In Fords in Four, we ask an alumnus four questions; he shares insights and stories. In this blog post, Chris Maxey '80, founder and president of The Island School, reflects on how coaches and teachers at Haverford inspired his career in education, as well as what he hopes his students learn during a semester in the Bahamas.
What did you learn at Haverford that has stayed with you?
I will always appreciate all that Haverford gave me, but my big takeaway is my career in education. I spent some time in the service [Navy], but from a young age, probably 9th or 10th grade, I realized the best thing to do with my life was to be the kind of mentor that Haverford coaches or teachers were for me.
I could list a dozen or more teachers who impacted me, especially Mr. Hallowell and Dr. Peck in the English department, and coach Neil Buckley. What I learned most of all is “hard is good” – whether it was hard teachers, hard exams, or hard papers, these journeys helped me grow. There wasn’t a wrestling match or a paper assignment where I didn’t have to push and give it my all. We had to work really hard, because you knew you were going to be held to high standards and that you had to be accountable. Those were the times that students and faculty pushed each other and learned the most together.
Can you talk about the founding of The Island School?
Once I was honorably discharged from the Navy, I started my teaching career at The Lawrenceville School, where I taught primarily in the Interdisciplinary Department, coached wrestling, and was the housemaster for a boys’ dormitory. I found that my most powerful teaching experiences came while working with students outside the classroom. My wife Pam and I began running trips to the Caribbean where students learned to scuba dive and gained an appreciation for the marine environment. We wanted to have a maximum impact on young peoples’ lives.
Then I received the Joukowsky Fellowship in 1996, allowing me to work toward a master’s in marine resource management at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. It was during this yearlong sabbatical that I began my research in sustainable aquaculture. I formed the Cape Eleuthera Foundation in 1998 and began to set the framework to build a school and research station at Cape Eleuthera in the Bahamas. South Eleuthera is a poor region in the Caribbean desperately in need of opportunities, and the mission of the foundation is to promote education, research, and conservation. In the fall of 1998, construction began to build a campus and in March 1999, 22 students and six faculty launched the first Island School semester program.
I hope during their time with us, they work more toward figuring out who they are, and what they want to do. There’s an all-important focus on self-discovery here. There’s also learning about the importance of leadership and community, and being respectful and taking care of the environment.
What lessons or skills do you hope students learn during their time at The Island School?
We’re not about facts and figures and test scores. The Island School is a mind, body, and spirit experience that challenges students by immersing them in the ocean and introducing them to another culture. Our fall and spring semester programs last 100 days – literally 100 days straight, no Thanksgiving break, no spring break – so students are plugged into this intensive expedition. We all live on this little campus together and it’s like structured, socially engineered, alone time. They’re away from home, completely unplugged from the Internet; we even take away SIM cards. They do intensive research and have to go off in the wilderness and find places that have meaning for them – and journal about it. We do a full eight- or nine-day kayak expedition. Then they have two full days alone, called a solo experience. At the end of the solo, the students have to demonstrate the impact of the journey through a 20-minute conversation with peers and mentors, focusing on what has happened for them personally, the risks they took, and everything they learned about themselves.
I hope during their time with us, they work more toward figuring out who they are, and what they want to do. There’s an all-important focus on self-discovery here. There’s also learning about the importance of leadership and community, and being respectful and taking care of the environment. I want them to get in touch with and bring forth their best selves. They have to decide: What kind of person do I want to be? Why did I say that? Why did I do that? My faculty and I really get a chance to watch the students grow in their time here, and that’s inspiring for all of us.
Haverford has so many avenues and ways to celebrate your potential so I would say, take advantage of all of them. Of course, if you want to really push yourself, come join us for a semester at The Island School!
How do you think current students should make the most of their Haverford education?
If I had to redo my time at Haverford I think I would have challenged myself to be more involved in art and theater. I encourage current students to broaden themselves, and not be one-dimensional. When you push yourself out of your comfort zone, you start to learn how to be a more open-minded, respectful human being. Haverford has so many avenues and ways to celebrate your potential so I would say, take advantage of all of them. Of course, if you want to really push yourself, come join us for a semester at The Island School!
Chris Maxey ’80 grew up west of Philadelphia and excelled as a scholar-athlete at The Haverford School, receiving 12 varsity letters and being inducted into the inaugural Athletic Hall of Fame. He attended Yale University, where he continued his athletic career wrestling and playing lacrosse, and graduated in 1984 with a bachelor of art degree in history. Upon graduation from Yale, Chris entered the U.S. Navy. His SEAL training class began in 1985 with more than 95 candidates, 17 of whom successfully completed training. As a junior officer, Chris was given command of a SEAL platoon. After a Western Pacific deployment, Chris was ranked by the commanding officer as the top platoon commander at SEAL Team Five. He was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1990, and after a year of working for Ross Perot’s company in Houston, Chris started his teaching career at The Lawrenceville School. He formed the Cape Eleuthera Foundation in 1996 and began to set the framework to build a school and research station at Cape Eleuthera in the Bahamas. On March 15, 1999 22 students and six faculty launched the first Island School semester program. Now 20 years into the journey, the Cape Eleuthera Foundation has expanded to include Deep Creek Middle School and a resource center for local South Eleuthera students and a new Institute that focuses on sustainable development initiatives.