As a child, Jacqueline Chen ’22 read about explorer Ernest Shackleton’s heroic efforts on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition to save his crew after their ship, the Endurance, trapped and crushed by the ice, sank in 1915. The lessons in perseverance and leadership gleaned from the adventure have stuck with her, but so has the humanity of its now-mythic characters. If she could travel in time, she says, she would want to go back and witness the moment when the crew realized they would be rescued. How, she wonders, would their faces portray the magnitude of that news?
Heroes from other ages filled her young imagination, too — she devoured Ancient Greek, Roman, Chinese, and Norse mythology. As a seventh grader, Chen, who also speaks Mandarin at home in New Jersey, leapt at the chance to study Latin. She chose St. Paul’s School because of its Classical Honors Program, through which she’s studied Greek in addition to Latin.
“What I wanted out of my high school experience was to have a program that puts my biggest interest out there, and it’s rare for a school to offer Greek, let alone a Classical Honors Diploma,” says Chen. “My classes, like SPS itself, are small, but we’re all part of something bigger. Classics connects me not only to the ancient world but also to this community of people who are here now and love the same things I do. It’s so special to have this opportunity.”
While Chen enjoys Latin, it’s Greek that’s become the highlight of her SPS academic experience because, she says, after nailing down grammar and essential vocabulary in the first year and half, it’s a portal to storied writings and, of course, philosophy.
“You get to the point where you leave the textbook behind and it becomes Greek in the wild,” she says. “It’s really magical when you realize you’re not just translating a piece by Plato but reading it and you’ve become part of a story that’s been told for so long by so many people and has had so much cultural influence. That’s just cool.”
A member of the debate team who loves to ask questions and dissect a subject, Chen found another home for her intellectual curiosity with the Philosophical Society, founded and advised by Teacher of Humanities Dr. Josh Duclos. As someone who wants to understand the “why” of what she studies, Chen’s found philosophy more accessible than she once imagined, and she appreciates the low-stress format of the meetings as they discuss everything from Pascal’s Wager and Stoicism to just war theory, climate change, and the philosophies of love and art. Whoever wants to speak can, but there’s no pressure to do so.
“Listening is a huge part of learning, and that’s something we encourage at the meetings, but it’s really nice to hear everyone’s thoughts on a topic,” she says. “In philosophy, people ask a lot of questions, and it fascinates me that you can take these arguments for crazy big questions and phrase them step by step. So how do I phrase my thoughts in the most logical way? Philosophy tackles that by trying to provide not just answers, but clear answers that anyone can understand.”
Chen’s own philosophy could well be summarized with the classic phrase carpe diem, and she’s certainly seized opportunities to make the most of her days at SPS. In addition to serving as head of the Philosophical Society and the Classics Society, she is editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Pelican, and has volunteered to teach Latin in a Concord middle school. She’s explored her artistic side — one of her paintings was featured in the Chapel program — and hopes to write novels someday. She discovered Nordic skiing and crew, two of her favorite activities. As much as she’d like to continue exploring all the offerings at SPS, though, she knows she must embrace the future.
“Four years is not a lot of time. It’s really hitting now, it’s like, whoa, I blinked, and it’s almost time to graduate,” she says. “It’s been amazing. The beauty of being at a 100% residential school that is so encouraging of being part of a lot of activities is that you get to form close connections through them. I really love that about SPS. People should take advantage of that while they’re here. This place has allowed me to thrive.”
While Chen doesn’t know yet what the Fates have in store for her when she leaves SPS for Harvard, the Presidential Scholar semi-finalist is sure of a couple things: Like the recently discovered wreck of the Endurance, there’s always more to an old story that we think we know, and many adventures await.