Naomi Shachter (Gunn High '08), now a senior at Stanford, decided she wanted more from her high school years than admission to a top college.
"I wanted to find an authentic passion," Shachter said. "If you don't get into that top college, then at least you have an activity you've developed that you love."
In middle school, she discovered the nonprofit Youth Community Service (YCS) and found her purpose in service there, taking on greater leadership roles with each passing year. Reflection was a large part of choosing and committing to the hard work required, something her parents and adults at YCS and her synagogue encouraged.
Palo Alto High '05 grad John Beamer had an early passion for film and an enduring gratitude for the support of video production teacher Ron Williamson and the theater department during his high school years. For him, theater and film activities provided that needed "anchor" to develop his gifts.
"That was my whole purpose and passion," he said.
He is now a graduate of New York University (NYU) Film School, working on his own film projects in New York.
Elaine Chen, Paly '07 grad, also found her high school niche at YCS.
"I wanted to do things to help people and YCS helped me figure out my direction" starting in middle school, she said. She was drawn to studying socioeconomic gaps and multicultural issues in education, an interest YCS mentors and leadership programs supported her in developing.
Chen found her college match in Rockhurst University, a small liberal arts school in Missouri. "At Rockhurst, I had a completely different experience" from Paly, she said. Going to college was not a given for most students. Her Rockhurst friends worked to help pay for college, something she said gave more meaning to their education. By sophomore year, Chen too began working — jobs she never would have worked in Palo Alto, like car-wash attendant — and contributed some of these earnings to her own education.
"This was a rich learning environment for me," she said. "It opened my mind and eyes to whole other perspectives, especially the rewards of working and contributing."
Chen plans to attend grad school next fall at San Diego State University for her educational-specialist degree to become a school psychologist.
Paly '07 grad Sereena Ojakian found purpose in theater costume design and construction. At one of Paly's Career Days, Ojakian heard a wedding dressmaker talk about her job. Ojakian began thinking about her own interest in sewing, which led her to consider becoming a costume designer. She tried her hand helping Paly teacher Mike McGovern with his history classes' reenactments.
Her growing passion for creating costumes guided Ojakian's college choices. She picked five liberal arts prospects with strong theater programs.
"Paly's career center was very helpful with this," she said.
When she was admitted to Southern Oregon University, a small public liberal arts university with a thriving theater program, she happily accepted.
Like Chen, Ojakian discovered a different atmosphere at Southern Oregon.
"It's a state school, not fancy," she said. "A lot of kids have jobs and need to work. They value their education. It has been a good experience to see kids going to school because they want to."
Gunn '10 grad and UC Berkeley sophomore Joyce Liu was affected by the 2009 suicides in Palo Alto and wanted to find a way to help her school community.
"It was a tough time for a lot of people," she said. She saw first-hand the importance of peer support, which sparked an idea. She and fellow seniors Esther Han and Yoni Alon co-founded a peer-support network called ROCK (for "Reach Out. Care. Know."), which recruited students to trainings, meetings and outreach activities and created social support and connection among Gunn students.
Alon said he had not done anything in the community before with such passion. Both he and Liu learned new skills, ranging from organizational to interpersonal. The efforts dominated their senior year, adding to their workloads, but they both said they coped well with that.
"The quality of stress is different if I'm doing something I want to be doing," Liu said. "It was a heartwarming and very empowering experience."
Even with a clear sense of purpose, students report the strain of being immersed in a college-obsessed culture, including wrestling with personal doubts and being pulled down with worry about stressed out friends.
Paly '11 grad and NYU Film School freshman Colin Marchon (see main story) at times felt anxious and guilty about the adequacy of his high school resume. He wondered if he should have gone out for a sport.
"It's hard to have so much uncertainty about college admissions. What and how much should you do? It scares people; it scared me ... It was a very stressful day when the admit decision came over the email. I had a headache and other physical symptoms," he recalled.
Shachter also felt the impulse to take on too much to build her college resume. She developed her own test to help ensure her choices aligned with her own desires: "If someone forbid me from putting this on my college application, would I still want to do it?" The answer to that question told her what she needed to know.
At Paly, Chen knew early on that an elite college wasn't for her, but still she felt external pressures to do things to bolster her college resume. Her decision to forego AP classes drew critical reactions.
"My friends would worry, asking me: 'How will you get into a good school?'" she said. "I was OK with not wanting what everybody wanted, but there was a cost to that." Chen felt "really insecure" her first two years of high school and said she "did not fit in at all." By junior year, though, "something changed me — not sure what. I realized that people were hurting themselves over not achieving at the rate expected," she said. The harmful effects she observed influenced her to have more faith in her own decisions about what was right for her.
Chen said when her friends would get together in high school, the talk was all about academic performance — SATs, colleges, awards, how people were stacking up — and the stress people were feeling. Chen by contrast felt little academic stress and instead increasingly experienced internal peace about her choices.
Ojakian took her mental health seriously in high school.
"I chose to do things because I wanted to. If I was too stressed, I would make a change," she said. When her older brother Adam died by suicide at U.C. Davis her sophomore year, "it caused me to see the importance of reflection, knowing my feelings, being sure to pay attention to myself. It all became very pertinent to me."
At Paly she saw a lot of people stressed out and unhappy, thinking "if they don't do really well on everything, everything in their lives will crumble."
"By senior year, I was burnt out on this mentality," she said. "I was tired of seeing friends doing things to build the college resume. It upset me that people were driven like this. I kept trying to tell them that their health and happiness was more important."