News gathering

Identity: MVHS students heighten their awareness of their beliefs

This 2,000 word story I co-reported and worked on with two other reporters examined the way our political climate impacted people from different communities. We spoke with students of different ethnicities and sexualities, as well as a professional. In order to balance out their mostly liberal opinions, we focused on our sources’ personal experiences, rather than their political views.

Published in September 2017 as a part of El Estoque’s Identity package
Story by Bill Cheng, Gauri Kaushik and Ilena Peng
The car’s tires screeched to a halt only centimeters away from senior Sarah Harb. She had just stepped onto the crosswalk when she noticed that a car had accelerated towards her instead of slowing down. She could only stare in disbelief at the driver — given the timing, she attributed the anger in his eyes to Harb’s hijab. It was the day after the 2015 Paris terror attacks.
“I remember hearing a bunch of screams from the other side of street, like on the sidewalk and they were like ‘Oh my gosh, are you crazy?’ to the [driver,]” Harb said. “He kind of just looked at me and I just looked at him, and I was so shocked. I had no idea what to say. And then I just ran across the street.”
Harb is Muslim, and her hijab is a proud part of her identity. Yet, she’s also watched the media and certain political groups connect that identity to the word “terrorism.” It’s made her more aware of what her presence in that overarching way of life — “Muslim” — means, even though she has never considered agreeing with the extremist sentiments that Trump and the media refers to.
“When the elections started, I was like ‘Oh, now it’s awkward. Now everyone pays attention to me…'” Harb said. “I always feel like I have to be nicer to people, like smile at strangers and just like put in an extra effort to show them that ‘No, I promise I’m not a bad person.’”
Growing up, junior Benjamin Bedregal also felt the same pressure to appear nicer to compensate for a negative reputation because of his Hispanic ethnicity.
“My mom, she always tells me ‘Oh, you have to keep a clean image, because you are already looked down upon as it is,’” Bedregal said. “I have definitely become more conscious of my decisions.”
Like Bedregal, freshman Dhruvika Randad, has always been aware of both her race and her identity. She moved here when she was five months old, though she only recently acquired citizenship. If anywhere, she says, the U.S. is her home. Due to the current political climate, that awareness has been heightened, but to her, that awareness doesn’t validate others who try to make assumptions due to her identity.
“Yes, I am a brown girl but you cannot just point that out,” Randad said. “You’re aware of that, I’m aware of that, but what statement are you trying to make saying that? Is it going to change something? I’m not going to automatically become someone else.”

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me— and there was no one left to speak for me

Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College who studies minority integration, drew parallels to this Martin Niemoller quote as she described the way that minorities have come together over the past year. Niemoller, a German Protestant pastor, presented this quote after World War II to represent a plea for support among communities during the Holocaust. Seventy years later, Michelson sees a reflection of that plea being answered as she watches communities unite of their own accord.
“I think marginalized communities [and] minority communities have learned the lesson of strength in numbers [and] in coming together,” Michelson said. “[They] have taken to heart the idea that ‘they might not be after us this time, but it could be us next time and we all have to stand together against hate.’”
In describing pride parades, sophomore Shravanti Shankar recognizes the renewed energy towards standing together as a community. Shankar is pansexual, meaning that her sexual choice is not limited to people of a specific gender identity or sexual orientation. Although she says that members of the LGBTQ+ community have always been supportive of each other, the current political climate has drawn more attention to the necessity of that support.
“The community is very good at sticking together and that was put into place long before the election,” Shankar said. “But I also do know that, maybe it’s a little more, we feel the need to stick together more because of the political stance of the country now.”
Bedregal has seen different minorities come together over the past year, uniting as one voice. But he’s quick to point out that there’s a difference between coming together as a community and appearing like a group of nationalists.
“I don’t want to say [it’s] boosted nationalism, that’s not the right word — but it’s kind of made me feel like a part of something, because everybody is speaking out and coming together,” Bedregal said.
Junior Ananya Saxena echoed Bedregal’s sentiment that the groups Trump has been antagonistic towards, such as female activists like Saxena herself, have been able to unite more easily. However, she also noted how the events that followed the election could serve to further the distance between groups.
“There [is] a strong community of people and more and more girls and guys are identifying as feminists,” Saxena said. “But it also causes a huge separation between people who don’t necessarily think that like feminism is their ‘thing’ or even just people who genuinely support Trump — it causes all sorts of divides.”
According to Michelson, perhaps the best response to a hateful event is coming together to support each other in a way they might not have done before, since the natural way people divide themselves into distinctive communities can make discrimination a somewhat internal issue.
“We naturally want to divide ourselves up into groups as a way of establishing our own identity,” Michelson said. “And to change human nature and to get people to not want to sort themselves into identity groups, I think is probably impossible.”
Michelson sees law enforcement and social norms as a necessity to suppress those acting out on their racist beliefs. But she also suggests that the problem is the actions of Trump’s administration, such as Trump’s Muslim Ban (formally referred to as “Protecting the nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the U.S.”). Specific incidents like Trump’s lag in incriminating the violence in Charlottesville leads Michelson to believe Trump condones those racist thoughts.
Yet a senior points out that it’s important to note that being Republican doesn’t necessarily signify a correlation with racist or white extremist views. He requested anonymity due to his concern that his conservative political views would negatively impact his college recommendation letters from more liberal teachers and for the purpose of this story, we will refer to him as Kurt. Just as Harb refers to the fact that the majority of Muslims aren’t terrorists, Kurt states that the majority of Republicans aren’t white extremists.
“The Trump administration has kind of demonized a lot of Republicans,” Kurt said.
Personally, Kurt varies in support of Trump’s policies. He supports the idea of preventing illegal immigration, as he believes it makes it harder for those who are trying to legally immigrate. Yet he opposed the travel ban, believing that Trump is being rather difficult on those who are coming here legally.
For the most part, he says that he is more economically conservative than socially. Republicans like Kurt aren’t opposed to immigrants or the LGBTQ+ community, but as Michelson mentioned earlier, the actions of the Trump administration have still given those minority groups a reason to worry.
Although that worry hasn’t necessarily led to the formation of connections between different identity groups in the eyes of senior Ben Pribe, he believes the way people have become more outspoken about their beliefs since the election has made their political views seem more black and white. It’s more apparent where people stand, according to Pribe, and he believes that the more apparent stances could lead to a stronger bond between communities.
“[It] causes some communities to become tighter because their political ideals are closer but I’m not sure if it’s to support each other,” Pribe said. “Maybe it’s just to surround yourself with people who agree with you because it’s certainly made it more clear — it’s more of an ‘us or them’ kind of thing than it was before. There’s a certain amount of picking sides that was maybe a little less apparent before.”
According to Michelson, hate groups and neo-Nazi groups have existed underground for a long time, but the current political climate has since brought them into the public view. Michelson points out the difficulty of identifying whether beliefs have changed, but believes that the expression of those beliefs have become more acceptable during the past year. And to Michelson, it’s also naive to believe that those sentiments don’t exist in the Bay Area.
“Those anti-democratic, white nationalists, homophobic, islamophobic thoughts are here too,” Michelson said. “And while some people like to think we’re in a bubble, they might want to look around a little bit more carefully because that stuff’s happening here too. And [the]Trump administration is helping those folks feel emboldened to act out their belief.”
