Kitchen and Martha’s Table. Presently, she is the director of development for Dog Tag Inc.
“I learned to be innovative and determined. I was not naturally the best student, but I worked really hard,” she says.
Community service is a strong part of many private-school curricula, whether or not there is a formal requirement to graduate. Christine Klippen, an emergency veterinarian at the Friendship Hospital for Animals, most remembers service being an important part of her experience at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, where she graduated from in 1999.
“The thing about O’Connell that I appreciated the most was the community- and family-centered beliefs. O’Connell gave us the opportunity to participate in causes including the Superdance [a fundraising event that raised money for cystic fibrosis], the golf classic [fundraising for cancer] and other religious-based events,” she says. “I feel as though it really honed the desire to give back and to participate fully in the communities that we joined as adults.”
To this day, Miller remains an active volunteer at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown, crediting her spirit of service to her experience volunteering with Green Door, a transitional house for patients of St. Elizabeth’s in DC, during her sophomore year at Madeira.
The opportunity to build community on campus is helped by small class sizes. While the Virginia Department of Education mandates a 24-to-1 maximum student-teacher ratio, private schools often have much smaller class numbers, allowing students to form strong bonds that often last well beyond high school years.
Rivas recently helped plan her 15-year reunion, which took place on Zoom. Her class of 82 people, she says, was considered large by Potomac standards, and she remains in “very regular” contact with a handful of her classmates.
“We’ve all gone on to live very different lives, and yet we still have a connection and shared experience,” she says. “I have lifelong friends and a good head on my shoulders, and a big piece of that is Potomac.”
Badr says that as a boarding student at Madeira, she felt “like I had 100 parents, not just two.” The house adults, generally teachers who lived in on-campus apartments, invited students for dinner and to meet their families.
To this day, Badr remains close with her senior-year roommate, Elise Ablin.
In September, Badr drove 14 hours to Chicago to be part of a proposal surprise Ablin’s boyfriend arranged.
“I never imagined, as a high school senior, that I would be traveling partway across the country in a pandemic to be a part of Elise’s surprise engagement,” she says, “but I had no doubt in my mind that when the time came, I would do anything and everything to be there.”