Graduation 2012: Looking ahead, with a glance back

Six new high school graduates ponder their worlds

Nearly 1,000 students graduated from Palo Alto's public high schools this week.

Ceremonies Wednesday at Gunn High School celebrated 491 graduates. Similar festivities at Palo Alto High School honored 471.

And Tuesday, more than 10 students at the Hospital School, run by the Palo Alto Unified School District at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, traded hospital gowns for graduation gowns to receive their high school diplomas. Among them was Gunn senior William Wylie-Modro, who received a heart transplant May 4.

Wylie-Modro plans to take a gap year to recover from the surgery before pursuing studies in aeronautical engineering at the University of California at San Diego.

In student profiles below, six randomly selected Palo Alto graduates reflect on the world they grew up in and what lies ahead.

Yilin Liang: 'Explore the options, and make time'

Yilin Liang spoke no English when, at age 6, she emigrated with her parents from Jinan, China, to Baltimore.

So it hardly fazed her to land in Palo Alto six years later to begin seventh grade at Terman Middle School.

"I'd gotten used to making friends," Liang said in her long-since-perfected American English.

"I like to talk to people. I guess I just have a more outgoing personality.

"I just remember that the academics in Palo Alto were a lot more difficult than the school I was in before."

Liang's passions at Gunn High School have been Model United Nations and French Club. She also plays cello in the school orchestra and has been an editor and writer for the school newspaper, The Oracle.

A highlight was a Model UN trip to Washington, D.C., this year, where Liang participated in a historical simulation as a delegate to the Weimar Republic assembly on post-World War I reconstruction.

The Model UN-ers toured the Capitol, listened in on the House of Representatives and met with interns in the office of Congresswoman Anna Eshoo.

"These were people who were in college or recently out of college. I'm going to be there next, and it was really interesting to hear them talk about their work," Liang said.

An enthusiastic student of French since middle school, Liang has made crepes and helped with the French Waiter Relay Race for Gunn's French Club but has yet to travel to France.

This summer, for the first time since eighth grade, she'll go back to China -- Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, and a visit to her grandparents in Jinan -- along with her parents and Gunn classmate Delia Gratta.

"I don't know that much Mandarin in terms of reading and writing, and Delia doesn't know any either, so I don't know if we could survive without my parents," said Liang, who speaks Mandarin at home but stopped going to Saturday Chinese school years ago.

This fall, she'll enroll at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she's contemplating a major in biology or possibly neuroscience.

What Liang will most miss about Gunn are the people.

"Everyone here is really accepting, and I've gotten to know them really well over four years."

She'll least miss "the campus itself -- it's not the most artistically appealing."

For a newcomer, she'd advise: "Explore the options outside of academics. Do what you like in terms of extracurriculars -- don't just do it to put it on your college resume."

And dealing with academic stress? "Make time to do other things, hang out with friends.

"I took Friday nights off, usually," she said, "but I definitely worked hard on Saturdays."

Benjamin Macias: 'We are the future'

College football and, later, the U.S. Marine Corps are in the post-graduation plans of Palo Alto High School senior Benjamin Macias.

Macias, who said his mother moved him here because of Palo Alto's reputation for good schools, arrived in time for sixth grade at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School.

Football -- first through Pop Warner and later through Paly -- has been one of his major passions since then.

Despite four knee surgeries, he's determined to keep on playing -- this fall for West Valley College in Saratoga, which he chose over Foothill College because of friends in the football program there.

Macias' most recent knee surgery -- on his left ACL -- was just a month ago, but he's already back on his feet and beginning a job at Jamba Juice.

"My surgeon's very aggressive with his recovery," Macias explained. "He's a team surgeon for the Raiders and the Sharks, and those guys like to get up and get going."

Frustratingly, the injuries kept Macias sidelined his junior year, when Paly won the state championship.

"But I was on the sidelines for every game and at every practice. I just couldn't play," he said.

"It was really hard, but it was still fun."

What Macias will miss the most about Paly are football games and Spirit Week.

What he'll miss the least? "Finals, probably."

From West Valley Macias plans to transfer to a four-year school and, following graduation, join the Marines, with hopes of becoming an officer.

That plan, which he's been considering for several years, solidified after conversations with a Marine who has served in Africa, Thailand and Afghanistan.

"He said it was a good experience and, overall, changed him a lot for the better," Macias said.

Macias expects his life will be "very different" from the lives of his parents.

"My mom had me at 17, so there's a difference right there because I'm 18 and am not going to have a kid for a long time," he said.

"She's been trying to make sure I stay on the right track and everything."

Macias also expects he will be "more lenient" than his father.

As for what distinguishes his generation from that of his parents, he answers: "I don't know, to be honest. But we are the future."

Isha Thapa: Connected around the world

Isha Thapa stumbled onto her first bridge class while a student at Terman Middle School, which offered an extracurricular bridge program.

