Overcoming the odds | June 4, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

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News - June 4, 2021

Overcoming the odds

Four local seniors talk about the challenges they've faced head on

by Lloyd Lee

Finishing high school always calls for a celebration — but this year, graduating feels particularly momentous.

What in March 2020 first seemed like an early summer vacation quickly mutated into a senior year of laptop screens and social isolation. Some students' home lives threatened to become upended due to the pandemic.

"Senior year, things changed," said Maximilian Chavez, a graduating senior at East Palo Alto Academy.

Challenges are an expected part of the high school experience. And each of the four class of 2021 seniors interviewed for the Weekly's annual graduation edition recounted their own battles in a year like no other. Some were directly brought on by the pandemic. Others involved setbacks, like a basketball injury or the need to make a place for oneself in a new city and school.

Here's how the students overcame them all.

Annika Shah, Palo Alto High School

Overcoming injury to see her dream of college realized

People are quick to dismiss Annika Shah on the basketball court. She constantly goes up against what's known to ball players as the "eye test," in which someone's abilities must exceed expectations based on appearances.

"Being a 5-foot-3, skinny little Indian girl, I always had to prove more," she said.

But Shah got good at passing that test, tirelessly refining her skills.

She picked up a basketball in kindergarten, shooting around at the YMCA with her dad and brother while her mom was on the elliptical. By third grade, she started to outshine the girls on her team, later joining her brother and the other boys at the Team Esface Basketball Academy based in Redwood City. Finally, she earned a spot on Palo Alto High School's Vikings as the team's guard in her freshman year.

By the end of 10th grade, the "skinny Indian girl" was averaging 25.2 points per game, turning recruiters' heads and getting calls from schools all over the country. The Mercury News dubbed her the "most prolific shooter" in the CIF Central Coast Division.

"I was a threat on the floor," she said.

Then a game with her Amateur Athletic Union basketball team changed everything.

It was a weekend before school started in August 2019. Her teammate passed the ball a little far to the side, so Shah took a wider step than usual to catch it. Meanwhile, a defender ran into her and caught her other foot, causing Shah to land awkwardly on her stepping foot. That's when she heard a rip.

"I felt it right away," she said. "I didn't really understand it, but I fell to the ground."

Shah had torn her ACL — one of the most common injuries for athletes, especially basketball players — which forced her to sit on the sidelines her entire junior year.

An injury like that often requires surgery, which Shah didn't receive until that September, and months of physical therapy that continues to this day. But beyond the physical trauma was an emotional one: The possibility that Shah's basketball career might have just ended with one wrong step brought an incalculable inner struggle — one that played out during every call she had to make back to recruiters to notify them of her injury.

"Of course, they give you the talk: 'You're gonna get through this, and we still believe in you,'" Shah said. "But then you never hear from them ever again, which is expected. If I was a coach I probably would have done the same thing."

What's more, Shah couldn't play the sport while she healed.

"Just going day by day and not being able to play basketball — I was struggling mentally," she said. "That's when I figured out that I really loved this game."

In her time on the sidelines, Shah had to choose: fight or flight? Feeling convinced she could continue to pass the eye test for her recruiters, Shah chose to "attack."

"I knew this was just one obstacle, and I know there's gonna be some in the future, whether it's an injury or some sort of relationship," she said. "You just gotta attack it — and that was my mindset."

In addition to staying on top of her physical therapy, Shah took advantage of the sidelines to learn from the coach's point of view and watch more film — recordings of a basketball game or player — than she ever did before, including footage of some of her basketball role models, like Sabrina Ionescu, a WNBA guard for the New York Liberty.

She also used social media to maintain the reputation she built up to her sophomore year. She posted highlight reels of her previous games and also videos of workouts to show the progress she was making in her recovery.

Though the coronavirus halted all school sports and forced distant learning, Shah adapted well at home, since it allowed her to practice and get shots in, using her backyard hoop in between classes, before school, during lunch breaks and at night.

And with no tournaments for other players to build their highlights and for recruiters to attend, everyone was placed on the same boat, Shah said, leveling the playing field.

