They are part of a generation that has experienced real-world success at an early age through their startups and nonprofits, pursued interests as diverse as music, sports and world affairs, and explored the potential of technology they've been immersed in all their lives.
Kian McHugh: A 'driven' generation
Kian McHugh has treasured his four years at Palo Alto High School. He loves the very idea of a big, public high school -- "the diversity, the spirit, getting to go to football games, having all those people on the quad and seeing different people every day."
The lifelong Palo Altan -- his grandfather owned a downtown pharmacy -- played soccer and baseball throughout his childhood and attended Duveneck Elementary School and Jordan Middle School. After two brief stints living with a family friend and studying in Spain, he's fluent in Spanish.
In high school he played on the swim and water polo teams, wrote and edited for the student newspaper, The Campanile, and developed his "No. 1 passion" -- writing about music.
"I spend a lot of my free time writing about musicians," McHugh said in an interview. At this year's Coachella festival he interviewed the Australian electronic musician Flume. At last September's Rock the Bells hip-hop festival at Shoreline Amphitheatre, he got to meet some of his favorite artists backstage.
"I do it more for pleasure, but I'm hoping to slowly work my way up into a paid position in journalism or arts management," said McHugh, who has sold a music blog -- "Filthy Slaps" -- that he and a friend started. He now writes for the blog "The Kollection."
With the cacophony of new voices on the Web, artists "need someone to help them get their message and their music across," he said.
McHugh plans to major in communication and film and media studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He'll spend the summer lifeguarding and working at Urban Outfitters at Stanford Shopping Center.
What he'll miss most about Paly is "the people," he said.
"Some of the teachers I've had have been some of the most fun people I've gotten to meet in my life and had a huge influence on me. Some of them are so dedicated to their craft -- and being a teacher is not a simple thing at all. It takes work and energy to deal with Paly students because we're a rowdy bunch."
But he worries an overreaction to recent concerns about streaking and school climate could produce an "overly cautious culture" that threatens to take the spirit out of Paly and render people "too scared to express themselves.
"Some people blame (Principal) Kim Diorio for having to crack down on this, but I think it's more just the Palo Alto society as a whole," McHugh said. This spring Diorio and two police officers visited senior classes to warn students that streakers would face stern consequences.
"I understand the gravity of the situation and the legalities behind it, but going from watching the tradition that all seniors have gone through to being told I could be a legal sex offender ... if I were caught streaking is a very intense transition. And that's the direction we're headed.
"I think certain limitations are good, but we definitely have to be careful because if it does go too far it could taint what makes Paly so wonderful. High school students need to keep a sense of fun."
McHugh thinks his generation is "definitely more driven" than past generations.
"We've got students at Paly who are already wealthier than their parents, for goodness' sake," he said. "There are a couple of people with some quite large startups or people starting their own clothing lines.
"Kids almost feel forced to want to have this drive to succeed, and Palo Alto really encourages it.
"We're also a lot more reliant on technology -- and we shouldn't let it distract us from what's real. We don't want to forget that in a short drive we could be in the hills or the beach or the city -- real things that we can take advantage of."
Hellen Abraham: Better experiences, more opportunities
Hellen Abraham will most miss the relationships she has built at Gunn High School, and the many teachers who, she said, have really helped her.
But she appears at a loss when asked what she'll miss least.
"I guess there's academic pressure here -- that's really true -- but I think that's going to help me in the long run," Abraham said. "All my friends who've gone off to college say they're really prepared, and a lot of their friends didn't get that pressure to succeed. It works out in the end because you have really good study patterns and whatnot."
Abraham's extracurricular activities at Gunn have centered around playing sports -- basketball, lacrosse and freshman volleyball -- coaching and working. She also was treasurer of the Black Student Union, which raised funds for club activities by holding several lunchtime sales of grilled hot links in the quad.
She coached after-school volleyball at Terman Middle School for three years, scooped and served at Cream in downtown Palo Alto and, during junior year, worked twice a week in the office of a local criminal lawyer. This summer she hopes to work in retail.
