It takes courage to walk to the beat of your own drum at any point in life, but perhaps particularly so during high school.
Every member of the senior classes at Palo Alto's public and private high schools deserves recognition and celebration for the accomplishments, big and small, that propelled them to graduation.
In seeking to represent the diverse personalities of the class of 2015, the Weekly sought out and found five students from Palo Alto High, Gunn High, Eastside Preparatory School and Castilleja School who represent courage to choose a different path, both during and after high school, inside and outside of the classroom.
Some of these students were suggested to the Weekly by school administrators, teachers or fellow students for their alternative decisions and achievements; one assumed a visible leadership role in the community this year as Gunn's representative to the Board of Education.
These five students' courage comes in many different forms -- taking a gap year, deciding to defer college to take care of one's mental health, speaking out for one's beliefs and on behalf of others.
Their paths to graduation were all different but share one common thread: a willingness to walk to the beat of their own drum. Taken together, these students represent a sense of optimism about the future for Palo Alto students and their definitions of success. They show that accomplishment is not necessarily bound to good grades or college admission but to hard work, passion, selflessness and creativity.
| Graduated from: Palo Alto High School
School was never really Nick Beeson's thing. It was often hard to find the motivation to do his work, he said. This manifested in another form his senior year at Palo Alto High School. Surrounded by peers talking about their post-graduation prospects and the college application process, he found it hard to find the motivation to apply.
"I wasn't that excited about college," Beeson said.
But outside of the classroom, through community service, he has found his drive. He volunteers once a week with middle school students through a faith-based service program called WildLyfe. The program is part of Palo Alto Young Life, a non-denominational Christian ministry that aims to connect with adolescents through volunteering, clubs and camps.
When Beeson brought up how he was feeling to his counselor and teacher adviser, they suggested he look at options for continuing his service while taking a gap year. So starting in September, Beeson will be working in Philadelphia through Mission Year, a year-long Christian-based ministry program focused on providing community service in inner-city neighborhoods. Mission Year participants, all young adults, are connected with a local partner agency, with whom they'll spend 32 hours a week volunteering. The rest of the time, they'll all live in a house together, much like a dorm.
"I think that was the coolest thing -- to give back but also have a home that will hold you up when you're down," Beeson said. "I really like the idea of how (it's) faith-based, but it's not trying to go out and teach the word, teach the Bible; it's just doing work, volunteering."
Beeson, now a graduating senior who has lived in Palo Alto his entire life, came up through the Palo Alto Unified School District. He went to Escondido Elementary School, Terman Middle School and then Paly. He lives on the Stanford University campus with his mother, who is the university's assistant dean for graduate life. He said his family was supportive of his decision to take a gap year, and he wishes other parents would do the same for peers who, like him, might not feel enthusiastic about going straight to college or don't know what they want to do with their lives.
"I have people come up to me, even seniors who are going off to school, and they're like, 'I wish I could take a gap year,' and I'm like, 'Well, you can.' They say, 'My parents won't let me.'
"I think that's kind of a shame if kids feel like their parents wouldn't let them do that. ... Why go to school now when you can go experience the world a little bit and figure things out?"
Though he likes Mission Year because it's not too heavy-handed when it comes to faith, Beeson said he started to lean on his faith during high school. It helped him through hard times with his family and a difficult decision to quit football despite being a starting varsity player his sophomore year. He also played baseball and said football wasn't where his passion was. The social repercussions of that decision were difficult, he said, with other students -- both friends and strangers -- coming up to him at school, questioning his decision.
Sophomore year was also when he started volunteering with WildLyfe. He also attends a weekly youth group, where he and other high schoolers hang out, take trips together and talk about spirituality.
He's not sure what will come after Mission Year, though he does have the option of going to Azuza Pacific University, a private Christian college near Los Angeles. It was the only school he applied to. He's deferred for a year but is thinking he might want to look at other schools, travel or continue his involvement with Young Life. (He's also continuing that this summer -- in July, he'll be in Canada working as a staff member at a Young Life summer camp.)
When people ask him what he's doing after graduation, Beeson said he's fine saying that he's taking a gap year. He admitted it felt a little weird on college day, when most Paly students came to school wearing a sweatshirt or shirt from the college to which they've committed.
"But I'm excited," he said. "It's something different."
| Graduated from: Eastside College Preparatory School
Every year at Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto, teachers nominate students for a school-wide "Award for Excellence in Habits of Work," given to a student who has demonstrated achievement throughout high school by consistently working hard to meet expectations, managing one's time, proactively seeking help, reflecting on one's learning and setting goals for growth.