In spring 2020, Shah got a call from the point guard coach of Cal Poly Mustangs of California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, a N.C.A.A. Division I team. After an amicable hour-long talk with the coach, Shah and her parents were asked to hop on Zoom. They didn't know what to expect.

"We were expecting nothing," Shah said. "No one knew how this Zoom recruitment was going."

Another hour and a half later, head coach Faith Mimnaugh finally dropped the news, but only after Shah directly asked her if she was one of the top recruits the school was looking at. The head coach responded, "Yeah, we want to offer you a full ride scholarship."

"Our hearts — it just dropped," Shah said. "In that moment, we thought, 'Finally someone believed in me and is willing to commit to me.'"

Shah quickly committed to Cal Poly SLO three weeks later. Basketball will always play a role in her future whether it's directly on the court or off the side, she said. She's considering going through the business route and exploring sports marketing if she no longer plays.

In the meantime, Shah is back on the court, finishing off what will most be the quickest and most jam-packed basketball season of her entire career at Paly. Typically a normal season starts in November and can go through mid-March, depending on how far a team goes in the playoffs. That amounts to about two games a week.

This year, the Vikings are playing the same number of games for a season that only started in mid-April, with four games a week.

Shah isn't quite boasting the same stat sheet she had when she was a sophomore, but she knows numbers aren't all that matters.

"I will always have that barrier of being a 5-foot-3 point guard who's not that athletic," she said. "But I feel like I've proved myself to show that I have the ability to play at the next level."

Maximilian Chavez, East Palo Alto Academy

Overcoming doubt and financial trouble to take charge of his life

Maximilian Chavez recalls arriving at East Palo Alto Academy, just another nervous freshman in a whole new environment.

"It's a new place, all scary, and I'm going, 'Where am I?'" he said.

But over the next four years, Chavez took challenges head on to not only become a gifted coder but to help his family survive the pandemic.

It started with his advisor Andy Robinson's recommendation to check out StreetCode Academy, a nonprofit that aims to offer a pathway into tech for low-income community members through after-school coding classes.

The after-school program helped scratch Chavez's itch for a challenge. As soon as he entered high school, Chavez loaded up on hard courses, taking AP computer science and as many math courses as he could take within a year. After school, he headed straight to StreetCode when it was based at East Palo Alto Academy and later moved to Facebook.

He was hooked.

"When I was there, I would take every class I could," Chavez said. "I started from the bottom and then worked my way up until there was no more."

By his sophomore year, Chavez excelled in coding to the point where StreetCode offered him a paying job as a lead teacher. But he turned the offer down. For him, the confidence just wasn't there yet.

Instead, Chavez went to his counselor Glenda Ortez-Galan to ask if he could start taking college courses in computer science. At first, Ortez-Galan suggested he take an easier course — perhaps psychology — thinking Chavez was just looking for some more credits or a GPA booster. But Chavez was set on what he wanted.

"I was like, 'No.' I don't care about the credit, I don't care about the grades," he said. "I just want to pursue what I want to do. I wanted to explore me."

The sophomore ended up taking intro to Java, web design and, for fun, astronomy, splitting his commute between East Palo Alto Academy, College of San Mateo and Cañada College. He also decided to test the waters at StreetCode as a volunteer. Come junior year, a more confident Chavez taught his first cohort of about 20 students and loved it.

"I would come up with so many different ways to teach (coding) because you have to come up with analogies to come at people with different perspectives," he said. "And sometimes there's language barriers, so I have to speak Spanish. It was so fun."

Pretty soon, other passion projects called Chavez's name. For example, an ex-Amazon employee employed Chavez to create a networking hub reserved for Amazon alumni — similar to Xoogler, which is a hub for current and ex-Google employees looking to network and perhaps launch their own startup.

Chavez was loving almost every minute of his high school experience, grasping and excelling at every opportunity he gave himself. Then the pandemic hit.

Chavez lives in a household of seven, including his three brothers, his mom, dad and grandma. The main source of income comes from his dad, who owns Mazzocco's Club, a Redwood City bar and restaurant — an industry that was hit particularly hard during the shelter-in-place order.