Bedregal has noticed the way the extremist groups have put themselves into the public eye, and the new awareness of those groups has made Bedregal more internally conscious of his decisions, although it doesn’t affect his daily behavior.
“Due to Trump becoming president I feel like it kind of acted as a blanket for more people with more racist views — they felt more safe to express their views with the current president, and that kind of led to an increased amount of racist political views,” Bedregal said.
Although Kurt does not entirely align with Trump’s views, he describes his political beliefs as both Libertarian and Republican, leaning more towards the latter. Despite knowing that conservative views are present in the Bay Area, he’s found that they are still uncommon — particularly among students. Of the people he knows, few are Republican. And of those, even fewer are his age.
“This area is definitely very liberal, which is kind of unfortunate,” Kurt said. “I’d like to see a lot more other views being shared around.”
Most of his friends know that he is Republican, and his best friend is Republican too. The last day of their sophomore year, the two of them attended a Trump rally. But in an area that still feels largely liberal, he’s found that during political conversations or when some of his teachers express more liberal opinions, it’s best to stay quiet.
“Oftentimes, I just won’t mention anything,” Kurt said. “[It’s] just not worth it sometimes.”
Kurt doesn’t share his political views on occasion due to the liberal perspectives surrounding him, and similarly, Shankar doesn’t divulge her sexuality when she’s around more conservative family friends. She’s noticed the same thing that Kurt has — that there are more conservative parents than students.
“I have a lot of Indian family friends who have more conservative backgrounds, so I’m not really out to my parents’ friends,” Shankar said. “Cupertino is more liberal, but it also has a lot of … like the parents are usually the ones I’m more concerned about than the kids.”
Harb says the occasional judgmental look from people at school reveals the obvious fact that not everyone here is entirely accepting. Other times, she’s felt people are hesitant and look more uncomfortable when talking to her for the first time. But the more liberal demographic of Cupertino does offer a feeling of safety for some — Harb says she still feels safer here than she would in other places in the nation.
“It’s just a safe place for everyone, and it’s like a hub for all the open-minded people who care about these things,” Harb said. “It’s just really nice to have a whole community like that.”
This community is also one that’s unique among the nation in that typically minority communities make up the majority of citizens — 83 percent of MVHS is Asian, and 51 percent of Cupertino’s population was born outside of the U.S. Pribe has found that here, his caucasian identity makes him a minority. But he still feels comfortable in Cupertino and said he’s never felt as if he was being treated differently.
“I felt more left out being the only guy in my dance class last year than I ever have being the only white person in one of my classes,” Pribe said.
Saxena also commented on how she feels more comfortable in California, and the Bay Area specifically, compared to the rest of the nation, citing her discomfort when she visited Virginia right after the election. She felt out of place with ‘America’ stores surrounding her and people openly supporting Trump, a stark contrast to Santa Clara County, where 44.8% of registered voters are Democratic, in comparison with the 25.9% of registered Republicans, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
“[It’s one of the] big Trump-supporting states and I just felt uncomfortable because they all have all this ‘patriotism’ but I don’t think it’s directed at something that’s going to make the country better,” Saxena said.
Randad believes it’s hard to pinpoint the best way to make the country better. She believes the unpredictable aftermath protests have makes them less effective. In the meantime, she finds taking strength in identity to be the best form of maintaining hope and resistance.
“You are who you are,” Randad said. “Don’t let anyone change that. And despite all the things that [have] happened, we have to do our best to take it on and just work with it. And when [the] time comes, if something’s going to happen, you know we’re going to come together and work it out to let Trump know that he’s not the only one who’s going to be in control all the time.”
Regardless of the way communities seem to have rallied together, Michelson and Harb can’t predict the impact of the current political climate. Michelson doesn’t believe the Trump administration has brought us closer to equality. But she also points out that President Obama’s election didn’t end racism. The longstanding problem is one that is complicated to solve, and she thinks perhaps time will be the answer. Harb agrees.
After spending several summers in Lebanon, Harb has noticed that the country thrives as a melting pot of different religions and cultures that’s not all that different from the one in Cupertino. Although she said that there was never a moment in Lebanon’s history that resembles the U.S.’s current state of ideological turmoil, she still believes that time may push the U.S. in a more peaceful direction.
“They know more about each other’s religions,” Harb said. “They’ve accepted that [diversity] and they’ve been living like that for so long — for centuries and obviously, America’s younger than that… I feel like we haven’t had enough time to accept [that diversity.]”
Michelson offers a reminder that change has always been slow. She points out how it took two years for the Watergate investigation to lead to President Nixon’s resignation. It took the Civil Rights Movement decades to make progress. Michelson points out that technology has misled us to see the world move at an incredibly fast pace, yet social change still comes slowly.
“It’s hard to keep up your momentum when you feel like you’re not making any progress and the movement’s not working,” Michelson said. “It’s hard to keep fighting when people are dying, and change is so elusive. I think we have to remember that these sorts of things take a long time. We have to pace ourselves, I guess, and not give up.”

