“The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it’s meaninglessness.”
— Dr. Bill Damon, quoted in an article from Palo Alto Online

PALO ALTO CONTEXT

Our project started as a way to reimagine high school in Stanford’s backyard. Stanford neighbors a very high achieving school district that resembles many other high-achieving school districts throughout the country, if only a more extreme version.

Palo Alto has made national headlines in the past few years with a string of teen suicides. It is the only community in the country to experience two distinct teen suicide clusters in the past decade. And the suicide clusters are only the most publicized part of a larger mental health issue amongst students: last year more than 100 students at one of the schools were hospitalized for suicidal ideation. In February of 2016, the Center for Disease Control began conducting a study into the cause for these clusters.  


We share this context not to shine the spotlight yet again on a sensitive issue for our community, but because these issues aren’t unique to Palo Alto alone, and that’s what deeply troubles us. 


In fact, students from high achieving affluent school districts across the country have high rates of depression, substance abuse, and anxiety. We know that these students are under an incredible amount of stress and pressure, and we think a big source of that stress and pressure is students lacking a sense of meaning and purpose behind why they are doing all the work. Yes, this extreme effort might get you into a great university, but at what expense? And when does life become about actually living it in the moment instead of pursuing some far off idealized future?


In talking to student after student, we were struck by how life to them felt like jumping through one hoop after another: high school, good college, high-paying job, graduate school…and so on. The students felt no sense of space, or freedom to craft their own lives. They felt beholden to an extreme version of success that is idealized in their communities and sanctified as “the” version of success. High school is not preparing students for a meaningful life of engaged service, rather it is mostly about jumping through hoops.

“In a shallow way, where you go to school is an indicator of how hard you worked in high school. The sad thing is, it’s not about where you actually want to be.”
— senior at Palo Alto High School

What if high school equipped students
with the tools, behaviors, and experiences to be purposeful meaning-makers, engaged in their own lives and education?


A few of the bright, curious, and extremely talented students we met in Palo Alto on a day of shadowing.

A few of the bright, curious, and extremely talented students we met in Palo Alto on a day of shadowing.

 

LOOKING BEYOND PALO ALTO

As our project grew we looked outside of Palo Alto to incorporate students and schools from a variety of backgrounds. A lack of purpose or meaning is not by any means a problem that afflicts students from just one particular background or high achieving school districts; rather, developing meaning is a fundamental developmental task for students during their high school years. Unfortunately our current traditional high school system does little to help students develop their own sense of self and instead puts them through a seeming endless amount of things students “have to” do - without most students being engaged or really wanting to do them.


We believe that all high school students should be given the tools, mentoring, and opportunities to tap into their own potential. Our goal is for students of all backgrounds and interests to figure out what makes them comes alive so they can become wayfinders on their own journey through life.

“As long as you’re happy, you’re going to be ok in life. But nothing in high school prepares me to explore what that might be.”
— high school sophomore