Every spring at Gunn High School, graduating seniors adhere to a tradition: posting college rejection letters on what has been dubbed the "wall of rejection" on the quad.
In 2008, Shounak Dharap's senior year, someone posted a fake rejection letter from Foothill College — a joke because no one gets rejected from the community college, and besides, he said, "Who would even go to Foothill?"
The perceived stigma of attending a community college stuck with him for years, as it has for many graduates of the Palo Alto Unified School District, where the vast majority of students go on to attend four-year colleges and universities and many alumni describe a deeply entrenched culture of competition and impossibly high standards.
After Dharap didn't get into any of the colleges he applied to, he decided to attend Santa Barbara City College for two years.
"It was a really rough two years for me going there just because (of) the shame of it all. Coming from Gunn, it was very hard to look people in the eyes that I went to school with and tell them I went to community college," he said in an interview with the Weekly. "It shouldn't be."
Dharap, now a lawyer in San Francisco, is among many Gunn and Paly alumni of all ages who have come to appreciate the more circuitous routes they took after high school. Together, their experiences tell the story of another Palo Alto: one that deviates, happily, from the cookie-cutter path that many high school students feel is expected of them after graduation.
The Weekly solicited these stories to coincide with graduation, with the goal of sharing real-life examples of Palo Altans who found success, happiness and purpose by making non-traditional choices after high school. The number of Palo Alto high school alumni who responded to a request the Weekly posted on Facebook indicates that these stories may be lesser known but are more prevalent than one would think.
Dharap enjoyed high school. He had fun, made a lot of friends and enjoyed "side projects" like video production and cooking. But school itself didn't click with him, he said. He floundered academically.
"It was sort of like high school was a marathon, and I'm really more of a swimmer," he said.
Despite this, he tried to keep up. He took all the classes his friends were taking but did poorly.
He applied to the same kind of colleges his friends did — no state or safety schools — and didn't get in anywhere.
He eventually decided to go to Santa Barbara City College first and then transfer to the University of Southern California, where he hoped to study film. He said it felt like everyone around him was moving forward on a separate, inaccessible track to Ivy Leagues and other top-tier schools.
"One of my friends was crushed he didn't get into Stanford, so he went to Berkeley," Dharap recalled. "Here I was with a completely different experience. It was hard."
Instead of ending up at USC, he transferred to the University of California, Santa Cruz. Still feeling disengaged from academics, he continued to get bad grades.
It wasn't until he figured out what he loved — law and the pursuit of justice — and decided to attend law school at the University of San Francisco that he began to achieve academically. Dharap got his first-ever streak of A's in law school.
Now a class-action and personal-injury attorney, Dharap hopes his path shows current students who struggle in school, "You may not be good at school now; it doesn't mean you won't be later." (Another Gunn alum, Nicole Naraji, summed it up: "You don't have to be a kick-ass student to have a kick-ass career.")
Dharap's experience also disrupted what he felt was instilled in him at Gunn: that there is only one key — good grades — to one door — college — to future success.
"That's what you're told: Your grades are your keys. You get through that door and you have a good job, good college, good life," he said. "But then you realize that there are actually a million different keys to open that door and there are a million different doors."
He said he sees failure as an "opportunity to succeed in a different way ... a time to self-correct and to shake things up."
Dharap feels so strongly about spreading this message that this year, he started attending Palo Alto Board of Education meetings to express his opposition to reporting weighted grade point averages (GPA) on student transcripts. In his eyes, the debate over weighted grades "perpetuates the idea that there is a single path to success."
In a guest opinion piece he penned for the Palo Alto Weekly in May, he reflected on what the debate would have meant to his high school self, who "slunk along" in the shadows of high-achieving friends, "shamefully clutching a 2.6 and hoping that nobody would notice."
"What of the 17-year-old me, who would have enthusiastically supported weighted GPA — to his detriment — because he wanted to be just as smart and capable as his peers?" he asked. "The 17-year-old me, to whom AP and honors classes were not 'academic risks' but simply what I was 'supposed' to do. That experience was not unique; it is a common story, untold except in the memories of countless students who have been pressured into conformity by a culture of academic exceptionalism."
Dharap is realistic: He knows that when people told him, as a Gunn student, that grades don't matter or that failure is a good thing, the message was nearly impossible to internalize. But he's hopeful that more and more stories like his help to break the mold of success in Palo Alto.
When Lia Economos was a student at Paly, she viewed attending Foothill College as "the ultimate failure."
The culture of high school revolved around the colleges that students were going to go to, she said.
"It felt like every year at Paly was leading up to how you ranked as a person, and that was determined by the college you went to," she said.
She was ecstatic to get into one of her top college choices — Hampshire College, which she said she was drawn to because it felt vastly different from Paly. (Even a private liberal arts college in Massachusetts felt like a departure from the norm, she said.) But once there, she struggled both academically and emotionally. She dropped out after a year.
After moving home, she reluctantly enrolled in classes at Foothill and De Anza College. She was surprised at the number of Paly alums she ran into there whom she considered smart and who had taken AP classes in high school.
She realized: "I am nowhere close to alone."
Her Foothill teachers were "fantastic" and she studied hard, getting straight A's until she transferred to the University of California, Berkeley in 2009 to major in Society and Environment. Today, she's working as a recruiter at Airbnb in San Francisco.
Economos said she's proud that she went to Foothill. She wishes she had gone there straight from Paly or taken a gap year instead of rushing into college. She urged current high school students to look at community college as a gateway to better things, whether that be a school that suits them well or new opportunities.
