Meet Founding Whittle Scholar Isabel Gray

Isabel paddling on the Chattooga River

Founding Whittle Scholar Isabel Gray will be joining the Whittle community this fall as a 9th grade boarding student on the Washington, DC campus. She was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and currently lives in rural Cedar Mountain, North Carolina. A passionate supporter of animal rights, women’s equality, and climate justice, Isabel is an activist in the truest sense of the word: She has spoken about rising sea levels at a Citizens’ Climate Lobby event at her local aquarium, was the sole youth speaker at a Women’s March anniversary rally, and was an award-winning poet and conference speaker for The Pulitzer Center’s “Causes of Conflict, Prospects for Peace.” She has also won multiple scholastic regional and national medals for her poetry and fiction, plays the violin in an orchestra, and is an avid rock climber and outdoorswoman who has paddled through class IV rapids on the Chattooga River.

At 11 years old, she attended a lecture given by polar explorer and climate activist Robert Swan. When she approached him afterward, her passion for the subject made such an impression on him that he invited her to join him on his next Antarctic expedition, if she could raise the funds for the journey herself. She accepted the challenge, and spent months selling T-shirts and busking with her fiddle until she had enough money to cover the costs. “It was a really cool experience,” she said. “Because it opened up my eyes to the fact that if I really want something, I can make it happen.”

She was the youngest person on the expedition and spent the trip observing wildlife from Zodiac boats and on foot, and learning about the effects of melting ice on rising sea levels. Particularly exciting were some of the people she had the opportunity to interact with while there. “I got to meet a lot of journalists, teachers, and scientists, and see all the possibilities for a career I could pursue that could include climate change and climate justice,” she said.

This summer, she’ll be taking courses in communications and entrepreneurship at the University of Pennsylvania and helping out at her family’s environmental education summer camp, leading hikes and working on the farm. At her current school, Isabel is enjoying studying biology, and at Whittle, she’s particularly looking forward to pursuing the intersection of life sciences and humanities. “I also really like creative writing, that’s one of my passions,” she added. “And I’m really excited to be able to grow as a writer there as well. Because I think that’s definitely a skill that will translate into many different professions.”

“One of the really captivating parts of Whittle’s mission is the international leadership component,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in learning about other cultures and getting to experience different ways of life.” She’s also excited to be in DC because of the access it gives her to organizations working on issues of importance to her at a national level. “I really want to look into the youth advisory council of the Jane Goodall Institute, because she’s one of my role models. And I also want to do more with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. I’ve spoken at events for them in Charleston before, and I think that they’re a really cool organization.”

In addition to meeting new academic challenges and bringing her activism to the national stage, Isabel is also excited about being at Whittle because of the prospect of building a new school culture from the ground up: “It’s a cool opportunity to be able to be what you want to be in a community and to have everyone fit in in their own way.”