For years Chase Abrams has lived a double life: By day a popular student at Sierra Canyon School who played football and enjoyed hanging out with friends, by night an intent student of film studies at Cal State Los Angeles who organized college film festivals and held his own intellectually and socially.
Today, the energetic 18-year-old can finally take a breath. On May 29, he received his high school diploma from Sierra Canyon in Chatsworth and on Saturday he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from Cal State L.A.
Other gifted students have dispensed with high school altogether and gone directly to college.
But as a member of Sierra Canyon’s close-knit first graduating class, he wasn’t willing to give up football, class trips, prom and the rest.
“I think it made me more normal,” Abrams said while taking a break from college finals.
“In a way I had two different personas, in high school I was lovable Chase, just a jokester, and in college it was like ‘Oh, look at Doogie Howser.’ Even though I’m not that smart, I played that role.”
Telaia Mehrban, who has known Abrams since ninth grade, said he has never acted superior or been too busy to offer support.
“Right now he helps me a lot with essays,” said Telaia, 17, who is graduating from Agoura High. “He’s ridiculously smart, but can be . . . so much fun.”
Some of Abrams’ family members and teachers worried that he would shortchange both his high school and college experiences.
“Sometimes he didn’t have time to breathe and enjoy the moment,” said Heidi Ellis, an English teacher at Sierra Canyon, a private school. “But he keeps himself very organized and has incredible determination.”
He maintained a brutal schedule, especially during football season, when he was up at 5 a.m. to go to the gym. He would return to his Chatsworth home at 6:30 a.m. to drive his younger sister Jenna to school in Calabasas, dash to Sierra Canyon’s Chatsworth campus to attend classes from 8 a.m to 3 p.m., hit football practice from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., navigate traffic to get to Cal State L.A.'s Eastside campus for classes from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and return home about 11.
He devoted one weekend day to homework and the other to friends. They included classmates from high school and college.
Those who knew of his dual life marveled.
“Sometimes his classmates would say to me, ‘Did you know Chase was in high school?’ ” said Suzanne Regan, a professor in the Communication Studies Department at Cal State Los Angeles who taught Abrams and was his advisor. “They didn’t treat him as a kid but like a colleague.”
Abrams attended college courses through a Cal State L.A. program for high school students called ACE-PACE, for Accelerated College Enrollment and Pre-Accelerated College Enrollment. The students, who mostly participate in the summer, take regular university courses. It is designed to familiarize high schoolers with college.
When Abrams, who got a partial scholarship to attend Sierra Canyon, realized that he could earn enough credits to graduate from college -- at far less expense -- he decided to do it. His mother, Lisa Kristal, was one of his biggest supporters.
“He finished four years of college in 3 1/2 years while playing football, having relationships, living a full life,” said Kristal, a teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Abrams came by his love of film-making through his father, Brian Abrams, who supervises transportation for feature films for the Walt Disney Co. A close friend is an executive producer for “CSI: Miami” and Abrams often visited the set.
His father, however, had reservations about his son taking up such a physically and emotionally demanding challenge and would have preferred a more traditional path.
“I don’t want to have that diminish his accomplishment at all. It’s amazing,” the elder Abrams said. “I had to look at it philosophically. There’s more than one road that leads to results. . . . He is who he is and, if nothing else, he’s incredibly driven.”
Abrams said the workload may have caused his grades at Sierra Canyon to suffer, especially in the last semester. But, unlike some of his classmates, he did not allow himself to get too stressed. He had no need to take the SAT.
“Our biggest concern was how he would manage his time and whether he would essentially focus more on Cal State L.A. courses as opposed to courses for us,” said upper school director Sanje Ratnavale, who taught Abrams’ Latin class. “I’m proud of him. . . . But was he better served doing that program in the context of all other choices? I suppose that’s the biggest question he and his parents would have to deal with.”
As other Sierra Canyon seniors head to Caltech and Yale, among other schools, Abrams said he had no regrets. Although he graduated, he needs one more class this summer to complete his college credits and hopes to lift his 3.6 grade-point average high enough to earn summa cum laude honors. He still loves filmmaking but is thinking of attending medical school.
“Sierra Canyon is like my heart and soul, but with the Cal State L.A. graduation, I feel like I’ve definitely accomplished something, like I won a gold medal from the Olympics.”