Each have their own stories to share on where they've been and where they're going, each coming of age during unusual years of lockdown and isolation.
Gigi Pistilli's time at Woodside High School could best be described as a roller coaster. She starred in school plays, struggled with an eating disorder and experienced life as a high schooler during a pandemic, facing her obstacles head on along the way.
The 18-year-old Portola Valley resident, who graduated on June 2, is one of her class valedictorians and will attend Caltech in Pasadena this fall, where she plans to study physics or astrophysics and run cross country. Her dream is to be a physics professor and researcher.
"I'm terrified," she said. "My drama teacher pulled together all the people who've done all four years and it's starting to get super emotional."
There's also the upcoming separation from her twin, Lola, who will attend Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, in the fall.
"That's going to be really weird to not have her around," she said. "(Caltech is a) pretty academically rigorous college. I'm scared about how that transition is going to be. ... I'm not itching to be the most independent or itching to leave my parents, but ready for that next stage."
Gigi Pistilli suffered a stress fracture in her ankle a week before her first track race her freshman year. During the break from running, she started cross training excessively and not eating enough. By the end of the year, she was hospitalized because her heart rate was too low. She received inpatient treatment for anorexia and took about a month off of school to recover.
"A lot of my identity was around being an athlete," she said, adding how difficult it was for her to rest and take a break from exercise. She also received counseling on campus when she returned to school. "I took pride in my athleticism."
Pistilli recommends that teens who are struggling with their mental health seek help, even if it seems like those with similar problems aren't receiving services.
"I can work on myself even if people around me aren't able to," she said. "I could go on and on about how health care is only available to the privileged and you can't be like 'everyone get therapy,' but try to do what you can for yourself. You can get better even if you can't access therapy."
She has volunteered with SafeSpace in Menlo Park, a youth-led group that helps young people struggling with mental health challenges.
By the end of her junior year, which was fully remote because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she remembers she had a "headache all the time from the screen and the stress of COVID."
"There was so much unknown," she said, noting that as an extrovert it was hard to be alone and still during lockdown. "I did get a lot better at learning to be alone."
During her sophomore year, Pistilli said she overloaded herself with work, getting home at 10 p.m. after theater practice for "The Addams Family" production. The forced downtime from the lockdown helped her step back and put less pressure on herself.
One of her greatest points of pride during high school was playing the lead in the three-act play "Stage Door."
"It's the most work I've put into anything," she said. "I had 300 lines. It's the most stressed I've been in my life. I'm proud of all the work I put into my show."
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline for support, resources, and treatment options at 800-931-2237. Their text line is 800-931-2237. If you are in a crisis and need help immediately, text "NEDA" to 741741. Helpline volunteers are trained to help you find the support and information you need.
StarVista in San Carlos provides counseling and crisis prevention support to youth. Call its 24/7 crisis hotline at 650-579-0350 or 800-273-8255. To get peer-to-peer support under staff supervision, contact the Teen Text Line, 650-747-6463, Monday through Thursday 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. For more information, go to sanmateocrisis.org.
Christian Sbragia was just 9 years old when he noticed a dire need in his East Palo Alto neighborhood: there weren't safe places for kids to play outside of school.
Sbragia, 18, who graduated from East Palo Alto Academy (EPAA) last week, said his nonprofit, The Cooline Organization, has served over 600 kids in his city since its inception, all free of charge. Staff teach children foundational leadership skills like empathy, creativity, problem-solving and collaboration through play and the arts.
"At the time, I opened my backyard and did little events and parties out of my backyard; it is one of the safer areas of the neighborhood," he said. He noted he doesn't come from a wealthy background, but he's been able to host programs free of charge through sponsorships from restaurants, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, San Mateo County and others. "I had seen a lot of the kids in the community roaming around the streets," Sbragia said.
"We still struggle with that today," he said, referring to the recent violence in Jack Farrell Park. One person died and three were injured in a shooting, which took place while families and children were playing nearby on May 17. "After school and on weekends, there are not a lot of places for children to go in the community; our parks aren't always safe."
Sbragia, who is also the school programs assistant and after school support aide at The Primary School in East Palo Alto, is proud that his organization connected kids struggling with isolation during remote learning.
At the start of 2020, he was serving about 15 students, but by the end of the year over 500 had either received a kit (i.e. summer camp activities in a box) or participated in online Zoom hangouts. He offers CoolineKids after-school programs at elementary schools in the area and summer camps. High school interns learn how to create curricula for his programs and are trained in communication skills.
It was clear to him how one elementary school student, Cynthia, grew through Cooline during distance learning.