This year, the award went to Jocelyn Higuera, a shy, softspoken senior from East Palo Alto whom one teacher called "possibly the hardest working student that we've ever seen."
"When meeting for her independent research project for SRI (the school's Senior Research Institute), she would lay out her expertly annotated articles, their margins filled with definitions, explanations, questions and connections and systematically address each post-it note she had prepared for the meeting," that teacher, Stacy Ishigaki, said in a speech announcing the award. "It was even common to receive a series of text messages from her on a Saturday afternoon, detailing her latest findings and asking for clarification.
"Her consistency is laudable; her persistence, impressive."
Higuera, who officially graduated from Eastside last week, wrote her college application essays about this. Her persistence was born through a struggle with school, which she said has always been hard for her. It takes more time and effort for her to understand concepts and complete her work, she said. Ishigaki said Higuera always did her homework the day it was assigned to have extra time to seek help from her teachers (Eastside operates on a block schedule, so homework isn't due every day). She would often stay late at school, until 10 or 11 p.m., working with the vice principal or teachers, Ishigaki said.
This was difficult for Higuera, who said the first three years of high school were stressful and unenjoyable.
But now, as a graduating senior heading to Brigham Young University-Idaho in the fall, she sees the benefit of the long nights and early mornings spent getting her schoolwork done.
"I put all my time into it, and I didn't really go out as much as my classmates would. Now I can see that it's been beneficial for me to put all of that time and effort in that I did because now I'm actually going to go to college," she said. "I'll be able to live the dreams that my parents and I always wanted me to have."
Higuera, who grew up in Redwood City and moved to East Palo Alto in fourth grade, doesn't exactly fit the profile of most students at Eastside Prep, which gives priority to students who are the first in their family to be college bound. Higuera's parents, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico when they were in their mid-20s, she said, were both educated in Mexico. Her mother couldn't finish college for financial reasons, but her father received a master's degree in engineering. In the United States, her father works as a handyman and her mother, a housecleaner. Her older brother is in the U.S. Marine Corps and her younger sister attends Castilleja School in Palo Alto.
After moving to East Palo Alto, Higuera transferred into Beechwood Elementary School in Menlo Park. In eighth grade, in 2009, she was one of 10 students honored by a visiting Nobel Prize winner for their ability "to overcome difficult situations and achieve academically."
That year, Higuera applied to several private high schools in the area -- Woodside Priory, Castilleja School, Summit Preparatory School -- but wanted to go to Eastside.
Between Seminary, a religious educational program she attends every morning from 6:30 to 7:20 a.m. at a Mormon church in Menlo Park, school from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and homework, Higuera said she doesn't have much free time. But her favorite school project was the Senior Research Institute she took with Ishigaki. Seniors chose a topic of interest to spend several months researching and at the end produced an in-depth paper and presentation. Higuera chose the effectiveness of water programs in South Asia. She remembered her sister coming home in sixth grade and talking about someone who gave a talk at Castilleja about the importance of water, both at home and abroad. The person mentioned children in South Asian countries who have to choose between going to school and walking the miles to get water for their families.
"I wanted to learn more about that," Higuera said.
If Higuera could give her freshman-year self advice, it would be both practical and encouraging.
"I would tell myself to do my graduation requirements, as well as take more electives, early during high school rather than leaving them to the last couple of years because it is so much harder to complete those requirements the last two years of high school," she said. "And to not give up when it gets difficult.
| Graduated from: Castilleja School
Several years ago, an alumna of Castilleja School spoke to students, telling them, "Castilleja taught me how to raise my hand and keep it up."
One of those students was Katerina Pavlidis, a graduating senior who spent both her middle and high school years at the private all-girls school in Palo Alto.
"That totally shaped me," she said of the girls school experience. "It gave me a huge sense of confidence in the classroom that will really stick with me."
Before arriving at Castilleja, Pavlidis was something of a globetrotter. Born in Germany but with Greek roots, she spent fourth grade living in Athens, Greece. Once she returned to U.S. soil, she lived and attended school in Los Altos before her mother suggested she apply to Castilleja. She shadowed students for a day, loved it and hasn't looked back. She said the single-sex environment helped her to build her confidence and to believe "What I have to say really does matter -- and I'm going to say it," she said.
Starting her first year at Castilleja, Pavlidis dove into theater. She said as a student who isn't into or good at sports, she was drawn to the tight-knit community theater offered. The first play she acted in was "Once Upon a Mattress," a musical, comedic adaptation of "The Princess and the Pea." This spring, she directed a student production of Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart," a tragic comedy about three sisters dealing with family dysfunction. There was only one play in her entire time at Castilleja that she could have been in but missed ("Annie," in eighth grade).
