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.
Education has long played a transformative role in Nohely Peraza's life.
She started kindergarten in the Ravenswood City School District, but her mother, an immigrant from El Salvador who had never attended school, worried she wasn't getting sufficient attention and support from the teachers there, Peraza said. Through the Voluntary Transfer Program, which allows Ravenswood students to attend other school districts through a lottery, Peraza started first grade in the San Carlos School District. For the rest of elementary school, she took a bus every day from her home in east Menlo Park to San Carlos.
In fifth grade, she heard about Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto, which gives priority to students who are the first in their families bound for college. She remembers going to the school's open house and loving it.
"I always knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn't know how I was going to get to college," she said. "I thought that it would be a lot easier for me and my family (at Eastside) because I knew I'd get the preparation and the guidance I needed."
Fast forward seven years, and Peraza has become her family's first high school graduate and this fall will be its first college student. She's headed to the prestigious liberal-arts school Williams College, where she plans to major in English.
And her future career plans? She wants to become a teacher.
"I feel like I've been really lucky to have gotten the education I've gotten, and I don't think I would be where I am today without the help from my teachers," she said. "Especially here at Eastside, all the teachers are really caring and they genuinely want you to learn and grow."
Throughout her time at Eastside, Peraza has pursued her interest in education. Two years ago, she volunteered as a teacher's assistant at Brentwood Academy in East Palo Alto, helping first- through fifth-graders in their literacy and art electives. She led lessons, gave directions and read aloud to students.
This year, she was a teacher's assistant for an advanced-placement English language and composition class at Eastside. She graded papers, gave feedback on essays and helped students with their work during class.
"That's my favorite part -- walking around and helping the students understand some of the material they're reading," she said.
Peraza has thrown herself into many other activities at Eastside: student council, speech and debate, art, photography, yearbook, computer science, dance and community service. She became a residential assistant after moving into the school's dorms sophomore year. She started a book club with a friend simply because they love reading and wanted to read more Shakespeare than was being offered in class. One of her favorite community events she's involved in is the annual Reading Bonanza in the Park, which gives away free books and hosts reading activities for East Palo Alto youth.
"When a teacher describes the ideal student, that is Nohely," said Eastside teacher Jaya Subramanian, who has taught Peraza since her sophomore year.
"She is so curious, and she wants to go above and beyond just learning for a test or learning just to get the grade. Her motivation is learning for learning's sake, which is so refreshing," Subramanian added.
For Subramanian's year-long senior research class, in which seniors conduct an in-depth study on a topic, Peraza decided to look at programs that are addressing inequities in girls' education in different countries. She was particularly intrigued, Subramanian said, by Kenya's free primary-education model. (Her final paper on the topic was "phenomenal" and received the highest grade in the class, too, Subramanian said.)
This year, Peraza was recognized for her achievements with two school-wide awards, the "Excellence Award for Service to School," for serving as an "outstanding ambassador" of Eastside to the larger community, Subramanian said, and the award for "Excellence in Communication," a recognition of her achievement in writing.
Peraza was also selected as Eastside's sole student graduation speaker. At last week's commencement ceremony, she reflected on her years at the school, its deep impact on her and the lessons she's learned.
"Following our ceremony today, I will be the first in our family to graduate high school, the first to go to college," she said. "When I enter Williams College in August, I will be walking through a door no one in my family has had the opportunity to walk through before."
Reflecting on the life-changing education and support she's received at Eastside, she said in an interview she wants to pay that forward as a teacher herself.
"I hope that I can use what I've gotten and return it because we need more dedicated teachers and we need more people who can show kids that their upbringing doesn't determine where they're going to go," she said.