- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) - While many 17-year-olds have their sights set on scoring high on their standardized tests, being accepted to college and earning a diploma, Alexis DiBenedetto has set a goal for herself that extends not only beyond the walls of high school, but out of North America altogether.

“It’s my goal to go to all seven continents,” said DiBenedetto, a senior at Lee-Scott Academy.

It’s a goal she has almost accomplished before even donning her high school cap and gown.

On Christmas Day, DiBenedetto will leave Auburn for a 14-day journey to explore Antarctica with 66 other students from across the world through the Students On Ice program, a non-profit organization that strives to enlighten youth by offering them opportunities to travel to the northernmost and southernmost parts of the planet.

“A lot of people have asked me, ‘Why are you going? Why would you want to go to Antarctica?’ But I’m kind of like, if I have the opportunity, how could I turn it down?”

Students On Ice, based in Gatineau, Quebec, brings together groups of international high school and university students along with educators, scientists, historians, artists, explorers and polar experts to travel to the Arctic and Antarctic regions of the globe. This year will mark the program’s 15th expedition. It has benefited more than 2,600 students from 52 countries.

“The purpose is to educate, inspire and empower youth to make a difference in their communities and around the world,” said program spokeswoman Ashley Brasfield. “We do this by taking them to what we consider the greatest classrooms on Earth.”

DiBenedetto will fly to Miami on Christmas Day and then travel with other students and Students on Ice staff to Buenos Aires, Argentina. After spending a day and a half there, the crew will travel to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. From there, they will board a ship and spend two days crossing the Drake Passage to Antarctica.

“Originally, I was like, I want to go (to all seven continents) in my lifetime,” DiBenedetto said. “But now I’m like, I want to make it before college. And this is my fifth and sixth continents, so I think potentially it could happen.”

Starting the summer after her ninth grade year, DiBenedetto launched what would become an international traveling tradition by applying to go on a three-week student trip to Australia with National Geographic, where she learned about photography, geology, climate and geography. The next summer, she went to Paris for two weeks with National Geographic and then to China for three weeks the summer after that.

“After I went to China, I was just kind of looking on People to People’s website trying to figure out what to do next summer, and I saw that they had trips over Christmas,” she said.

DiBenedetto said she experienced more resistance from her parents over the Antarctica trip than she had for the others, but eventually they gave in.

“They realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “So I just applied for it, and I got accepted, and I’ve been excited ever since.”

While in Antarctica, expedition members will stay on a ship that is fully equipped to navigate polar waters. They will travel on Zodiac vessels to explore icebergs, visit an Antarctic research station and encounter penguins, whales and other Antarctic wildlife.

Glaciologists, ornithologists and oceanographers make up only a vignette of the 23-member staff that will educate students during the Antarctic expedition.

“They’re going to remote parts of our planet - areas that are rarely explored by most people,” Brasfield said. “By getting this exposure, what we hope is that they not only have a better understanding of polar regions and the role that they play, but the difference they make in the world.”

The expedition will also focus on the history and geopolitics of the continent, including the Antarctic Treaty System, climate change research and the annual monitoring of the Koerner Ice Cap in the Antarctic Peninsula, and a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the continent with a visit to Elephant Island, where Shackleton’s shipwrecked crew waited for four months before being rescued.

As she prepares to embark to one of the most remote areas of the planet where few will ever have an opportunity to go, DiBenedetto said she is not nervous, but rather, is looking forward to meeting new friends with ties all across the world.

“My mom gets a lot more nervous about me going on trips, so I think she gets nervous for the both of us,” she said. “I don’t really have any worries at all.”

Because it is summer in Antarctica, temperatures are predicted to be in the 20s and upper teens during the expedition, which are higher temperatures than DiBenedetto expected.

“I want to see as much of the world as possible, and I don’t know once I get out of college - I don’t think I’ll be able to do stuff like this. I’ll have to work and actually have a real life,” she said. “And so now that I have the opportunity, I just have to take it.”

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Information from: Opelika-Auburn News, http://www.oanow.com/

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