FUHSD adopts a new resolution to protect student information

For this article about our school’s district new resolution to protect student information, I began my reporting by reaching out to the district’s student representative. I then contacted another student who had been involved with the resolution’s creation. What would’ve been a simple news brief about the resolution itself became a more in-depth look at the motivations behind the resolution, and the future impact that these students hoped it’d have.

Published on elestoque.org on Mar. 7, 2017
Fremont High School senior Ana Maria Vazquez had always pronounced her name with a lilt that highlighted her Latina descent. And on the first day of her freshman year at FHS, she said her name in that same manner when the teacher took attendance. Her teacher began asking her about where she was from: whether she was from Spain, whether she knew who her father was, whether her father was a construction worker. She wasn’t sure if he was simply curious but it didn’t matter, the questions about her family and whether she was born in the U.S. still made her uncomfortable.
It’d never drawn any attention when she attended Columbia Middle School, a school that had a large amount of students of Latino descent. But immediately after the teacher’s questions that day, Ana Maria stopped pronouncing her name with the familiar cultural intonation. She dropped the second half, Maria, altogether. If she accidentally introduced herself as Ana Maria, she would get mad at herself. Her teachers and friends now know her as Ana.
“As soon as I said that I’m Mexican, it felt like my teachers lowered their standards for me and so I changed the way I pronounced my name to sound like ‘Ana,’” Vazquez said. “I cut off the ‘Maria’ because I didn’t want teachers to treat me differently.”

 Throughout the year, she recalls that the teacher would offer to give her a calculator if she couldn’t afford one. He exempted her from group projects and told her she only had to do every other problem on homework assignments. But Vazquez had grown up taking advanced classes and she knew that she didn’t want this treatment simply because of her name.
Vazquez is among the many individuals who played a part in the adoption of a new FUHSD resolution. On Feb. 7, FUHSD passed Resolution #1617-12 at their board meeting, establishing that district employees will not reveal a student’s documentation to outside officials unless obliged to by law. FUHSD Student Board member and Cupertino High School senior Sanika Mahajan helped by reading over the FUHSD’s letter, getting signatures for the petition and speaking about the resolution in her student report to the school board. But during their conversations, Mahajan sometimes found herself in shock when she discovered how unsafe some students felt at school and she unquestioningly responds that it is both FUHSD teachers and students like Vazquez that pulled the resolution together.
With the political climate growing tense over Trump’s executive orders limiting immigration, Vazquez couldn’t help but feel fear at times. Even though she isn’t undocumented, she realized she still wasn’t the only one feeling the fear.
“The fear I felt was not only manifested in my mind but in all the hallways that undocumented students walk through,” Vazquez said. “The fear comes from the uncertainty of not knowing if when we get home, our families will be there or not or even [if] we’ll make it home because deportation has the power to deviate the entire course of our lives.”
Mahajan and Vazquez both know the school district is diverse— not just in terms of ethnicity, but also in terms of sexuality and race. To them, that’s where the resolution offers hope. It runs far deeper than protecting undocumented students in the district.
Vazquez noted that the board meeting placed an emphasis on making it clear that the district’s purpose is simply to provide a place for youth to receive an education, to give them an educated voice. Mahajan echoes that sentiment. The resolution is merely a step towards a school district that truly accepts the diversity of its students in all aspects.

