Most people think of college as students' first chance to really explore their passions and interests. But in the Palo Alto area, high school has increasingly become a space for those pursuits.
From a journalist who launched an impactful series on mental health to an actor so committed to a role he wore his hair in the style of his character to school, the six graduating seniors below were selected by the Palo Alto Weekly or recommended by their teachers as students who have found passion for a particular activity during their high school years.
Claire Goldberg will be spending next year not on a college campus but on a kibbutz in Israel, learning about Israeli society and Jewish history in a communal environment.
The Castilleja School senior has decided to take a gap year, deferring her acceptance to Vassar College in New York to devote herself to learning more about her Jewish roots and nurturing a growing interest in social justice and community activism.
Goldberg will live and work in Israel through a nine-month gap-year program offered by Habonim Dror, a progressive labor Zionist youth movement whose mission is "to build a personal bond and commitment between North American Jewish youth and the State of Israel" and "to create Jewish leaders who will actualize the principles of social justice, equality, peace and coexistence in Israel and North America," the organization's website states.
The program is divided into four segments, during which students learn Hebrew, are responsible for communal work, attend seminars, volunteer in local schools and after-school programs, and travel to Poland to learn about the Holocaust and resistance movement, among other activities and responsibilities.
Following their time in Israel, program participants are expected to work as counselors at Habonim Dror summer camps in the United States to share their experience with younger campers. Upon their return home, most participants "become active on university and college campuses in social, political, and educational activities connected to Israel, Judaism and social justice," the organization's website notes.
Goldberg hopes this will be her at some point down the line. Since sixth grade, she has attended a summer camp run by Habonim Dror in southern California. In an interview, she described her summers there as "transformative." While it has the trappings of a typical youth summer camp -- it's on a lake; campers swim, hike, play games and create music -- it's also set up in the spirit of a kibbutz. Campers live in a cooperative environment and are similarly expected to contribute via jobs, like watering and tending a garden -- Goldberg's responsibility one summer. There's also the emphasis on social justice, history and what Goldberg described as "informal education."
"Growing up, that meant having long conversations with my peers on topics ranging from feminism to racism to capitalism," she said. "I think the strong feeling of inclusivity and safety in those conversations helped me learn to express my opinions and to think critically.
"I think that informal education has not only shaped my passion for social justice, but it's also helped me to believe in my peers (and the power of youth in general) and the importance of community in effecting change," she added.
Goldberg, a Ladera resident who has attended Castilleja since middle school, said her developing social-justice lens has made many of her classes -- literature of rebellion, Russian history, AP U.S. history, among others -- more meaningful.
The literature of rebellion in particular, she said, "blew my mind."
"Reading about various forms of rebellion has made me think about what I want to rebel against and what it means to rebel effectively and positively, not just negatively," she said.
When asked to describe high school in one word, she said "full." She chose it, she said, "partly because I think it challenges perceptions of high schoolers as disengaged or only focused on one thing, whatever that might be.
"For me, high school has been full of so much -- of challenges and choices, of the new and the old, of classes and learning and friends. High school for me has been about starting to find what I care about, and don't care about, in this mess of fullness."
That process will surely continue for her in Israel -- and also when she arrives at Vassar, where she's weighing four different majors: urban studies, history, education studies and/or American studies.