"She learned to connect during a time when she didn't have a lot of connection," he said. "At the beginning, she didn't want to talk at all and kept her camera off."
By March 2021, Cynthia was able to thoughtfully participate in a discussion about racism with local author and EPAA Vice Principal Joanna Ho.
"It was beautiful to see how she went from being shy and uncomfortable to being a really confident communicator," he said.
Sbragia is also proud of himself for thriving during remote learning.
"I was really worried COVID was going to throw me off of my track of going to college and it didn't," he said. "I used distance learning to take up personal development opportunities. I took different classes to learn more about nonprofits and leadership to help me grow."
He has been active not only in his nonprofit during high school, but has also served as education chair on the San Mateo County Youth Commission. He was a lead intern at a neurodiverse school and worked on training for police to better respond to those experiencing mental health crises.
Sbragia plans to attend California State University, East Bay, this fall. He plans to study ethnic studies and child development and is planning to live in the dorms.
"I'm feeling excited, a little nervous, or a lot bit nervous," he said about graduating.
More information on Cooline can be found at ctepayouth.org.
When Josh Nickings had to decide where to go to high school, he ultimately chose Eastside College Preparatory School, in part, because it would give him a chance to live on campus.
The nonprofit, tuition-free East Palo Alto school, which aims to open new doors for students historically underrepresented in higher education, is one of the few in the area with dorms. Nickings, 18, a Palo Alto native who graduated from Eastside last week, wanted to gain independence and also liked the school's diversity and tight-knit feel.
He fondly remembers meeting his best friend David at a barbecue during his sophomore year.
"I was so shy sitting by myself and he reached out and asked if wanted to play Frisbee," he said. "It got me out of my shell for the first time. ... It's cool to compare myself as a ninth grader to now. I'm more confident and outspoken while still shy and reserved, but can more easily open up to people."
By spring of his sophomore year, Nickings switched to distance learning along with other students and moved back home. Like most, he thought the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020 would just last a couple of weeks, not knowing it would extend for another school year.
"It was rocky throughout," he said. He did find community through a Discord group he joined through a friend. He missed the structure of his life in the dorms and was hopeful he'd be back on campus soon, and was finally able to return to the dorms during his senior year.
Nickings said graduating from Eastside feels bittersweet. He enjoyed being part of the school's computer refurbishing club, playing volleyball, tutoring students in calculus and doing graphic design work (stickers and gear) for the school.
He plans to attend Northwestern University outside of Chicago in the fall where he will major in mechanical engineering and graphic design. He's excited for a change in weather and to experience life in a city.
"I'm also really nervous," he said. "It won't be a space quite like Eastside — how diverse and tight knit (it is). I overall feel prepared to move."
When she was little, Menlo-Atherton High School graduate Bridget Gray would play classroom with her stuffed animals. Now she's ready to put that play into practice when he heads off to college this fall.
Gray, 18, who graduated from M-A on June 2, plans to study early elementary education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The school offers a teaching credential as part of its four-year undergraduate program, meaning she won't have to get a graduate degree in teaching like most aspiring teachers.
"I'm going to miss my friends and relationship with teachers," said Gray, who is from Menlo Park. "I've grown up with the same people since kindergarten (at Encinal School). It's strange and scary to know I'll be leaving them at the end of summer."
She comes from a family of teachers and helped create curriculum for students in East Palo Alto through the science nonprofit Curieus, which was founded in 2018 by M-A graduate Rachel Park. Much of the curriculum this year focused on technology and teaching kids how to code, she said.
Gray is proud of being on the CCS Championship winning volleyball team last fall. She was a middle blocker for the team.
"It feels like a family," Gray, a volleyball team captain, told Palo Alto Weekly in November 2021. "We see each other every day for at least two hours. We need to stay confident and bring this same energy."
She also helped head distribution day for M-A leadership's 2021 canned food drive. This school year's drive was a particular success, with over 360,000 pounds of food collected for about 400 families, according to the M-A Chronicle.
"Coming out of this pandemic, people were just more willing to give than they have been in the past," she said.
Gray found it harder to succeed in her classes while learning remotely her junior year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But she said it did lead to additional free time and that she felt less stressed.
If Gray could give her freshman self advice, she would tell herself that "everything will work out."
"I was a very stressed freshman," she said. "I would freak out if my grades would drop. I needed to learn to relax a little bit. Everything did work out in the end and I ended up where I think I was supposed to." Though she originally expected to attend a college in California, she was shocked to open her acceptance letter to Vanderbilt and find the university offered her a generous scholarship.