She's also into music, participating in orchestra, and takes tap dance classes at the Zohar School of Dance in Palo Alto.
Pavlidis is a member of Castilleja's Diversity Coalition and CAIE (Community Alliance for Identity and Expression), a student club focused on LGBTQIA+ issues and rights. The club aims to provide a supportive environment for members as well as increase awareness in both the Castilleja and broader Palo Alto communities about such issues. Pavlidis helped plan a "pride" dance sponsored by the club last month that was open to any high school student in the area. On the Facebook page for the event, another organizer described the dance as "a safe space for everyone to be themselves."
Pavlidis was also selected to be one of Castilleja's peer advisers, a "well-respected, highly sought-after position" held by only eight seniors out of a class of 60, Head of School Nanci Kauffman said.
Kauffman called Pavlidis "an advocate for social justice in and out of the classroom."
"She is valued by her teachers and classmates for her 'flexible mind, her curiosity and her initiative,'" Kauffman continued. "She cares about learning and she cares about making a difference."
As someone who also enjoys real-world learning, Pavlidis is deferring her acceptance to Vassar College in upstate New York for a year to travel and work with a friend. She's going to spend a gap year backpacking through Europe and plans to end up doing a workstudy on an organic farm in Greece or Italy. She said she knew she wanted to take a year off even before she knew where she was going to college.
"All of the adults who I've talked to, or most of them, said either taking a gap year was the best decision that they ever made or they really wish that they had taken a gap year," Pavlidis said. "I'm in no hurry to go to college. Obviously I'm incredibly excited to go, and I understand what a big privilege it is, but I also know that recharging my academic batteries and gaining wisdom from the outside world will be really helpful, too."
This attitude is one that didn't always come easily to Pavlidis. She said her hardest moment in high school was sophomore year, when she "lost her sense of balance," overwhelmed by schoolwork and her personal life. She had to recalibrate a bit and remind herself to do something deceptively simple: to have a good time.
"I think that helped me to keep my head up throughout high school," she said.
Pavlidis chose to go to Vassar partly for its academics -- she's planning to major in Greek and Roman studies, a field that Vassar is strong in -- and partly for its history. Vassar was founded as a women's college in 1865 (and stayed one until 1969, when the school first opened its doors to men). Despite now having a pretty evenly distributed student population (44 percent men and 56 percent women), Pavlidis said the school feels more women-friendly than most colleges -- a continuation of her Castilleja experience.
"Whenever anybody asks me about Castilleja, I feel the need to kind of sell it, but it's how I honestly feel," she said. "I think it's crucial to build up girls' confidence and support them."
| Graduated from: Gunn High School
Austin Traver has wise words for his freshman-year self: Validation comes from within.
The Gunn High School senior learned that the hard way, spending much of high school pursuing efforts in and out of the classroom that he said he hoped would give him the validation and acknowledgment he sought from those around him. He took more Advanced Placement classes than he could handle, played on the varsity water polo team, participated in theater and joined a range of student clubs from speech and debate to Model United Nations to hip hop. His schedule intensified during the first semester of his senior year, when there were more standardized tests to take and college applications to fill out.
"I had a really tough workload, and a lot was starting to fill up on my plate at once," he said. "I really choked under all of the pressure. ... I got so caught up in trying to be a part of 'it.'"
He struggled with severe depression, feeling a sense of hopelessness and futility as he had to continually "throw (himself) at what seemed impossible every day."
After seeking and receiving help, Traver decided to take a portion of his classes at the school district's Middle College program, which is housed at Foothill College and is offered to juniors and seniors for whom the structure of Paly or Gunn is not working.
"I think that what depression and suicide and all these incredible travesties have taught me more than anything was actually pace," Traver said. "It's so tempting to just have that gluttony of, 'I want to do all these accomplishments, and this is going to be my status quo -- this is going to be what defines me.' And then all of a sudden you've completely committed to this ridiculous set of self-expectations."
He found a more forgiving pace at Middle College, and though he was accepted to the University of Southern California for next year, will be deferring for a year to live at home, take some of USC's general-education course requirements at Foothill and work as a lifeguard at a local pool. He plans to major in computer science and business administration once he gets to USC.
"It really just allows me to pursue a life that I'm going to enjoy instead of this rat race that I am so sick of," he said of deferring for a year. "I'm actually, for once, dancing to the beat of my own drum. Even if it's a very similar path, I'm certainly walking at my own pace and that's what I think really defines it."