She loved it.

That gave her father, Mukund Thapa, the perfect excuse to rekindle his own youthful love of the card game. Daughter and father play frequently in local tournaments and have traveled to Florida, Tennessee and Washington for others.

This summer, Isha Thapa -- who became a "life master" at bridge last year -- heads to Beijing to represent the United States in the World Youth Team Championships.

She's the second youngest of six who are going to China to represent the women's under-26 youth team. The youngest, her partner, is a 14-year-old girl from Texas.

She has yet to meet her teammates face to face, but they've spent plenty of time playing online. For Thapa, that means at least eight hours a week devoted to bridge.

Prior to Beijing, team members will gather at the North American Bridge Championship in Philadelphia to meet and practice in person.

Even before that, Thapa will travel with her parents to India and Sri Lanka for a wedding -- not neglecting daily, online practice with her bridge partner in Texas.

Outside the world of bridge, Thapa plays piano and sings alto in the Gunn Concert Choir, which recently returned from a competition in New York.

In August, she'll enroll at the University of California, Berkeley, where she's not yet sure of a major but "probably something in the math-science direction."

Thapa, who's lived her entire life in Palo Alto, will most miss her friends and the "close-knit community" at Gunn.

She'll least miss having to get up early in the morning.

As for her generation, she said: "I think we see the world differently because of social networking.

"Everything suddenly becomes a lot more personal. You can get constant updates on people's lives without even talking to them."

Peter Rockhold: Building on opportunities

During childhood visits to his grandfather, a retired naval officer in San Diego, Peter Rockhold loved seeing the aircraft carriers docked at Naval Base Coronado and watching the F/A-18 fighter jets buzzing around.

When it came time to apply to college, those memories prompted him to go on the Internet and figure out how to apply to the U.S. Naval Academy.

He competed through the review process to win a nomination from U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo and, finally, admission to the academy.

Later this month, Rockhold heads to Annapolis to take his induction oath and begin his "plebe" year on June 26.

"I expect a lot of running and a lot of humidity," he said. "Lots of push-ups, lots of detailers yelling at you -- and not a lot of sleep."

A member of Paly's water polo and swim teams for all four years -- he co-captained varsity water polo this year -- Rockhold expects to play water polo for Navy.

Right now he's trying to prepare for the rigors of plebe life by running as much as possible.

"I'm an aquatic athlete so don't really thrive outside the water, so I'm trying to run as much as I can because I know that's my main weakness right now," he said.

Besides sports, Rockhold plays trombone with the Paly band, an instrument he picked up in fifth-grade music class at Duveneck Elementary School.

And after taking Paly's auto-shop class for the past two years, he spends time tinkering with the red '63 Ford F100 pick-up truck that was a 16th-birthday gift from his parents.

What Rockhold says he'll miss the most about Paly are his friends, and "the winters."

He draws a blank when asked what he'll miss the least.

"I loved growing up here, and I can't think of anything I'd really change about Palo Alto, especially Paly," he said.

Nonetheless, he does not expect his life to be much like those of his parents.

For one thing, he aspires to become a Navy pilot, a career that entails a lengthy commitment to military service and one he envisions will be nothing like his parents' work in graphic design and finance.

As for what distinguishes his generation, Rockhold thinks he and his cohort have received more help than those in the past.

"I think my parents' generation had to do a lot more for themselves when they were young," he said. "I think our generation is getting a lot of extra help from everybody around them to make sure they succeed.

"We've been given a lot, and we need to have the drive to take advantage of all the opportunities."

Karen Camacho: A long journey, with help along the way

It's been a long journey from childhood in Jalisco, Mexico, to a spot in Stanford University's freshman class, and Gunn senior Karen Camacho credits many who have helped her along the way.

When she arrived in Palo Alto speaking no English as a 6-year-old kindergartner, a Hispanic teacher at Barron Park Elementary School eased the transition.

She settled with her family, including two older siblings, in the trailer park behind Jamba Juice on El Camino Real.

But in first grade, Camacho's mother recalls her coming home crying, "because I didn't understand the teacher, and the teacher didn't understand me."

Intervention from the principal, as well as participation in Palo Alto's English Language Learners Program, smoothed the way until, in fourth grade, "I was on the same level as everyone else," Camacho said.

At Terman, Camacho's participation in the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program, which aims to boost academic performance of underserved youth, helped her along. It was her AVID teacher who tipped her off to another program, the nonprofit Council of Goodness, that she hoped would help her get into a private high school.

Though she did not get accepted at Castilleja, as she'd hoped, Camacho said her participation in the Council of Goodness has dramatically changed her life.

"We do meditation, set our goals and talk about our highs and lows of the week," she said.

"We take vows that we will help others. Many people don't understand the importance of just giving free help, giving up a lot of time for the good feeling of being able to make that other person feel capable and better."

