Back to school: Student profiles

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.

Sonya Kohli

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.

Joe Rohman

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.

Chloe Blanchard

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."

Eddie Zhou

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."

Nitika Johri

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."

Rollin Lau

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."

Related stories:

School district opens doors on new year

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Like this comment
Posted by School buses? You must have REALLY looked to find those.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 26, 2011 at 12:58 pm

WHERE did all the pictures of school buses come from? Busing is not available to the majority of PAUSD students. Free bus service for most students was eliminated due to Prop 13-related budget cuts ages ago. VERY limited bus service is available to kids with disabilities who are federally mandated for it, some students coming from outside the district, and a small number of students who commute from Los Altos Hills who PAY for school bus service. (Though they get this service at cost, it is quite expensive.)

Most of our intrepid PAUSD students (even the littlest ones) commute by bike or on foot,and carpool. Some older students ride the VTA bus or City of Palo Alto Shuttle. Some are driven solo in family cars, though the majority of families try not to be wasteful with carbon fuels and they enjoy sharing their school commute with friends using alternatives to solo driving.

Please share the road safely with the THOUSANDS of PAUSD children who walk and bike to school each school day. Busing is not an option for them, and just think how congested our roads would be if all those families were using cars. School has started. Please encourage families to walk and bike to school by watching out for them and driving safely.

PA Weekly--next time, please depict in your photos modes of transportation that are representative of what MOST PAUSD kids actually use-bikes and FOOT POWER. For most of us, buses are not an option. Go, PAUSD kids! Your commitment to foot-powered commutes is an inspiration to the rest of us...and good for our planet.

Like this comment
Posted by Secret Admirer
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 26, 2011 at 7:31 pm

Wow, that Eddie sounds like a real superstar!

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Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 26, 2011 at 7:54 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 26, 2011 at 7:58 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by anon
a resident of another community
on Aug 26, 2011 at 9:12 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Get over it
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 26, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Wow, so often we don't hear about the amazing students in our community until something tragic happens. These students are amazing and the focus is on the photos? Um the girl's dress is longer than the other girl's shorts but who cares? And there are plenty of PAUSD buses, often used for transporting sports teams but I am sure they must use them for other things. Geesh. Congrats to these awesome students!

Like this comment
Posted by actually...
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 26, 2011 at 11:15 pm

That's more clothing than what I've seen on a lot of Gunn and Paly students over the past year on campus. Why isn't the dress code enforced? Is there a dress code?

Like this comment
Posted by Well...
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 26, 2011 at 11:22 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Come on
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 27, 2011 at 8:29 am

Its worth pointing out that the kids who are pictured and their families read this forum and probably were pretty tickled to be featured in the paper. So before you caustically comment on some teenagers clothes, maybe think about how your teen or you as a teen would feel to have your picture in the paper called like that.

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 27, 2011 at 8:56 am

Just wondering where the Weekly got the names of these students, who suggested them for the article? Are they truly representative of our student body because they sound wonderful, perhaps a little too wonderful?

Where are the students who spent the summer working at local businesses, babysat, went to the beach, learned to drive, stayed in bed til noon, and behaved like normal teenagers? Don't we have any teens like that anymore? I definitely know some.

PS. These kids were not dressed for school, they were dressed for a photo shoot. The school bus picture was obviously posed as buses do not run with only one child riding. School buses are a common symbol of school even if the average PAUSD student rarely if ever rides one.

Like this comment
Posted by right?
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 27, 2011 at 9:01 am

If someone is bragging too much,then any good wishes will quickly disappear if there is any in the beginning.

1 person likes this
Posted by It's ok
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 27, 2011 at 9:17 am

Who was bragging too much? It seems that the point of this whole article is to get kids to brag about themselves.

Like this comment
Posted by LN
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 27, 2011 at 9:53 am

What a bunch of mean-spirited comments! Buses are used by many students in PAUSD, and they are found in the corp yard by Paly. The students weren't bragging - they were interviewed by the Weekly and told their own stories. They were dressed appropriately for what they were doing, and the pictures were great.

Please remember, PAUSD is a unified school district and these students are representative of the diversity of achievement, clothing, and means of getting to school. If you have issues with those things, take them up in another thread. These students don't need to be attacked.

To these young people, thank you for sharing, and have a great year!

