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Talia Schmitt traded sultry summer weather for ice and snow in July as part of a student expedition to the Arctic Circle.

The 18-year-old from Fairfax traveled with Students on Ice, a program that hosts Arctic and Antarctic expeditions for students ages 14 -18, on its Arctic journey July 9-24.

Though an avid traveler, before this trip Schmitt never had considered traveling to the top of the world.

“The Arctic was never somewhere I put on my travel wish list,” Schmitt said. “But when I found out about this opportunity, I realized that this was a once in a lifetime chance.”

A 2013 graduate of Woodson High School, Schmitt spent this entire year expanding her horizons.

While most of her classmates headed off to higher education, Schmitt decided to take a gap year before heading to college. In the fall, she went to France to further her studies of the French language. In the spring, she traveled to San Francisco for environmental education internships.

Though the rest of her schedule was packed, her summer remained open. So when she heard about Students on Ice through one of her internships in San Francisco, she jumped at the opportunity.

Schmitt applied to the program through Climate One, an environmental organization sponsoring a scholarship for the Arctic expedition. More than 80 percent of participants received funding for the trip through Students on Ice and its sponsors. In May, she found out she would be heading to the Arctic Circle.

Geoff Green founded Students on Ice in 2000. The seasoned expedition leader had become a frequent visitor to the Arctic and Antarctic but saw a void.

“These cornerstones to the global ecosystem, the frontlines of climate change, had almost no opportunities for youth to visit them,” Green said.

Green kicked off the program with a trip that brought 50 students to Antarctica in December 2000. Since then, Green has led 32 expeditions through Students on Ice, at least one each year to the Arctic and the Antarctic. Nearly 3,000 students from 52 countries have participated.

“Each student experiences the trip differently,” Green said. “For some, this impacts their future careers. For others, it’s much more fundamental. It changes how they see the world.”

For Schmitt, the 16-day expedition did both.

“Most people just think of the Arctic as a place for Santa Claus and polar bears,” Schmitt said. “I found out so much more about that part of the world and the people who live there. It was a wakeup call for me.”

On the trip, Schmitt joined 85 other students from around the world, as well as 46 chaperones from all walks of life. The roster included science experts in wildlife and in climate change but also artists, musicians, journalists and more.

“We’re trying to paint a very broad overview of what the Arctic is about - its past, its present, its future,” Green said. “And it encompasses all these areas.”

The trip started in Ottawa with preparation and team-building. After three days, they all flew to Kuujjuaq, a small northern community in Canada, where they boarded a ship and started the main part of the journey.

The boat took them to Arctic communities in Canada before crossing the Labrador Sea to Greenland before flying back to Ottawa. Each day saw them at a different location, exploring different aspects of Arctic life.

Students watched a polar bear dive and swim beside them in inflatable boats. A pod of whales greeted the group in Greenland.

Schmitt enjoyed interacting with the environment, but she found herself surprised by her connection to the Inuit communities they visited.

Already an environmental activist, Schmitt found herself struck by the way the Arctic communities interacted with their changing environment as the water and ice around them shifts.

“We can learn so much from them,” Schmitt said. “These people live there, and they have been there long before anyone else. We have a lot to learn from them, and I was trying to learn everything as fast as I could in the short amount of time I had.”

While she enjoyed learning about the people of the Arctic, though, her favorite moment was when she truly got away.

“Our last full day in Greenland, I took a hike by myself and sat beside this glacier,” Schmitt said. “You couldn’t hear any human sound. It was beautiful just to be in that moment.”

Now home from her Arctic adventure, Schmitt looks forward to applying what she learned on her journey.

Schmitt plans to bring her ideas to Eco Schools Leadership Initiative, an after-school environmental program she started for elementary school students. She will also carry them with her to William and Mary this fall, where she will study environmental science and education,

“I believe that once you know about something, you have to do something about it, and that’s what I’m going to do,” Schmitt said. “A lot of people feel like doing a gap year puts you behind, but I really feel like it gave me a head start.”