In Camacho's case, the regular service involves teaching mothers and children to read English every Saturday at Fair Oaks Elementary School in Redwood City.

At Gunn, she has chaired the Latino Student Union, organizing lunchtime sales of tostadas and pan dulce, creating a library altar for Dia de los Muertos, making presentations on Latino culture and organizing visits to nearby colleges.

She also has worked as a tutor and as a volunteer at the East Palo Alto Library.

Camacho said she'll most miss the teachers and counselors at Gunn.

"I've gotten to know many of them. They're pretty friendly and helpful, not just talking about school stuff but also personal things I share with them. They just helped a lot in guiding me."

She will least miss "the stress, definitely the stress.

"It's really hard to take a lot of advanced classes and manage your time. ... I've heard at Stanford it's not like that. Classes are only for a few hours so hopefully I'll have time to do more activities."

Camacho's courseload included AP French, AP Biology, AB Calculus, AP Economics, AP Psychology, AP Spanish and advanced English.

She expects her life to be "completely different" from those of her parents.

"My mom had a middle-school education, and my dad received a GED, so they were never able to help me with school work. That's why I searched for help here at Gunn," she said.

"I have a lot of friends from diverse groups, and I find myself comfortable in this community, so I think I'll be able to fit in at Stanford as well."

Max Najork: Shaping -- and being shaped by -- technology

When he was 7, Max Najork's father bought him a used computer to play around with -- "and I've kind of been hooked on technology ever since," the Paly senior said.

His passion for tech has kept him on Paly's robotics team all four years, the past two years as captain.

The team recently competed in St. Louis in the FIRST Robotics Championship, which draws the top 400 of the world's more than 4,000 robotics teams.

Using the computers and machine shop in Paly's robotics lab, the team designed and built a basketball-playing robot capable of driving to a wall with baskets at four different heights and shooting Nerf basketballs about half the size of real basketballs.

"At the end of every round, we drive the robot onto a seesaw and try to balance it for extra points," Najork said.

Najork's enthusiasm for technology also landed him a job with Lockheed Martin through Paly's Exploratory Experiences Program.

For the past year he's worked on a geostationary lightning-mapper project sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It involves a 500-frame-per-second satellite-mounted camera that monitors lightning activity as an early-warning system for tornadoes.

The goal is to dramatically increase the lead time and accuracy of current tornado-warning systems.

Najork hopes to continue working at Lockheed this summer, as well as take a western-states road trip with three Paly friends, before heading to the University of Michigan to pursue mechanical engineering or computer science.

He holds dual U.S. and German citizenship -- his German father and Jordanian mother met as students at the University of Illinois -- but eventually hopes to settle in his native Bay Area.

"I've learned through robotics that my passion is being given a problem that doesn't necessarily have a given solution, and then come up with creative and elegant solutions," he said.

"I like the open-ended environment here, with startups and software companies, where the biggest resources are the workers."

As he leaves Paly, Najork said he'll most miss his friends, many of whom are headed to colleges on the East Coast.

As for the academic stress, he said, he coped by compartmentalizing.

"I realized school isn't my entire life," he said.

"I worked hard and definitely studied a lot, but I didn't really let a bad test score get me down. School was school, and when I left that, I was with friends and just put it behind me."

The exponential rate at which technology is advancing guarantees that his life will be quite different from those of his parents, Najork said.

"What's in store for me and my generation in terms of technology and how people will live their lives and community with each other will vastly evolve. Every decade people will look back and say, 'Wow, I have no clue how we got here.'"


Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 10, 2012 at 1:46 am

Given all the rancor about "spoiled Palo Alto kids", too many APs, too much homework, to A-G or not to A-G, counseling, etc., it is such a pleasure to read about kids who represent our city proud. And apparently everything all of the adults are stressing over, arguing over, accusing each other over --- well it sure doesn't seem to be a problem when you look at the class of 2012.

They obviously did well academically given where they are all heading. But they also did things that so many adults on these forums say cannot be done, because school is too hard, too much homework and so on. Just a sampling: French club, choir, piano, band, sports, auto shop, ESL, robots, volunteering, tutoring.

Plus two of the featured kids plan to serve our country.

Perhaps all of the stressed out parents and adults can stop for a minute, take a breath and take in the view. Contrary to what all of the squeaky wheels are saying, our schools are actually turning out some great kids!

Like this comment
Posted by One more mom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 10, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Well said Crescent Park Dad. There many great kids in Palo Alto who do great things.

My view is that good parents tend to get good kids, and that more generally parents tend to get the kids they deserve.

Like this comment
Posted by Mary
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 11, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Karen Camacho is a credit to her race - the human race. Good luck & best wishes!

Like this comment
Posted by carol
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 11, 2012 at 8:42 pm

These stories are very inspiring. I want everyone I know to read the stories of these remarkable students
It makes me proud to be a part of this diverse creative community.

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

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