Traver -- eloquent, thoughtful and forthcoming with a frequent smile -- actually grew up in Portola Valley but transferred into the Palo Alto Unified School District in seventh grade. (His father lives in Palo Alto and wanted him to go to school in the district.) He remembers fondly his first day in Palo Alto, which he was nervous about and had been putting off. A classmate sitting next to him asked if he was new and proceeded to show Traver around the school, introduce him to all his friends and have him sit with them at lunch.
"That welcoming, supportive, everyone-gets-along atmosphere is something that I think is really true at Gunn and the Palo Alto school district as a whole that I didn't initially expect," he said.
As a freshman at Gunn, he described himself as slightly "socially inept." But joining some public-speaking clubs increased his confidence and helped him come into his own, he said. Even after a memorably bad speech, he remembered fellow club members still congratulating and encouraging him.
"It just completely changed who I was -- all the support, encouragement and mutual ambition," he said of his fellow club members.
The powerful impact others have had on him is not wasted on Traver. He said it took the "unilateral support" of friends, family, Gunn administrators and medical professionals to help him out of his first-semester depression. Part of this was realizing that the strongest validation must come from within, with the support of others, he said.
Last week, Traver saw a Gunn graduate who he knew through theater post something sad on Facebook. Traver didn't know him well but decided to text him to remind him of his self-worth.
"It completely turned around my morning," he said. "I was busy being upset in class ... and all of a sudden I'm making a difference in the smallest way possible. Anything can make an impact. Anyone can make an impact."
| Graduated from: Gunn High School
During a year when Palo Alto's high school students poured into school board meetings, created Tumblrs, formed committees, crafted surveys and even got published in The New York Times to make sure their voices were heard, Rose Weinmann was sitting at the center of it -- literally.
Weinmann served as Gunn High School's representative to the Board of Education this year, sitting at the dais next to the Palo Alto school district's highest-level decision makers throughout significant and often emotionally charged discussions on teen mental health, schedule changes, building projects, program proposals and the like. She sought the position on the school board after realizing that many major decisions in the district were not made within student government or even at Gunn but at that dais.
Her position as a student representative took on even more meaning this year, as students spoke out in the wake of tragedy against what they said were misconceptions about life at Gunn and Paly. They railed against what they perceived as district leadership's failure to include students in major decisions made this year that affected their lives directly -- particularly the superintendent's elimination of academic classes during early-morning zero period at Gunn. Weinmann and many other students who vehemently opposed the decision had strong, unapologetic words for the superintendent and board last month.
"People doubt students," Weinmann said in an interview with the Weekly. "I worry about some decisions ... that are kind of coming from the top down. I would say, 'Talk to the kids.' Have a clear way for them to pitch ideas. I think transparency would be a great thing."
She said she started to see that change this year. Before, students didn't even know where the school board met; this year, groups started to attend board meetings regularly, some getting dinner together beforehand. Others watched online at home while they did their homework, Weinmann said. She and another student wrote letters to the editor that were published in The New York Times.
At a recent board meeting, Weinmann suggested that the district create a "student-voice committee" to work on creating clear channels for students to communicate with the adults making the decisions about their education. She and three other students also founded this year a student wellness committee that brought anonymous counseling-referral boxes and a new mindfulness program to Gunn.
"The idea of stepping forward and saying, 'What can we change?' -- I think that's what we need," she said.
When she isn't at a board meeting, one might find Weinmann at Gunn's Model United Nations club, reading The New York Times or traveling, but generally not taking things too seriously.
Weinmann, who was diagnosed with Crohn's disease when she was 9 years old, had serious surgery that took her out of school the second half of her sophomore year.
But her time off was a boon, she said. She took an online class, watched documentaries, taught herself how to paint, went to museums and when she returned to school, refocused her priorities.
"You talk about the love of learning -- that's when I figured out that I actually really do enjoy it," she said.
Weinmann described Model UN as "the love of her life," a place where she met other like-minded students. She had been teased in middle school for reading The New York Times, but on her first Model UN trip in San Francisco, the group stopped at a Starbucks, and a student said to her, "If you get the Wall Street Journal, I'll get The New York Times."
"Gunn is very inclusive," she said. "It's an amazing community in the sense that it's cool to be a nerd, and being a nerd just means you care about something. As long as you care about something you're cool. To find that passion and to find a way to work it into what you're doing, I think that's a really important thing."
Weinmann is heading to American University in Washington, D.C., next year, where she plans to major in economics with, hopefully, a minor in international relations. She debated for a long time about taking a gap year but simply got too excited after visiting American, she said.
At her last board meeting on May 26, Weinmann expressed optimism for the future of student voice in Palo Alto.
"This year has been, I hope, the start of something new," she said.