Back to school
Six Palo Alto teens reflect on the excitement, stresses of new academic year
After summers spent in activities ranging from "just hanging out" to sports camps to sleep-away camps to scooping ice cream to lab internships to world travel to service projects, more than 12,000 Palo Alto public school students returned to school this week. The Weekly caught up with six high school students to capture their feelings about the coming academic year.
Fun, fulfillment of service
Paly senior Sonya Kohli looks forward to getting "back into the rhythm and structure of school" after a relaxing summer of hanging out and weekly volunteering at the Stanford Blood Bank.
She's most excited about "senior-year classes, because they're the most interesting — especially AP psychology."
And the least exciting prospect for senior year?
"All the stress — college applications, SATs, the workload. I haven't dealt with that well, but I'm learning. I generally know what to expect, and what it's like."
Kohli says people tell her Paly and Gunn are more stressful than most schools. She doesn't know why but speculates it has something to do with the looming presence of Stanford University.
Outside of classes, Kohli's biggest plans for the fall involve Paly's Youth Community Service/Rotary Interact Club, which she's co-chairing.
Since many of the members graduated in June, "We're trying to build it up again so it stays at Paly — trying to get underclassmen more involved so it carries on."
Matching Paly volunteers with community events, YCS/Interact has offered her some interesting experiences, such as helping out at a Peace Corps 50th anniversary event at a beautiful home in Atherton.
"We helped set up, and I helped guide people into the house because it was a winding driveway. That was really fun, and I met a lot of really nice people," Kohli said.
YCS/Interact volunteers also help staff the Palo Alto Weekly Moonlight Run, coming up the evening of Friday, Sept. 9. Last year's event drew nearly 4,000 participants to run or walk a 5K course in the Baylands.
Kohli has been a year-round volunteer for the past three years at the blood center, where she staffs the canteen on Thursday evenings, feeding cookies and juice to people who have just donated blood.
"For me personally, I just really like doing service because it makes me feel good that I'm helping people and it's just really fun," she said.
A passion for woodworking
Joe Rohman spent his last week of vacation trying to finish building two longboards in his garage workshop so he could be ready to focus on classes by the start of school.
The Gunn senior has new academic goals for the fall: "I'm finally not going to put everything off until the last minute," he said. "I'll start things earlier, do things as they come."
Rohman says that's been difficult for him until now, but he's resolved to change.
Outside of school, Rohman's passion is woodworking, which he has loved since childhood when he used to sit in a swing in his father's workshop and watch him at work.
"If we need something around the house, my dad and I will just go out and build it," said Rohman, whose projects have included a shoe rack, a desk, a table and various wood sculptures.
He's also crafted nearly 20 longboards (a kind of skateboard) for friends and others.
But so far, it's just a hobby.
"My dad's always told me that once you go from woodworking as a hobby to woodworking as a job, you'll start to hate it. So keep it as a hobby and have another job."
The skills also come in handy for school projects, such as class float-building during Gunn's homecoming week, which Rohman has participated in since his freshman year.
"It's interesting to see how many people get really good grades but are complete airheads when it comes to something like that," he said.
Though he suffers from test anxiety, Rohman says he enjoys school and looks forward to his senior-year classes, especially AP psychology and economics.
In Gunn's high-powered academic atmosphere, one way he's learned to deal with the stress is to avoid comparing himself with others.
After a summer of building longboards, reading, relaxing and hanging out with friends, he most looks forward to "getting more productive" in going back to school.
Asked what he least looks forward to, Rohman was momentarily at a loss and said he couldn't think of anything, before coming up with a single answer: college applications.
Different paths to success
With summer internships at Lockheed-Martin and NASA and a long list of school commitments, Chloe Blanchard is a whirlwind of activity.
Through it all, the Gunn senior also squeezes in several hours a day of dance — a passion since third grade, says the veteran of many Nutcrackers.
High on Blanchard's list of activities is community service — she's been involved with the school's Youth Community Service Club since her freshman year.
"Here in Palo Alto we're often so absorbed in our own lives that we don't take the chance to go out into a different community and see that things aren't as great as they are here," she said.
"I was able to go places and see that even though I'm just a kid, I can make a difference just like anyone else."
It was near the end of Blanchard's freshman year at Gunn that her older brother, Jean Paul, died by suicide, a loss she feels every day. She also has a younger sister, Isabelle, a Gunn freshman and fellow dancer.
In a video posted to YouTube, Blanchard said she thinks people treat her differently, "more carefully," after what happened because they are afraid of suicide and don't understand it — she doesn't understand it herself.
But it's something that can happen to anyone, she stresses.
"It's important to be there for your friends, recognize when they're unhappy and don't shun them. Our society needs to be more welcoming and listening as a whole."
When she and her family remember Jean Paul now, "It's always in a good light," she said.
Blanchard's latest project is trying to make students aware of the need for disaster preparedness. She's working with other volunteers to spread the word about Palo Alto's second annual "Quakeville" coming up Sept. 10-11, in which residents will camp out in two Palo Alto parks to simulate life after a disaster.
A partial list of Blanchard's other school commitments includes the French Club — her father is French and she's studied the language since fourth grade — speech and debate, Model United Nations and the National Honor Society.
She hopes to study aerospace engineering in college but also has a strong interest in government.
"Right now it's the highest goal of mine to go into space," she said. "I don't know if we're going to have that many people going into space, but if it's a possibility then I'd definitely love to."
