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Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 31, 2013

Graduation 2013: Thinking back and looking ahead

A few 2013 graduates ponder their schools and the world

by Chris Kenrick

A few days before their high school graduation Wednesday, a handful of prospective grads from Gunn and Palo Alto high schools spoke with the Weekly about their high school recollections and plans for the future.

Josh Stabinsky: Putting more in to get more out

A major lesson of high school for Josh Stabinsky can be boiled down to the adage, "What you give is what you get."

After feeling hesitant and uncomfortable in his first two years at Paly, Stabinsky made a fuller commitment to classes and activities his junior year and found he enjoyed school much more.

"The harder I worked, the more I put in, the more I got out of it," he said. "I wish I'd learned that a little earlier, but I'm glad I eventually did.

"Not everybody's going to be up for a challenge in high school — that's totally understandable — but the more you challenge yourself, the more you're going to get out of Paly."

Stabinksky also found Paly more engaging when he realized that the college-prep curriculum is not as fixed as some might think. For example, he said, you can take biology and chemistry — and then marine biology instead of physics — while still fulfilling entrance requirements for the University of California.

"Marine biology was fascinating," he said. "By taking the classes I really wanted to be in as opposed to what everybody else was taking I was able to succeed and found school a lot more interesting my junior year than I had previously."

Committing to school activities — he was Paly's sports commissioner his junior year and senior class vice-president — also allowed him to get to know teachers and fellow students better.

In the fall Stabinsky plans to study business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which combines the factors he was seeking in a college: big school, sports program and strong business program. A huge sports fan, he's interested in pursuing a career in sports marketing.

What he'll miss most about Paly are the teachers, friends and the hard-earned sense of familiarity.

What he'll miss least, he said, is "having only 35 minutes for lunch.

"I really like the block scheduling but do wish we had a little longer for lunch."

Stabinsky will spend the summer working at the Gap, his first official employer.

After just a few days on the job he said he's seen many familiar faces at the Stanford Shopping Center store and has "become a lot better at folding than I was before."

Chandler Gardiner: 'Do your best, but don't stress out'

The peer pressure prevalent at Gunn High School is "not your typical peer pressure" to go out and get drunk or break curfew, said Chandler Gardiner, who graduated Wednesday.

Instead, it's a pressure to get good grades — a feeling Gardiner believes emanates not primarily from parents or teachers, but from students themselves.

On one hand, she has appreciated it, saying, "At another high school I might not have pushed myself as hard."

On the other hand, "The pressure can be overwhelming sometimes, which you don't really need, especially in high school."

As she heads to Spain and France this summer to perform with the Gunn choir and, this fall, to the University of Minnesota, Gardiner said what she'll most miss about Gunn is its sense of community.

"It's very welcoming," she said. "It's a pretty big school, so basically anybody can find a place here — it doesn't matter who you are, what your interests are."

Besides four years of singing in Gunn's choir program, Gardiner's interests have included school and club volleyball as well as leadership in Gunn's ROCK (Reach Out, Care and Know), a peer support network initiated by students after a series of suicides in 2009 and 2010.

ROCK has "moved past just suicide prevention and on to community building, making sure we can reach our arms out to any freshman in a random social group," Gardiner said. ROCK members have joined forces with a national program, Sources of Strength, with a strategy of using high school social groups to boost teen mental health.

Gardiner said she appreciates "so many good teachers at Gunn" as well as her parents, who "never put pressure on me and just asked me to do the best I can." She's particularly grateful that her mother, who works at a school, was able to be at home with her and her siblings after school and during summers.

"I've had my ups and downs, but my parents have done so well for us."

She hopes — at least in family matters — that her life will be much like that of the family she grew up with.

But "I don't know if I want to raise my kids in Palo Alto," she said. "Part of me does because I want them to do the best they can, but part of me doesn't want them to have to deal with the stress."

Her advice to future Gunn students is: "Do your best, but don't stress out.

"Your best is all you can do. You don't need to go crazy if something goes wrong because in a few days it will pass and it's going to be all right."