At first, the family tried to re-frame the lockdown as a temporary vacation. But the situation at Chavez's home quickly turned dire.

"A month into it, we were like, 'Oh gosh, we're running out of money,'" Chavez said. "It got to the point where we didn't even know if we were going to eat."

Desperate to help his family, Chavez quietly created a GoFundMe campaign unbeknownst to his father, whom Chavez describes as a "very prideful man" who wouldn't ask others for handouts.

By May 2020, Chavez raised about $4,000. Once he had the cash, he then had to consider what to do with it.

"I was thinking to myself, 'Okay, we have this money, but I see this pandemic going long-run,'" he said.

So instead of spending it on immediate relief, Chavez confessed to his dad about the fundraiser and advised him to spend the money on an outdoor patio for the restaurant.

"I explained to him: This is a plan. This could help us generate something. And not only that, but we can give jobs to our workers," Chavez said, also knowing that it was a "very risky decision."

His father — thankful for the money raised and proud that his son was open to taking risks — agreed and went to Home Depot to purchase all the materials necessary to create an outdoor patio, complete with lights, fences and umbrellas. According to Chavez, they became the first restaurant to execute an al fresco dining set up in Redwood City.

On day one of Mazzocco's outdoor dining debut, the restaurant saw just one customer. But by week two, the restaurant had a full house.

Chavez continued helping with the business, which has been in the family for more than 30 years, to reduce costs. He waited on tables, washed the dishes, continued to upgrade the patio with more fixtures such as heaters, and even dealt with the cops who claimed they were not allowed to run an outdoor patio.

"They were 100% picking on us — to the point where my dad came up to them and said, 'Hey, I don't see you going over there downtown, where all the white people are, picking on them,'" Chavez said. "It got very heated, but we stood our ground. We're still here."

And more recently, once indoor dining was allowed, Chavez got the chance to pursue his side passion as a musician by becoming the restaurant's weekend DJ.

"In the beginning — oh, they hated me," Chavez laughed. "They were like, 'Hey, turn that s—t off! We don't like that!'"

But just like with coding, Chavez was a quick learner.

"What I would do is play the classics — the ones where everyone dances — and then slowlyinfuse the new music because they're already on the floor and they feel the beat," he said. "From throwing limits at me, now they're telling me to put that music on."

With business thriving, Chavez's family no longer worries if they'll be able to eat. But still, there were some losses.

"We saved ourselves but at the same time we lost our home," he said. Although the outdoor patio helped sustain the business, it wasn't enough for the family to keep their home in Newark. So the family moved to Modesto.

"But the most important thing is that we're united. Our family's together and we're happy. We're very happy," he said.

This summer, Chavez plans to work remotely for StreetCode. He'll attend University of California, Berkeley, in the fall to major in computer science. Chavez anticipates he'll eventually work in tech, but, more broadly, said he wants to start his own business.

"It's been a long four years in the making," he said. "I'm ready to move on to the next phase. I'm ready to pursue what I want to do."

Malachi McKnight, Gunn High School

Chasing opportunity, from Coachella Valley to Silicon Valley

In the slow-paced and dusty city of Desert Hot Springs, Malachi McKnight felt his education was rarely a priority.

"I kind of just thought school was all fun and games and that it wouldn't really matter at the end," he said.

His aunt and uncle, with whom McKnight lived since sixth grade, felt the same way about the education he was receiving and thought their nephew was getting shortchanged. They moved out of the Coachella Valley and into the Long Beach area, where McKnight briefly attended Los Alamitos High School. But there, he said, classes consisted of movies almost every day, cheating was rampant and distractions were always in the way.

So his guardians, determined to help pave a successful path for McKnight, decided it was time to make another move — this time up north to Silicon Valley.

"They told my mom that they need to take me here because it would definitely lead to bigger and greater opportunities that I would not get in the Coachella Valley," McKnight said.

Ditching the barren landscape of Desert Hot Springs and the dead ends of Long Beach, the three came to Palo Alto where McKnight was instantly fascinated. Here he was at the center of innovation: The world's most renowned companies were near his backyard; the schools were some of the highest ranked in the nation; and for once the hills were lush green and the trees that lined the streets actually looked alive.