Like this comment
Posted by really
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 27, 2011 at 10:57 am

personally attacking some of the students above is just disrespectful and heartless. You have to remember that these kids are probably reading this thread and seeing all the hurtful comments. You adults are attacking these 17 year olds and its just immature. grow up a little

Like this comment
Posted by look for the good in life
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 27, 2011 at 11:11 am

Boy we ask a lot from our kids these day. They have to go to school, get their homework done, get astronomical grades, score extremely high on their standardized tests and that's not enough. Then they have to have extra-curricular activities such as sports, music or drama that wants 3 hours a day of their time and then that's not enough. They also have to do community service but not just any community service but to help build a house in Mexico. We ask lots from our kids and they deliver.

So an good article comes out about how hard and how busy these kids are and we denounce them and the background vehicles in the photo and their dress. In my day, dresses were much shorter with no bras and we didn't add a very nice sweater to the outfit but had flaming red hair to boot. The girl probably saves her best dress for very special occasions like having her picture in the Palo Alto Weekly.

@Bus go too deep. Don't lose site of the forest for the trees. Not everything is about commuting the proper ways. The author/photographer was simply using the bus icon as a clever means of setting the environment about 'back to school' this week which is what the article was about. Who cares really how the kids get to school. The important thing is that they are going to school and they are working extremely hard (probably just to please us). And the bus is an awesome way to get to school even if our buses are not school bus yellow. Lighten up some ok!

Any kid who just laid down and watched the clouds drift by this summer is ok with me. Oh yeah we're in Palo Alto that might not have happened.

Like this comment
Posted by SomebodysMom
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 27, 2011 at 3:18 pm

I think the teen in the photo looks great! Are you all so old that you cannot remember dressing up for the first day of school? (Perhaps in your minds she should be wearing a poodle skirt and bobby socks? - sorry just a dig back at 'ya)

Times and fashions change. It is exciting for teens to be able to choose their own styles and wear the latest trends. I could not wear that cute dress but I have fond memories of the days when I could. Even the very staid world of classical music has taken a bow to the changing winds of fashion. Check out this article: Web Link

Besides, I am entirely impressed with what I READ about this intelligent, creative, and compassionate young lady. I think she will have great success in pursuing a career in aerospace and government and will do it all with style!

Good luck to all these impressive young people and I wish them much success this school year and beyond.

Like this comment
Posted by It's ok
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 27, 2011 at 4:25 pm

We are all impressed with what these teens sound like on paper, but dare to venture a guess how most of them actually are in real life?

1 person likes this
Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 27, 2011 at 5:18 pm

"We are all impressed with what these teens sound like on paper, but dare to venture a guess how most of them actually are in real life?"

Most of them will be average people, just like you. And that is just fine.

Like this comment
Posted by It's ok
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 27, 2011 at 6:36 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

1 person likes this
Posted by A Mom young at heart
a resident of another community
on Aug 27, 2011 at 10:34 pm

p.s. these lovely youths are our future we should shower them with unconditional love! <3

1 person likes this
Posted by gunn parent
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 27, 2011 at 10:35 pm

To the person who complains about this group of teens not representative? You mean the paper has to include someone you know, or your kid, to make it more representative? I see it has pretty good coverage, some of them focused more on community service, others excelled in academic, and then you have the kid who loves carpentering? Do there have to include someone who lay on the grass, stair at the sky for half a day?

1 person likes this
Posted by Well...
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 27, 2011 at 11:59 pm

I wish the Weekly and PaloAltoOnline stopped writing and publishing such articles about a few chosen Palo Alto high school kids who are all exceptional in one way or another... This is just the kind of thing who makes just about everybody else (and their parents) feel bad and inadequate. Please, stop running these kinds of articles and focus on what schools do to teach our kids and also to let them know it's OK to have a life other than running around trying to please one's parents and going to Ivy League Universities at all costs.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 28, 2011 at 10:22 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Marielena
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 28, 2011 at 12:55 pm

I am so glad to hear about these young adults, but specially Miss Blanchard. She is really someone to admire. My message to all students is to take time to relax and enjoy life. Feel free to ask for help if you are having academic or emotional issues. We, the community and your parents will always love you no matter what. Stay safe. Blessings and Have a wonderful school year.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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