Boot Bullwinkle: Multitasking and the 24-hour day

Staying home for the summer to serve Pinkberry yogurt will give new Gunn graduate Richard (Boot) Bullwinkle a chance to earn college money and spend a little more time with what he'll miss most about high school — his friends.

This fall he heads to American University, where he'll work in a Washington, D.C.-area internship and take classes at the same time.

Bullwinkle played varsity soccer all four years at Gunn and also fell in love with journalism, ending up senior year as managing editor of the student newspaper The Oracle.

"Journalism is kind of a dying art, at least in print, but we had 50 kids on staff, and they're all really interested in it," he said. "It was fun to work with that many kids interested in the exact same thing — to create a quality publication."

The experience resulted in a close bond with Oracle adviser and English teacher Kristy Blackburn, one of three or four Gunn teachers he considers mentors and friends. "They've really been there to teach me things that school doesn't usually teach," he said.

What Bullwinkle will miss least about Gunn is what he views as an unwarranted self-satisfaction among school leaders that interferes with critical thinking and positive change.

"They toot their own horn a little. They think they're very good at acceptance, including all types of people, and they miss a lot of problems they have," he said. "There's still a lot of bullying, still racism and sexism — this is high school."

Similar resistance to change has hobbled Gunn's guidance-counseling program, which he feels did not provide good quality service to him and probably will not serve his younger sister very well.

"I'm not sure the steps we've taken have helped that much," he said. "There hasn't been a lot of change."

Bullwinkle plans to double major in economics and political science in college, while maintaining his interest in journalism.

He expects his life will be considerably different from that of his parents. They both grew up overseas — his mother evacuated at age 3 from war-torn Vietnam to Saudi Arabia — while he considers himself "fortunate to have been born and raised in Palo Alto with all the opportunity in the world."

Technology is another reason he thinks life will be different for his generation.

"I think we have much more opportunity than previous generations, and we're much better at multitasking," Bullwinkle said.

"The older generation sees us using all this technology and thinks we're lazy, but I can be on my phone looking at the news, reading texts and chatting on Facebook while having a live conversation with someone.

"This is a unique talent that most people can't understand but is necessary in a world where we're moving faster and faster, and it's more of a 24-hour day instead of a 10-hour day."

The flip side, he said, is that his generation tends to be politically apathetic, though he himself reads the news every day.

"Significant events are happening around us, and we're kind of stuck in our own little worlds," he said.

Soo Song: Taking things personally

Soo Song said what she'll miss most about Paly is the people because "when you get to know people on such a personal level, you can't help but love them and miss them.

"You learn the most about people when you go through a lot with them, and at Paly you go through a lot, academically and socially," said Song, who graduated Wednesday.

What she'll miss least is the prescribed curriculum, and she looks forward to having more freedom to choose classes when she heads to the University of California at Berkeley this fall with the goal of preparing for a career in business or law.

Active in Paly's student government, Song said she "tried to pour my heart" into all her activities, which also included Youth Community Service and Paly's Christian Club.

She credits Student Activities Director and Japanese teacher Matt Hall with "inspiring me to work harder than I ever could and showing me it's fine to be me even if 'me' doesn't translate to perfect."

The unifying characteristic of good teachers — and there are many at Paly, she said — is "a passion for their subject, and that's not something you can learn or teach, but something you have."

The Korean-born Song — she moved to the United States at age 2 — speaks Korean with her grandparents, a mixture of English and Korean with her parents, and also has studied Japanese and Chinese.

She expects her life to be quite different from those of the older generations, in many respects because of social media.

"We have this need to feel connected all the time," Song said.

"Sometimes social media lessens the personal connection, but it widens the general connection of people.

"And instead of focusing on one thing, our generation focuses on a lot of things ... and that's different from past generations.

"It's actually scientifically proven that multitasking isn't very good for you, and you can't do all these great things at once. But we still do it because it's kind of addicting."

Song said her Paly activities gave her a chance to get to know many teachers outside the classroom, "to learn more about what they really love to do other than teach and to get to know them personally.