"This is a stepping stone for you to accomplish something that you think is not possible right now," she said she would tell current students.
She also urged teens to remember: If for some reason, college doesn't feel right at any point, leaving, taking time off or transferring is always an option — and there is no shame in doing so.
"Wherever you go to school after your first year, if you feel like this is not for you, that you get an inkling this is not working out, don't feel bad to drop out and try something else," Economos said. "You're not a failure for dropping out."
Palo Alto native Jeff Saunders' undergraduate career lasted for nine years and spanned four schools — a "circuitous route" that he said now considers invaluable experience.
As a Gunn student in the 1980s, he said he was not "particularly academically driven": He did well in classes he liked, and his attendance was "spotty at best" in those he didn't. He was most engaged in Gunn's theater program and spent much of his high school years in Spangenberg Theater producing shows.
In Saunders' senior year, he didn't apply to any four-year colleges. He said there was a pressure to do so at the time, but as a self-described outsider, he was "never one to give into that kind of social pressure."
After graduating in 1986, Saunders struck a deal with his parents: In exchange for living at home, he would take classes at Foothill so he could pursue theater on nights and weekends. He said that at the time there was less stigma attached to going to Foothill.
After several years, he became disillusioned with the theater world. Accounting and programming classes he had taken at Foothill spurred him to transfer to San Diego State University to study business information systems. There, he also dabbled in linguistics and Chinese classes. A year and a half later, he transferred to San Diego State's sister school, the University of New Hampshire, to spend a semester close to family on the East Coast.
The next years took him to Los Angeles, where he attended California State University, Long Beach. He finally graduated in 1995.
In Saunders' current IT management job at eBay, he mentors junior college students and urges them to take the time in college to explore various interests.
"Don't just try to get out with a computer science bachelor's in four years because a lot of the skills that are very valuable to me, I learned through (general education) classes or through working," he said he tells students. "Honestly, I learned more about business waiting tables than in school."
Saunders tells the same to his 16-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son, who now attend Palo Alto Unified schools. His daughter, a Paly student, is "driven" and "focused," he said, pursuing advanced classes alongside technical theater and Japanese. He's not sure exactly where the pressure to achieve comes from — the school, her peers or a broader culture in the Bay Area, which he said felt like high-pressure even when he was in high school. (He doesn't believe the pressure comes from himself or his wife, who teaches at City College of San Francisco and is also an advocate of community colleges.)
"I think there really is a lot of pressure in the Bay Area, and it's not new," he said. "Because I had such a nontraditional path and I know so many people who are successful who have had nontraditional paths, I think it's a great idea for kids to get a chance to be aware that you don't have to go to a premiere brand school and graduate in four years summa cum laude. Most people aren't going to do that."
Saunders said he tries to reinforce with his daughter his hopes for her, which don't rest on acceptance to a top-tier college.
"I graduated with 2.4 and went to Foothill and that's fine," he said he tells her. "I want you to be happy and I want you to find balance."
on Jun 2, 2017 at 10:43 am
on Jun 2, 2017 at 10:43 am
Getting closer, also: YOU DON'T HAVE TO GO TO COLLEGE AT ALL. YOU DON'T NEED AN "IMPRESSIVE" CAREER TO BE HAPPY OR GOOD. It's been like 8 years since the first suicide cluster and just now you're publishing that community college isn't shameful? Palo Alto needs a drastic realignment of consciousness to save it's kids from loneliness, isolation and depression.
Gunn High School
on Jun 2, 2017 at 11:15 am
on Jun 2, 2017 at 11:15 am
A lot of Gunn kids are going the community college route this year. It's an affordable alternative that make sense. It is an excellent first step that many talented young people are taking.
I think the "stigma" today is not the same today as what these people in the article remember. Four-year colleges are extremely expensive. Whatever the Weekly is saying, kids at Gunn tell me with pride that they have chosen a community college--and they should. Our local community colleges are excellent schools.
There are many paths after high school--with or without college. Choose a path that is meaningful to you without stressing about it and work hard at whatever you do. Forks in the road regularly appear. Opportunities to redirect are ever-present. Be open to them and be prepared for the many surprises life will offer you.
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 2, 2017 at 11:26 am
on Jun 2, 2017 at 11:26 am
Anecdotally, I have heard of many PA HS grads who go away to college for a semester and come back only to decide to do Community College while living at home.
I fear that academics aside, a great many HS grads are not well prepared for living away from home. Whether it is laundry, food, personal relationships, not having parents telling them when to get up and when to go to bed (among other things) or not being able to function in an atmosphere that is different from home comforts, they just don't seem to be ready to do it on their own.
I see HS kids being driven everywhere by parents and being closeted up at home behind screens of all descriptions who are not learning the skills needed to succeed in a college environment where perhaps they have to share a college dorm room with someone who has differences to themselves.
I see no shame in not going away to a 4 year college if that is the plan, but I do wonder why so many come back and use Community College as Plan B.
on Jun 2, 2017 at 11:37 am
on Jun 2, 2017 at 11:37 am
Thank you for telling these stories. If you'd like to read more life and career stories from Palo Alto alumni, please visit Web Link
Our goal is to shatter the myth that we believed growing up- that our career and life follow one linear path with the end goal of achieving one universal definition of success. We hope to replace it with the reality we’ve uncovered- that our career and life is a winding path made of different, sometimes unpredictable chapters in which our definition of success shifts.