Abraham heads to college at University of California at Riverside this fall, where she plans to study life sciences in preparation for medical school. She's discussed her goal with an older cousin, who recently completed medical school herself.
She expects her life to be "really different" from that of her parents, who are immigrants from Eritrea.
"They just immigrated here a little before my (older) sister was born. Their experiences were way different from mine. They didn't have great schooling and stuff and they came here to get a better education for my siblings and me," she said.
"Here, I'll have better experiences and more opportunities."
Alejandro Navarro: 'Something to help make a difference'
From the moment he got to Gunn High School, Alejandro Navarro felt at home -- perhaps because from childhood he'd been helping his mother, Gunn social studies department head Lynne Navarro, wash whiteboards, hang classroom posters and organize notebooks.
He liked the diversity of opportunity he found at the school, where he played many sports and delved into topics like nuclear proliferation and genetic engineering through the Model United Nations Club.
And even though he doesn't speak German, he managed to get a small role, with one line -- "Where did you put my fork? -- in a German-language production of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," thanks to having friends in the German Club.
"Gunn has a very kind of open and active community where everybody can find their opportunities and their passions," said Navarro, a lifelong resident of Palo Alto who went through the Spanish Immersion Program at Escondido Elementary School.
Navarro said he'll most miss "the community around Gunn, for sure," and least miss "the deadlines and the pressure and the standardized testing."
This fall he heads to the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he's considering a major in environmental science or political science -- "something I can do to help make a difference," he said.
As for how he thinks his generation differs from previous ones, he said, "I would say that we have more of a sense, maybe, of acceptance of differences, and we have information about the world available to us from computers and stuff, so in some sense we know more about the world.
"Another positive would also be that there's a movement toward learning how to live a happier, more meaningful life," said Navarro, who recently took Gunn's new class in Positive Psychology. "I think it's really useful to teach people a skill that's kind of declining, which is emotional intelligence."
On the other hand, he said, "My generation has less patience with things that don't work well for them and doesn't know as much about problem-solving and personal communication because of all the technology."
Stephenie Zhang: 'Space Cookie,' and something new
Stephenie Zhang has long been interested in computers, having taught herself to code with a little help from her dad and, later, some classes.
But when her freshman English teacher at Paly touted the virtues of joining the student newspaper staff, Zhang asked herself, "Why not?
"I never imagined I'd do journalism, but after having (Esther Wojcicki) freshman year and seeing how much she loves The Campanile, I decided to try something new," she said.
"It was a very intimidating experience, but in the course of a year I learned to overcome my shyness and interact and collaborate with other people and be more of a team player."
She had the opportunity to interview Superintendent Kevin Skelly about the new Common Core State Standards and also profiled a friend who had represented Palo Alto in the international Physics Olympiad. By senior year, she was chosen as one of several "editors in chief" of The Campanile.
Zhang maintained her interest in science throughout, representing Paly as a member of the school's team that competed last year in the nationals of the Science Olympiad in Ohio.
She also co-captained the Space Cookies -- an all-girl robotics team sponsored by NASA and the Girl Scouts, which competes in the international FIRST Robotics Competition. This year, teams had six weeks to build a robot that could get a 28-inch-diameter ball up into a 10-foot-high goal.
"You get to dive into the computer science portion of robotics where you code in C++ or Java as well as the mechanical portion where you get to fabricate using actual materials," she said. Outside of the intensive, six-week "build season," the Space Cookies run workshops to teach their rookie members how to wire and code.
Zhang relishes the prospect of a change of scenery as she heads to MIT this fall.
"It's going to be a breath of fresh air to leave the place where I've lived my whole life and experience something new," she said.
Undecided on a major, she said, "I'm just going to take a bunch of different courses and find out what I'm interested in, and once I find out my niche I'm just going to take that and go with it. I think a different environment will help me."