Opportunity never felt more close by.

But when McKnight enrolled at Gunn High School for his second semester of his freshman year, he quickly felt out of place. The difference in academic rigor from his previous schools was stark. His new peers seemed to be miles ahead of him; in math, McKnight felt he was behind by so many levels. And for as much as he could dismiss his old home in southern California, McKnight still felt homesick.

"It was a combination of missing family, being 500 miles away from home, comparing myself to other students and kind of feeling inadequate that probably made me have a mental breakdown," he said. "I actually started crying in the middle of class because I didn't know if I belonged here."

However, what eventually helped McKnight was the same environment that first gave him the feelings of inadequacy. At Gunn, he saw a place where students were encouraged to learn and seek out help when they needed it. McKnight started to go to his engineering teacher Kristina Granlund-Moyer everyday after school to get help on math problems he was stuck on. But more than just getting homework help, McKnight felt that the teachers like Granlund-Moyer were key to making him feel much more accepted at the school.

"Ms. Granlund was amazing because she actually made me feel more than just a student," he said. "She made me feel like a friend because she was actually there trying to help me out."

This was also where McKnight began to explore his interest in engineering more. Having a teacher like Granlund-Moyer, a school that offers several levels of engineering classes, and an uncle who encouraged him early on to explore the field pushed McKnight to join the Gunn Robotics Team his junior year. There, he delved into all kinds of subgroups within the team: machining, pneumatics, design and welding.

And with his team, McKnight had an opportunity to visit Argo AI, a company that specializes in self-driving technology and has a facility on Page Mill Road. It was yet another moment that reminded McKnight why he was brought to Palo Alto.

"It was an amazing experience to walk through the facility and look through their workspace, their creativity, and the kinds of things they're working on and realizing how similar it was to being on the robotics team at Gunn," he said. "It was another advantage because I've never seen that before where a high school kind of educational level is so related to a real life career."

The highs of his school experience took a bit of a hit when COVID-19 forced distant learning for most of his senior year. McKnight describes himself as a social person and as a student who needs to be in person, at the front of the class. But he pushed through it, he said. And once again, his uncle came through for him by providing a sort of at-home experience of McKnight's robotics team when the family recently moved to Redwood City.

Due to "senior privilege," McKnight and his family no longer needed to live in Palo Alto, and they decided to move to a condo in Redwood City. It was "old fashioned," McKnight said. But the new home gave him and his uncle a fun bonding project, in which the two gutted and remodeled the entire home. McKnight helped install new flooring, lights and ceiling fans, which utilized some of the same skills and tools he needed in his robotics club.

It was an eight-month process, which helped occupy McKnight's time sheltering in place.

"It was perfect timing," he said.

The new home also offered McKnight his own bedroom for the first time in about five years — a critical resource students needed while they learned from home. His uncle's altruism often extended to his family friends as well, offering them a place to stay at their home so they too can see the benefits of living in Silicon Valley.

"He's an awesome guy if you ever get a chance to meet him,' McKnight said.

McKnight will be attending Foothill College, where he wants to explore either a mechanical or civil engineering major. Having toured the campus and visited the college's innovation building, he's eager to start classes. Later on, McKnight hopes to transfer schools, eyeing University of California, Davis or Berkeley or Stanford University.

In addition, he's thinking about the tech companies he should pursue an internship with — a thought that likely would not have occurred to him back home in Coachella Valley.

"None of these opportunities that I'm talking about — such as an internship, trying to pursue a career at Google or Yahoo or any of these tech companies out here — would be possible if I stayed in the desert," he said.

Stacy Abonce, Castilleja School

Navigating her way through school as a first-generation college student — and finding community along the way

It can be hard for an only child like Stacy Abonce to navigate all the obstacles of growing up and trying to get into college. But to do that also as a first-generation student is truly a step into the unknown.

"It definitely was and still is a bit tricky to manage just because I don't really know what I'm getting myself into," Abonce said. "I can't exactly talk to my family and ask them questions about what the next steps look like."

