Senior Leia Swanson has always been the quieter twin, according to her father.
At birth, she was smaller than her twin sister senior Chandra Swanson, as well as a few minutes later (although the two were about six weeks premature). Her observant personality contrasted with the more adventurous nature of her twin. Growing up, Chandra tended to play the role of mother bear, protecting Leia and including her in any new friendships that she made.
This didn’t change in high school. Chandra was usually the one to initiate conversations, be the most vocal cheerer at gymnastics competitions, and try new programs and clubs.
Until this year, the sisters had only been apart twice in their entire lives. The first time was shortly after birth, when Leia was in a level two nursery at the hospital and Chandra an intensive care nursery. The second time was this past summer, during separate trips to Paraguay and Costa Rica for the Amigos de las Americas program.
Now, because of Chandra’s decision to attend an international school in New Mexico, they’re spending their senior year of high school 700 miles apart.
The Armand Hammer United World College of the American West (UWC-USA) is a two-year, pre-university residential school located near Las Vegas, New Mexico, that offers the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma program. It is one of 12 United World Colleges around the world, whose mission is to “make education a force to unite people, nations, and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.”
Chandra decided last May to attend the school. However, none of the credits from her first year IB classes at East transferred, so she is retaking all of those classes this year. Similarly, none of the classes she takes now will count toward the last two Shawnee Mission graduation requirements she needs (a government credit and English 12 credit), so online courses will make up for that. Next school year, after completing the second year IB classes in a sort of “gap year” before going to college, she will have two diplomas: a 2010 East diploma and a 2011 IB diploma.
“It was kind of sad and nerve-wracking for me,” Chandra said. “For the first time I would be totally on my own. I would be without someone to walk with in the halls and sit with at lunch.”
Leia was able to understand her sister’s fears.
“Being a twin, you’re never alone,” Leia said. “Always having someone you know [with you] is comforting.”
The two twins came to depend on this comfort growing up. Before piano duets, one sister always knew exactly what words of encouragement the other needed. In gymnastics, they could always recognize each other’s voices above the crowd. Being together in IB was beneficial too- during late nights one could wake the other up if she happened to doze off doing homework.
As college quickly approached, though, each became aware that soon they would have to take their separate paths. So when Chandra received a postcard in the mail last fall informing her of the UWC program, she thought maybe it was time.
She filled out the basic application information, but let the idea sit in her head for a while, not mentioning it to her family until winter break. This was when she got her parents’ signatures and wrote her essays. She faxed the application at 5 a.m. on January 15, the day it was due.
In late March, at the Marriott Hotel near KCI Airport, a board member interviewed her. They went over her application, personal strengths and areas of enjoyment, and what would occur if she were accepted.
Finally, on April 23, Chandra received her letter of acceptance. She had one week-until May 1- to decide if she wanted to stay or go.
“It was a really intense process,” Chandra said. “I spent a lot of time talking to my parents and counselors, and making pros and cons lists. I talked to directors of admissions and current UCW students. There was lots of introspection.”
At this point, Leia became involved in the whole process, helping her sister with late-night list making on loose-leaf paper and acting as a sounding board.
When Chandra felt like she had deliberated all that she could, she called for a family vote after dinner on the night before she had to decide. She wasn’t sure of what to do next and wanted the opinions of those closest to her. So the Swansons gathered around their kitchen table, wrote “yes” or “no” (yes being “go” and no being “don’t”) on slips of paper, and put them in a bowl.
The outcome: three yes’s and one no – Leia’s vote.
“I was happy for her,” Leia said. “I thought it was going to be a good experience, but I also thought it would be very different without her.”
Chandra ended up deciding to go at 2 a.m. on May 1.
“I knew what I was getting into if I stayed at East,” Chandra said. “I knew what I would be missing, and could reconcile that. But if I decided against going to New Mexico, I would always be wondering ‘What if?’ ”
Unfortunately, Leia and Chandra didn’t have much time that summer to spend with each other. As soon as school was out they began a whirlwind travel schedule, including visits to Philadelphia, Washington, D. C., Denver and Minnesota. Then came their separate Amigos trips to Paraguay and Costa Rica.
Once the sisters returned, Chandra had to focus on leaving for New Mexico, while Leia had to focus on preparing for school. The day Chandra left was almost anticlimactic. She was to leave with her dad around mid-morning, so simple goodbyes for her family as they headed out early would have to do.
Now, though, both sisters have gotten used to living without each other. Technology certainly helps- they email almost every day, talk on the phone every few days, and Skype every once in a while.
Each has also branched out in her own way.
“It was kind of weird,” Leia said. “You say goodbye and go to school, and Chandra’s supposed to be there, but she’s not. It was weird hanging around school by myself in the morning.”
Chandra, on the other hand, is adjusting to her new environment. She lives in a dorm on campus with a roommate. At the end of each school day she gains CAS (creativity, action, service) hours through yearbook, wilderness trips and participation in the animal welfare program.
As for the future, neither is sure of their plans beyond the going to college. And, of course, keeping a connection with each other.
“We most likely will not go to the same college,” Chandra said. “But we will always have constant communication, keeping in touch and giving each other advice.”
Just like they always have.