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.
In his sophomore year, Palo Alto High School student Matt O'Reilly snagged his first acting role as Jafar, the nefarious villain of the Disney film "Aladdin." He channeled Jafar during auditions and on stage, eagerly donning long flowing robes and painted-on eyebrows to act the part.
He'd always been interested in acting and movies, he said, but after the experience, he "fell in love" with the craft. Since then, he's participated in every Paly theater production possible.
O'Reilly is attending Boston College this fall, where he plans to major in political science and minor in theater. He said the arts classes he took during his years at Paly, including theater, photography and studio art, gave him a space to explore his interests.
"I really have appreciated all my teachers I've had here at Paly, but especially, I think, the art teachers do a really good job: Rather than you come into class and they assign you something ... they all really push you to do what you want to do.
"We're obviously in a competitive school district. People can get caught up doing what other people want them to do so they can get that grade, which is obviously important, but I think I've really benefited from having teachers that push me to do things that I found interesting or I really believed in," he said.
O'Reilly has attended Palo Alto Unified schools since kindergarten. As a first-grader, he got his first taste of the performing arts, attending Christian Music Theater, a youth theater summer camp held at Grace Lutheran Church in Palo Alto. Kids learn how to audition for a part and to create sets, costumes, props, creative dramatics, music and choreography. The camp ends each year with an original musical drama performance put on by the students.
O'Reilly attended Christian Music Theater every year until he reached the age limit, and this summer he is returning to serve as the camp's assistant drama teacher.
As part of a theater honors class this year, O'Reilly also produced Paly's annual One Acts show, which is entirely student-run. He oversaw the hiring of stage technicians, director and designers, held auditions and cast actors. The purpose of One Acts is to get more students interested in theater through a lower-commitment production, O'Reilly said. He was proud that he cast every student who auditioned this year -- the most students ever participating in One Acts, theater teacher Kathleen Woods said. She also credited "the greatest sense of unity among the different casts" this year to O'Reilly's leadership.
O'Reilly told student news outlet The Paly Voice in May that he wanted to foster student creativity and autonomy.
"I was interested in having each director do what felt right to them," O'Reilly told The Paly Voice. "When you come and get to see your friends on stage or your friends who are directing (the plays), you will really get a feel for that individual."
Gregarious and outgoing, he said he's always been drawn to theater as a means of self-expression.
"I've always just been kind of excited by being able to express yourself in a very loud and center-stage sort of way," he said.
Woods said that O'Reilly is "so enthusiastic about theater and about life in general that it is infectious." A memorable performance of his came this fall, when he played Antinous, one of Penelope's suitors in "The Odyssey." Woods complimented the intensity of his acting and noted he even went to school with his hair done like Antinous' to stay in character.
O'Reilly also took advanced-placement photography at Paly, and he said his teacher pushed him to also explore drawing, painting and digital art.
He submitted one piece to Liberating Lens, a multimedia project co-presented by the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and SF MOMA that invited students to learn about Jewish photographers by conducting research, taking photos and contributing to an online multimedia exhibition. His submission: an eerie black-and-white photo of an open laptop sitting in a half-shadow on an empty stage.
The caption reads, "By looking at a person, you can only see a little bit of them, and the same goes for this photo. Most of the computer is covered in shadows, but it's still there."
As O'Reilly leaves Paly, he does so with both experience in what he's passionate about and a grounded sense of self.
"I think what I really appreciate about Paly is there's no lack of opportunities to find yourself," he said.