Abonce's parents were born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States about a year before their only daughter was born in Minnesota. The family moved to California a couple of months after Abonce's birth.

At home, her parents may not have been able to provide tailored guidance on how to go through school, but the emotional support and encouragement was always there. Both of them knew how crucial it was for Abonce to obtain a higher education.

"My dad always says, 'Échale ganas,' which is like, 'Keep working hard,'" she said. "That's always something that I'll have in my head."

With that in mind, Abonce took advantage of local education resources as early as fifth grade, when she joined Peninsula Bridge, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit that provides outside academic support to students, from youth through college. Joining the nonprofit that early gave Abonce the benefit of maintaining the same network throughout her entire academic career. But the program also foreshadowed her high school experience, since her first summer with the nonprofit was hosted at Castilleja School, which she eventually attended and where, in her sophomore year, she became a student leader.

Coming to the all-girls school was both nerve wracking and a bit of a culture shock for Abonce. The freshman at the time came straight from Beechwood School, which Abonce said was predominantly Black and Latino. She was also the only one in her class from Beechwood to move to Castilleja.

"I was so used to being surrounded by people who look like me and have similar experiences to me," she said.

With a strong desire to seek out a supportive community, Abonce joined a newly created student club called Latinx Affinity Group. It's essentially a space for Latinx-identifying students to foster community, whether by talking about their upbringing or identity or seeking academic help. The year Abonce joined there were only seven students. By the time she became the student leader of the group her senior year, there were about 20 girls and included the Castilleja's middle school students.

"It was nice to have this smaller community that I could relate to on a more cultural level," Abonce said. "When I came to Castilleja there weren't that many Latino students."

Once Abonce got a hold of her footing and place in school, she decided to give back to her own community by joining a summer fellowship program with Dreamer's Roadmap, a mobile app that connects undocumented students with scholarships and other academic resources for college. Abonce heard about the program when the app's founder, Sarahi Salamanca, came to Castilleja to talk about her experience as both an undocumented person and a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) student.

"I remember getting really emotional when she was talking about her experience having to be away from her family and all the sacrifices she made," Abonce said. "That was really personal to me."

But Abonce's cultural identity and her college track didn't solely define her school experience.

Outside of the numerous groups she was already involved in, some of the most meaningful moments of her youth were shaped by her years in water polo and a cappella.

Abonce joined the school's Glee a cappella group her freshman year, after coming from choir in middle school. It was another way Abonce sought a community in a place filled with new faces and, of course, to sing her heart out. In her group, she typically sang soprano, and their go-to song over the years was Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."

"That's kind of become a song that we're known for, but I think we sung it one too many times," she laughed.

Abonce was also a water polo player since sixth grade. She started off with Brenda Villa, a water polo coach at Menlo Swim & Sport, and stayed with her for almost seven years. Though she enjoyed the sport, Abonce's time in water polo was abruptly cut short her junior year when she bumped heads with someone during warm-ups and got a concussion.

"It was definitely a bit sad but I'm grateful to have been a part of an awesome team," she said.

Other roadblocks lay ahead her junior as well as senior years when COVID-19 moved all of Abonce's academic and school activities online. The sense of community that Abonce carefully curated over the few years was at risk of becoming destabilized due to social distancing. In addition, at home, Abonce said there was a general feeling of chaos, exhaustion and stress.

It certainly didn't help when her mom caught the virus around the fall of last year.

"I just remember submitting my UC application and then my mom got the news she was sick," Abonce said.

But Abonce preserved. Zoom allowed some of her groups, such as her Latinx Affinity Group, to continue meeting, and, fortunately, her mom didn't experience any severe symptoms beyond the loss of taste.

In the fall, after graduating from Castilleja on June 5, Abonce will be attending Northeastern University with a plan to major in business administration and psychology. But her major could easily change, given her wide range of interests.

The only "tricky" part now is letting her parents get used to the idea that their only daughter will be going off to the east coast for college.

"This is a moment my family and I have been waiting for a really long time," Abonce said. "I think my parents were definitely excited and a little bit in shock. It's probably going to really hit us at graduation."

Email Editorial Assistant Lloyd Lee at [email protected]

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