Asked what she'll most miss about Paly, Zhang said, "I know it's super-cheesy and everyone says this, but it's so true: the people. The people here are so diverse, as opposed to being a group where everyone's a replica of each other. They're specializing in different areas, facets of knowledge, and it's so inspiring. And the school encourages us to collaborate on different projects, which is a valuable skill that will translate well into college and career."
Social media and online communication make the lives of people in her generation "more public" than those in her parents' generation, Zhang said.
"Everyone knows what everyone's doing, or at least has an idea of what a lot of people are doing," she said. "We're just a lot less private and a lot more public. It's because communication is so much easier.
"But I think it's both good and bad because you're no longer speaking to people face to face as much -- which, in my opinion is genuine interaction -- but keeping connected over the Internet, which is a lot less personal."
Justice Tention: A shot at 'pushing society forward'
Arriving in Palo Alto as a seventh grader from Los Angeles, Justice Tention got an inside view of stark differences among California's public schools.
Though his family had lived in a nice neighborhood in LA, "There's not nearly as much funding in general in the Los Angeles Unified School District," Tention said. "To come to Terman Middle School in Palo Alto, where education is so strongly emphasized, was definitely a change, but it was something I appreciated very quickly."
The educational differences were evident to Tention not just in the scale of the schools -- his LA middle school had 2,000 students compared to Terman's 650 -- but also in the quality of the libraries, the depth of elective offerings and the wealth of technology he found at Terman.
"Terman had basic programming. And I really enjoyed industrial technology -- I took that for two semesters and helped out as a TA my eighth-grade year," he said.
Always drawn to leadership, Tention was a Terman commissioner in eighth grade and this year has been student body president at Gunn as well as co-president of the student organization Youth Community Service.
"If I'm going to be involved in something, I want to make it better," he said.
He also ran track and cross country throughout high school.
"Yeah, I'm OK at them, but mostly those are just my way of releasing a lot of energy that can be built up in a day of school," he said. "It's also been a great social experience, where a lot of my friends are from, and they're also from student government."
Tention heads to Stanford University in the fall with an eye toward management science and engineering.
What he'll miss most about high school are "the activities and community bonding," he said. "Gunn is relatively close-knit compared to a lot of high schools in that it's more collaborative, and there's a lot more school energy and school pride," he said.
What he won't miss is the pressure, which he says is not unique to Gunn.
"What I don't like about high school in general is the college-application process," he said. "It's a total rat race and a lot of work for everyone involved if you apply to top-tier universities. You put yourself through a lot of stress, and you never know what's too much, what's too little. You can't push yourself to such extremes.
"That's something that doesn't originate from Gunn, but it's something that Gunn becomes a victim to from the whole college process. A lot of people think there's an easy way to fix it, but I don't agree. It's a very multi-faceted issue that reaches far beyond Gunn High School and Palo Alto in general."
Though he feels "very fortunate" to have the opportunity of Stanford, Tention finds it "kind of funny -- almost paradoxical -- that the ultimate goal of a computer science major at Stanford is to drop out and become the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg."
He's excited his generation is getting a shot at the big time, but hopes the energy will shift from launching the next messaging app to "solving much bigger issues relevant to society. Why are no 20-year-olds trying to fix the Obamacare website?" he wonders.
"That will come with maturity. As entrepreneurs start to mature they might be more inclined to create companies and products pushing society forward faster than Facebook or Snapchat. And it's very cool to see a lot of my peers get excited about starting their own business or getting involved in an early business rather than everyone rushing toward becoming a banker or a lawyer for an existing monopoly."
Lucy Oyer: 'Growing up with social media'
Lucy Oyer stumbled on the Youth Community Service club her freshman year, not that she was looking for it. Her brother's friend was the club's president at the time, and he said they needed freshmen.
"I joined and ended up really liking it," she said. "A lot of people who participate just want the service hours, but the overall effect is very positive because you're having people go out and do service."
Besides leadership roles in the club for the past two years -- including organizing Gunn's 300-person-strong "service day" -- Oyer this year was managing editor of the student newspaper, The Oracle, where she has worked since freshman year.
