“I had absolutely no idea it was that bad,” I whispered as I gawked at giant pictures of extreme socio-economic stratification. The right side of the screen: luxury apartments surrounded by parks. The other side: overcrowded, poverty-stricken neighborhoods packed with desolate houses. It was just another day in my University of New Hampshire (UNH) sociology class, coupled with another mind-boggling discovery. I couldn’t look away, transfixed with emotion and a passion to make a difference.
The Challenging Academically Talented Students (CATS) program, a conjunction between Oyster River High School (ORHS) and UNH, gives me and many of my peers the opportunity to explore academic interests at the collegiate level. Upon acceptance into the program, upperclassmen at ORHS can take any 400-500 level course without prerequisites, while only paying small administrative fees. While many students are eligible for the program, I’ve found that most students have never heard of it and are unaware of its benefits.
As an underclassman, I assumed the classes available through the CATS program were limited to the mathematically gifted. It wasn’t until the end of my sophomore year that I realized there is an abundance of classes available in any department. Last spring, as I was selecting courses for my senior year, I was determined to fit a class at UNH in my schedule. It was not only for the academic rigor and the benefits on my résumé, but for the opportunity to prepare myself for college courses and to try out a class in a discipline I had grown to enjoy: sociology.
After talking to my counselor, completing the very brief application, and getting accepted to the program, I was all set to register for my fall semester class: Introductory Sociology 400 (SOC 400). I had taken ORHS’ sociology class in my junior year and was a teacher assistant the following semester, so I had a grasp on what I might be in for.
Vivian Jablonski, a math teacher at ORHS, has had students in her advisory taking courses through the CATS program starting their sophomore year. “It’s really cool for students to find something they are genuinely passionate about with school,” said Jablonski. I definitely fall into that boat, and I’ve found that discovering something I’m deeply interested in has almost felt like a relief; I know what I might want to study in college.
Alongside developing an interest in sociology, Nori Sandin (’23), who took SOC 400 with me, believes the CATS program will help with the transition to college next year. “It can provide a level of preparation for college that you’re not going to get in any other setting, because you can do like a million college tours, go to a million info sessions, but at the end of the day, you aren’t going to know what a class is like until you take one,” Sandin says.
Another perk of taking UNH classes is avoiding the Advanced Placement (AP) exams in May. Lotta Berglund (‘25) took French 631 and German 401 at UNH this past fall, as well as an AP course. She said classes through the CATS program provide a different learning opportunity than AP or running start courses. “For AP, it’s all about the AP [exam] and prepping for it. At UNH, you’re still taking a difficult class, but it’s not so much about the end-of-year [exam].”
Like Berglund, I feel as though with so much pressure riding on one big exam, AP classes don’t even feel worth it. For students who aren’t great test takers, or for classes with high failure rates, it can feel like a waste to have spent hundreds of dollars and countless hours on a course that doesn’t even result in college credit. Combined with the fact that not all colleges accept AP credits, the answer to the problem seems simple: if a student has the time and ability, they should shoot for a UNH course over an AP class.
While some students might be worried about losing academic rigor if they reduce the number of AP courses they take, ORHS school counselor Kim Sekera believes that college admissions officers will still view you as a “really strong candidate” if you take a UNH course, with the added benefit of feeling comfortable and competent to take on college-level work.
Why Students Join
Some students, like Sandin, explore an interest while skipping the level taught at the high school, while others take CATS classes to learn more about a subject they’ve already taken or to take a course not offered at the high school. Tyler Nelson (‘23) was in Economics 605 this year after enjoying AP Economics as a junior. Nelson knew he wanted to continue studying economics but wasn’t sure how that was possible until his counselor mentioned that Nelson could look into a UNH class. He’s found the experience “very rewarding,” and is grateful as the CATS program is “a very unique opportunity that not a lot of people get during their high school career.”
Other students, including underclassmen, take CATS classes “out of necessity,” according to Sekera. “With math, for example, if a student has exceeded our math progression, they have ‘no place to go,’ so we are going to explicitly talk to that student [about the CATS program] because, clearly, if they’ve exhausted all of our math classes, not only are they good at math…but usually they like it too.”
Siddhu Srivatsan (‘23), a prime example of what Sekera mentioned, took Differential Equations with Linear Algebra after taking AP Calculus BC and AP Statistics in his sophomore and junior years, respectively. While he says his UNH class is quite difficult, Srivatsan believes that “the class is really good for anyone who just wants to get a feel for the college experience and what to expect academically when they go to college.”
Similar to students placing out of math courses, heritage speakers and advanced world language students have few options after they have surpassed level 5 at ORHS—as neither Advanced Placement Spanish nor French are running due to a lack of interest this year.
Our very own MOR staff member, Abby Owens, took French 651, titled “Love, War, and Power in French Literature,” which she tested into because of her strong fluency skills. Owens fits ORHS French Teacher Barb Milliken’s description of an ORHS student who is likely to succeed in the program. Milliken says that “it’s somebody who’s really looking to broaden their horizons and step away from the cookie-cutter form of school as we know it, and try something different so that their portfolio—what they will be able to offer to university and having the bravery to do that—makes them stand out.”
Challenges Students Face
Although students have found their UNH courses to be valuable experiences, it comes with some difficulties. One issue that CATS students ran into in the Fall 2022 semester was administrative proceedings. “I think there was a little bit of a disconnect between information that was provided to me and what I needed to figure out on my own,” Sandin states, in reference to her confusion with the registration process and logging into her UNH account.
I also found the transition to my UNH class to be a bit difficult, especially as SOC 400 is a lecture class. I’m used to seminar-based courses, where I feel more involved in the class material. And, on top of an already heavy course load at ORHS, I found myself overwhelmed at times. But I was able to adjust to my new environment, plan specific days for my UNH homework, and find myself more engaged in SOC 400 than in any class I’d taken before.
ORHS students have also been challenged with a lack of teacher involvement and a different level of resources available at the collegiate level. Srivatsan said that “office hours as a high school student can be very difficult to actually go to. Usually, they’re in the middle of the day when you either are going to school or just simply can’t go to the actual office hours. So, if you are struggling in the class, it can be difficult to get the help that you need to succeed.”
However, Jablonski sees these instances as learning opportunities for many valuable skills needed in college. Advocating for yourself, sending respectful emails, managing your time, and visiting office hours are a few skills Jablonski mentioned.
Every student and faculty member that I talked to repeated the same thing: the CATS program is completely worth it. There are so many opportunities and benefits that the program provides, and it’s unlike any other in the state. So, check out the UNH course catalog and bring it up to your school counselor—it’s never too early to start planning. The opportunities are endless, and it may open your eyes to a whole new world of possibilities!