"I really want to be personal with people, be personal with what I learn and what I do, and I hope to take that to wherever I go in the future," she said.

Sergey Smirnov: High school with a difference

Sergey Smirnov's plans to tour Europe with a youth orchestra this summer and head east to college this fall sound similar to those of many other Paly students.

But Smirnov, who planned to walk in Paly's graduation Wednesday night, did high school with a big difference.

For the past two years he's spent his school days at Foothill College where, as a student in Foothill's Middle College, he took college courses while also completing state requirements for high school graduation.

While officially graduating from Paly, Smirnov also will be eligible to apply to transfer his Foothill credits to New York University's Polytechnic Institute, where he'll enroll this fall to study computer science.

Smirnov, who went through Addison Elementary School and Jordan Middle School, found himself bored and uninterested in his classes when he got to Paly four years ago. "They just didn't spark in me," he said.

As a sophomore he read an article in a Paly student publication about Middle College and decided to give it a try.

"At Foothill the sciences and math were just a lot more interesting and much more into detail and really a lot more challenging in terms of the ideas and concepts they introduced," Smirnov said.

"The labs were more like a real-world setting, more experience-based and thinking-based rather than at Paly, where you have to memorize this and memorize that, and just know what this or that is."

He also was able to take multivariable calculus during normal hours rather than at 7 a.m. at Paly, where it's offered as a "zero period" class through Canada College for students who have completed BC Calculus.

During his two years at Middle College Smirnov returned to Paly at least weekly to participate in the robotics team, where he's stayed in touch with friends. He also continued playing percussion with the El Camino Youth Symphony, with whom he'll tour this summer to Prague, Salzburg, Budapest and Bratislava.

Among the 50 or 60 other students in his Middle College cohort he met other kids from Paly and Gunn as well as students from Los Altos and Mountain View.

As a Middle College student, Smirnov won't officially graduate until he completes Foothill's spring quarter later in June.

He said he'll most miss his Foothill professors and friends and Foothill's campus, including the new science center.

Asked what he'll miss the least, Smirnov barely hesitates: "Paly," he said. Except for his friends and the robotics team, "I'll definitely not miss that place at all."

Nitika Johri: Breaking the stereotype of a high school

A devastating string of student suicides in 2009 and 2010 has made Gunn a different kind of high school, said Nitika Johri, who graduated Wednesday.

"Our school has gone through a lot together, and therefore we approach situations in certain ways and try to create a community that breaks the stereotype of a high school community," said Johri, a volleyball player and yearbook editor, senior class president and co-president of Youth Community Service.

"My class wasn't there for the majority (of the suicides) — it didn't affect us personally as much — but I think it affects the community and makes us more aware and more kind."

Teachers and staff, she said, "go out of their way to make students feel at home. Instead of being kind of exclusive, everyone is brought together, and there aren't that many separate friend groups that can't talk to each other."

It's that sense of community that Johri said she'll miss the most when she heads to the University of Southern California this fall with a plan to major in psychology with an eye toward a business career.

She'll spend the summer traveling and reading things she just didn't have time for during the academic year.

"I definitely felt the academic stress because I took a lot of AP classes and was involved in a lot of activities — but I kind of accepted it, to be honest," Johri said.

"I thought, 'This is what I want to do to get where I want to go.' It's very hard and tedious at times, but I think it turned out for the better, and I think there are a lot of people who can attest to that."

The stress comes from "having such a high-achieving and successful community," she said.

"Because we have parents like that backing their kids, it kind of fosters that mentality among the kids" in spite of the school's many programs to offer support and relief.

She cited several teachers at Gunn who "do an incredible job of reaching out to students and opening the class to different opinions."

Johri thrived at Gunn by choosing activities and classes that she loved, and she advises others to do the same.

"Happiness has been my key motivator through high school," she said. "I took classes or got involved in activities that I loved doing.

"Of course there are periods where I'm very stressed and things seem like they're never going to work out, but I always keep doing what makes me happy, and it has worked out for the better."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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