One of her favorite Oracle projects was from last year, when the Oracle staff invited a panel of students with disabilities or chronic illnesses to share their stories.
"We asked them questions and had their answers in the paper, about things that people might wonder but not want to ask -- but things they want people to know.
"Anyone who read it would be humbled because it's very impressive what a lot of people are going through that you wouldn't know about otherwise. Also, what was good is that the students themselves really appreciated it."
A product of the Palo Alto school district's Spanish Immersion Program, Oyer has traveled to many Spanish-speaking countries, including Mexico, Nicaragua and Spain.
She said she'll most miss the diversity of students and the "grounded perspective" gained from attending a public high school. She'll least miss "some of the not-so-great teachers, although I've had a lot of really, really good teachers too."
After working at tech startups the past three summers, she hopes to get experience working in retail this summer. Then it's on to Stanford University -- the campus she grew up on as the daughter of a faculty member.
"I did consider going elsewhere, but it felt like I'd be giving up a lot to go away because I do love everything about here -- the programs, the people, the culture -- except for the fact that it's here," she said.
As for how her generation differs from past ones, Oyer said, "At least among my peers, I think people are more into different things, accepting. People are possibly more optimistic, but possibly that's because we're younger.
"It's kind of interesting to think that right now if you go to my Facebook profile you can find pictures of me in middle school. Is that going to follow me? We're kind of growing up with social media as it grows up, and it will be interesting to see how it adapts. It will allow people to stay more connected, but I'm not sure that's the best thing because there's a lot to be said for meeting new people and getting new experiences."
Hillel Zand: Setting one's own course
Since arriving to start fourth grade at Escondido Elementary School from a Jewish day school in his native New York City, Hillel Zand has experienced much of what the community has to offer.
In middle school it was student government, stage crew, acting and basketball. He then played lacrosse for several years, which he loved, but "knew it was time to call it quits" after his fourth concussion.
Freshman year at Paly he played baritone saxophone in the band and is teaching himself piano and guitar.
But -- partly inspired by his journalist mother -- he's invested most of his extracurricular time in writing for the student newspaper, The Campanile. Priding himself on not being a "one-trick pony," he's written news, long features, opinion pieces and occasionally even sports.
"There's a bunch of interesting stuff you just learn from journalism," Zand said. "And seeing how much my mother loves it, that definitely motivated me."
He'll most miss the people and the teachers at Paly.
"Sometimes it can take awhile to sort of find your niche, but what's made me happy is being able to branch out, meet different people," he said. "And it's great to find a couple of teachers that you can get close to -- not just for a recommendation letter, but people you can just go talk to."
Zand particularly admires Paly students who resist the urge to build their high school personae around the ever-looming metrics for college admission, piling on AP classes and activities.
"Sometimes it's hard to measure success in other ways, but I think people who go in a different direction should be recognized more because they try to do a good job of staying away from the pressure -- and things don't look like they're going to change in that regard any time soon," he said.
Of the pressure, Zand said: "It's not intentional a lot of the time -- it's just sort of part of what Palo Alto is. Whether we like it or not it's just imprinted on a lot of us just from observing past students, friends and stuff. It's not all from parents, or at least for me it wasn't."
Zand heads to Jerusalem next for a "gap year" in which he'll study Arabic and Hebrew and the Arab-Israeli conflict in a program called Kivunim. Then it's on to college at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
"I'm really excited and was so happy just to decide (on a college) -- one of the main reasons I chose it is because of the location," he said. "I know people who had a lot harder of a year. I just tried to stay level-headed and not go too out there and apply to the right schools, and let fate happen."
The abundance of technology -- "both a blessing and a curse" -- makes life for his generation different than for earlier ones, Zand said.
"I think it's going to hurt us because we're so attached to our gadgets that it may affect our productivity, but, at the same time, our experience with technologies has allowed us to think outside the box and be more innovative in our work."
This story contains 3785 words.
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