Austin Traver has wise words for his freshman-year self: Validation comes from within.
The Gunn High School senior learned that the hard way, spending much of high school pursuing efforts in and out of the classroom that he said he hoped would give him the validation and acknowledgment he sought from those around him. He took more Advanced Placement classes than he could handle, played on the varsity water polo team, participated in theater and joined a range of student clubs from speech and debate and Model United Nations to hip hop. This intensified first semester of his senior year, when there were more standardized tests to take and college applications to fill out.
"I had a really tough workload, and a lot was starting to fill up on my plate at once," he said. "I really choked under all of the pressure. ... I got so caught up in trying to be a part of 'it.'"
Traver decided to take a portion of his classes at the school district's Middle College program, which is housed at Foothill College and is offered to juniors and seniors for whom the structure of Paly or Gunn is not working.
"It's so tempting to just have that gluttony of, 'I want to do all these accomplishments, and this is going to be my status quo -- this is going to be what defines me.' And then all of a sudden you've completely committed to this ridiculous set of self-expectations."
He found a more forgiving pace at Middle College, and though he was accepted to the University of Southern California for next year, will be deferring for a year to live at home, take some of USC's general-education course requirements at Foothill and work as a lifeguard at a local pool. He plans to major in computer science and business administration once he gets to USC.
"It really just allows me to pursue a life that I'm going to enjoy instead of this rat race that I am so sick of," he said of deferring for a year. "I'm actually, for once, dancing to the beat of my own drum. Even if it's a very similar path, I'm certainly walking at my own pace and that's what I think really defines it."
Traver -- eloquent, thoughtful and forthcoming with a frequent smile -- actually grew up in Portola Valley but transferred into the Palo Alto Unified School District in seventh grade. (His father lives in Palo Alto and wanted him to go to school in the district.) He remembers fondly his first day in Palo Alto, which he was nervous about and had been putting off. A classmate sitting next to him asked if he was new and proceeded to show Traver around the school, introduce him to all his friends and have him sit with them at lunch.
"That welcoming, supportive, everyone-gets-along atmosphere is something that I think is really true at Gunn and the Palo Alto school district as a whole that I didn't initially expect," he said.
As a freshman at Gunn, he described himself as slightly "socially inept." But joining some public-speaking clubs increased his confidence and helped him come into his own, he said. Even after a memorably bad speech, he remembered fellow club members still congratulating and encouraging him.
"It just completely changed who I was -- all the support, encouragement and mutual ambition," he said of his fellow club members.
The powerful impact others have had on him is not wasted on Traver. He said it took the "unilateral support" of friends, family and Gunn administrators to help him out of his first-semester. Part of this was realizing that the strongest validation must come from within, with the support of others, he said.
Last week, Traver saw a Gunn graduate who he knew through theater post something sad on Facebook. Traver didn't know him well but decided to text him to remind him of his self-worth.
"It completely turned around my morning," he said. "I was busy being upset in class ... and all of a sudden I'm making a difference in the smallest way possible. Anything can make an impact. Anyone can make an impact."
Editor's Note: Minor edits were made in this archived story to protect Traver's privacy.
If you could give one piece of advice to your freshman-year self, what would it be?
"Don't waste the amount of time that you're going to waste validating yourself or trying to get other people to validate ... what you mean and how much you matter. If I was going to give any advice it would be that validation actually comes from within." --Austin Traver