Shawna Chen: The journalist


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.


Sitting in a room full of concerned Palo Alto adults who had gathered to learn from a Columbia University expert about teenage suicide in September, Gunn High School senior Shawna Chen raised her hand.

Chen, editor-in-chief of Gunn student newspaper The Oracle, asked the nationally renowned youth-suicide researcher how her paper could play a role in effecting positive change on mental health in Palo Alto.

Madelyn Gould, who has researched the effects, both negative and positive, that news stories can have on suicide contagion, encouraged Chen to find ways to write and publicize stories that highlight positivity and recovery from mental illness. These kinds of articles have actually brought suicide rates down, Gould said.

Chen took this to heart. With Oracle teacher-adviser Kristy Blackburn, Chen pitched an idea to seniors on staff -- who, like her, had been deeply affected by the deaths by suicide of several students the year before: "What if we are able to put out more of these stories that can encourage being vulnerable with each other?"

Within a month, The Oracle launched its "Changing the Narrative" series, which throughout the year would publish a range of deeply personal stories written by Gunn students, teachers and staff members. An Oracle editor penned the inaugural story, "Choosing all in: senior Lisa Hao's journey of recovery," about her own struggle with depression and suicidal ideation, which she eventually overcame.

The response was immediate. Students reposted the story online, thanking Hao for sharing her story and saying they had often felt the same way. It quickly became one of The Oracle's most-viewed stories and has 10,000 views, according to Chen. The series got attention in the local media.

By November, The Oracle received enough submissions for the biweekly series to last through February, Chen said. Other stories explored divorce, sexual assault, sexual orientation, cancer, self-awareness and asking for help.

Chen and her staff worked closely with Blackburn and Gunn's mental health coordinator on each essay, wanting to be mindful, sensitive and "to make sure that stories would focus more on the recovery than the trauma," Chen said. The series only ran online, so someone who might not want to read the sometimes-raw narratives wouldn't be faced with it in the print edition of The Oracle. The staff also timed stories to maximize their impact, such as posting one student's story about perfectionism just before finals week, Chen said.

In January, Chen herself wrote about overcoming insecurities and her process of finding self-confidence.

"What I can change is how I choose to see myself," she wrote. "I can choose to pick myself apart, to disparage the way I look or what embarrassing thing I do, but I can also choose the more healthy option: to love myself wholly and completely despite those minute details and to define myself by my good."

"Changing the Narrative" -- and more broadly, her experience at The Oracle -- was transformative for Chen, who calls journalism her "big passion in life."

Chen has been writing creatively since she was young (including short stories and fantasy stories about her "secret spy life") and always enjoyed essay writing in school. Her freshman year, she took beginning journalism and started at The Oracle as a reporter. She progressed to editor of the opinion section her junior year and editor-in-chief her senior year.

One of the most memorable stories she covered, she said, was a protest that a group of parents of special education students held outside of Gunn in fall 2013. The story was challenging: Chen had to balance the passion of parent protesters against "tight-lipped" district administrators who wouldn't provide much information about their complaints. But it was also a turning point for Chen.

She realized that journalism can effect change, and throughout her time at The Oracle she has been drawn to serious, hard-hitting stories. Recently, she wrote about a DNA privacy lawsuit filed against the school district, an in-depth piece on cheating on campus and the stark socioeconomic divides in the Palo Alto area. In an opinion piece, she tackled Asian stereotypes in the media with an analysis of new TV series "Fresh Off the Boat."

"She's very much embraced being a journalist," Blackburn said of Chen. "She really wants to help make a positive difference in the word."

And though Chen is leaving The Oracle, her work will continue. The newspaper has created an editor position to oversee "Changing the Narrative" next year.

This fall, Chen is headed to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where she plans to explore a potential major in psychology as well as pursue more newsroom experience.

In a farewell letter Chen wrote on May 30, she described The Oracle as "my home, my family and one of the biggest sources of strength I'll ever find."

"I can't thank my staff enough for coming with me on this wild journey," she wrote. "They trusted me when I led them on new projects with big risks. They showed me unconditional support when I made mistakes. They reminded me every day why I love what I do and why I want to pursue journalism."

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