What she most looks forward to about senior year is the bonding with classmates that results from spending all of high school together — as well as the chance to "help out people below us because everyone will look up to us, and we can influence them in a positive way."
What she least looks forward to is the stress: "I have a hard time saying no to things and will just have to balance everything out."
Blanchard's stress-busting tips are to stay on top of work and keep things in perspective.
"It doesn't matter what college you go to, but what you do there," she said. "At Gunn, we put way too much emphasis on grades and what college you go to, but you can really find happiness in so many different ways, and everyone's success is different."
Seeing an upside to college applications
Senior Eddie Zhou says he's "not a big dancer," but dancing in the elaborate competitive, choreographies known as "airbands" — a highlight of Gunn's homecoming week — has been one of his favorite activities since his freshman year.
"People say, 'Why do I want to go out there and dance in front of everybody — isn't that kind of weird?' But then they find out it's all about competitive class spirit and it's a really good time.
"It's not technically difficult — it's all about the effect of a big crowd doing coordinated things."
While homecoming week represents some of Zhou's best times at Gunn, it's hardly the most important.
He's played Gunn basketball throughout high school and organized service projects, including a 24-hour walkathon at Stanford in which Gunn's 90 participants raised $10,000 for the American Cancer Society — "It was like a big sleepover for a good cause," he said.
He's passed out of all the math classes Gunn has to offer and will go to Stanford to take multivariable calculus this fall. He worked on two projects — synthesizing the superconducting supermaterial graphene and harvesting wind with the electric-potential material piezoelectric — in a summer internship at NASA Ames.
"It was really great to see engineers and scientists — people I want to be like — in their element," he said. "It was amazing being around so many gifted, intelligent people."
Last week, Zhou was recording piano pieces — he's played for 12 years — to submit to colleges for the arts supplement, though he sees himself professionally as a scientist, not a musician.
"It might sound kind of weird, but I'm kind of looking forward to more college applications because it's a great opportunity to figure out some things about yourself. When you have to write about yourself, it forces you to do some soul-searching to figure out who you are and what you want to do," he said.
Learning how to prioritize tasks and manage time is the best way to manage academic stress, Zhou said.
"It sounds obvious — don't procrastinate — but it's really tough to do."
To any student new to Gunn, Zhou's advice would be: "Get involved early, with your class, your school and with your community."
The paradox of 'busy-ness'
What Nitika Johri most looks forward to about going back to school is being busy.
What she least looks forward to is — being busy.
"I know it's kind of contradictory," said the Gunn junior.
The "good" busy is the "one-thing-after-another schedule that just keeps me kind of going" and energized, she said.
The "bad" busy is "the pressure — the feeling that, 'Oh, I have to finish this by now.'
"I get really tired because it's a busy schedule, which I enjoy, but then you just have to have free time to relax and spend with your friends."
Johri recently returned from five weeks in India, where her parents grew up. She visited relatives and spent two weeks working in a school for slum children in Pune.
"They're from really poor families so the school is trying to empower them and educate them and help them get out into the world. They all speak English fluently, unlike their parents," she said.
Johri was born at Stanford and her first language is English, but she learned Hindi as a child and sometimes speaks it with her family.
At Gunn, her great escape is volleyball, which she plays for the Titans and — outside of the school season — for a club team.
"I could not live without volleyball. It's just so much fun to go after school, with your friends and do something completely different from school — you don't even need to think about academics," she said.
"It really helps me keep a balanced life."
Volleyball is also her secret weapon against academic stress, she theorizes.
"It makes my time more precious, so that when I get home at 8 I need to get to work and go through my homework really quickly," she said.
"It actually doesn't stress me out because it makes me get stuff done and be more productive."
Johri's other advice for stress-busting is "time management."
"If you have two weeks for an assignment, spread it out over two weeks. When I put myself to it, I can do that."
Appreciating the options
Senior Rollin Lau most looks forward to "the Paly atmosphere and the people" in the coming school year.
"I miss the people I don't see outside of school," he said.
He's also excited about his classes, especially Chinese, which he began freshman year.
Last week, Lau was occupied with helping to welcome new students to Paly through Link Crew, a program he remembers since his own freshman year.
Freshmen are assigned in groups of 12 to 15 to upperclassmen Link Crew leaders, who show them around campus and meet informally through the year.
"It's kind of like your focus group — if they need anything, we just help them out," Lau explained.
"We have activities to help them bond, and we also lead tours for kids who come to Paly new throughout the year."
Asked what he least looks forward to about returning the school, Lau's answer is: homework.
"It's just really time-consuming, and sometimes I'm up late," he said.
But Lau is also a swimmer, and the necessity to show up for practice before dawn does enforce a certain discipline.
"I just focus and get it done because I have swim practice in the morning, like at 5 (at Stanford)," he said.
Practice goes until 6:30 a.m., allowing Lau a bit of time to go home to eat breakfast before heading to school. After school, he stops by home again for a quick snack before jumping into the pool — this time Rinconada — at 4 p.m.
Lau began swimming with Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics when he was in third grade at Walter Hays. During the school season, he swims for the Paly team.
Lau also squeezes in some time each day on the piano.
"My mom always had me practice the piano since I was 6, so I still practice and I have weekly lessons," he said.
Besides Chinese, Lau is looking forward to taking Introduction to Java this year.
"I really like Paly because there are so many options. Talking to friends from other schools, they don't have certain classes that we have and they wish they did — statistics, or certain sciences, or marine biology, which is a new class we have this year.
"It's nice to have all those options."
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at email@example.com.