 At the board meeting, Mahajan watched the board members around her submit their votes. She also had submitted a vote too, which was recorded as an advisory note that wasn’t part of the overall vote. And when the resolution was adopted unanimously, Mahajan looked out and saw Vazquez in the crowd, smiling. Without words, that smile reminded Mahajan of all the reasons that the resolution was important. The weekly meetings on Tuesdays that had been taking place since November to discuss the goals of the resolution, the conversations between Vazquez and Mahajan had culminated in this moment.
“When they adopted the resolution and the policy, she was smiling and I saw that and I just felt like a moment of sort of closure for her and that made me more happy than anything,” Mahajan said.
Vazquez recalled the strength it took for her to fight back the tears of happiness that brimmed in her eyes as she watched the board adopt a resolution that represented so much for her. She’d always looked up to the civil rights leaders who had fought to give education to all. To let the marginalization of students continue only seemed to dishonor everything those leaders had fought for. And in her own way, Vazquez contributed to this resolution and just like those leaders before her, fought to preserve one of the most basic rights of education.
“It felt amazing to know that the district cares about all of the students, not just the documented students and the citizens,” Vazquez said. “Now I knew that the FUHSD doesn’t stand just for the majority, but for also equal opportunity and inclusion… it just felt amazing to know that they were there and they were going to fight for all of the students.”
According to Vazquez, the concept of educating teachers to prevent accidental insensitivity towards a culture or ethnicity floated around during recent board meetings so that no one will feel uncomfortable in the same way Vazquez did that first day of her freshman year.
Vazquez also hopes to talk to other schools within the district about the resolution and more. To both Vazquez and Mahajan, the resolution’s importance lies in not just the words themselves but the welcoming message it conveys. Mahajan agrees that this resolution is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to communicating the board’s accepting stance.
“It’s not just about passing the resolution,” Mahajan said. “It’s just about how the board communicates that to the community… that all students, regardless of what their… documentation or lack of documentation may or may not be, have a right to show a face in the district and get an education without a fear of going to school.”
The resolution has only been in effect for a less than a month, yet Vazquez can sense a shared feeling of relief ripple through the student population.
“From talking to students, there are a lot of students that do feel alleviated because now they know they can come to school and know they’ll be safe and the district’s not going to give away their information and jeopardize their stay in this country,” Vazquez said.
To Vazquez and others, the resolution offers comfort, enforcing that the idea that the district has a student’s best interests at heart regardless of whether they are documented or not.

Changing education: the potential impacts of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education

After Betsy DeVos was selected as Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, I interviewed teachers in California who had taught in Michigan, where DeVos was the chairwoman of the Republican party. Given DeVos’ support of charter and magnet schools, I also interviewed a student about her experiences at a magnet school.

Published on elestoque.org on Jan. 14, 2017
For 18 years, Brian Wilson taught in the same classroom of the same school in Michigan. Then, three years ago, 30 teachers in his district were laid off, four in his building alone. Policies had been gradually shifting, adding mandated paperwork onto teachers’ already busy schedules. Conversations between his colleagues strayed from discussing teaching strategies to reminding each other to fill out required paperwork. Friends around him were eager to leave behind their teaching days and started a constant countdown. Twelve more years until retirement. Ten more years. Eight more years. Five more years.
Wilson hated those conversations – the paperwork didn’t make him a better teacher and counting down the years until he retired just wasn’t fun. He knew it was time for a change and the only options were to teach in a different state or to switch careers. And when a friend told him a job was available in California at Palo Alto High School, he took the chance and applied.
On Nov. 23, President elect Donald Trump selected Betsy DeVos as his pick for Secretary of Education. She was a prominent figure in Michigan politics, having served as the chairwoman of Michigan’s Republican Party. But in many eyes, she wasn’t the ideal person for the position.
“To have someone in that position who has never attended a public school, never sent a child to a public school, who has really rallied towards trying to destroy the public school — I know having someone who believes that, in that position, can’t be good, but I don’t know how much damage could possibly be done,” Wilson said.
Five years ago, Wilson was one of the many teachers in Michigan who watched skeptically as legislature began placing a stronger emphasis on accountability in the classroom.  More teacher evaluations followed and teacher-administration relationships became tense. Public schools began to close, inclining students to join charter schools. In his eyes, public education itself was changing, and not for the better.

Today, Wilson is halfway through his second year at PAHS, a school that is in what he refers to as an “exceptional” community, whereas in Michigan he worked in a lower working middle-class community. Although he acknowledges that the school he teaches at now is in no way representative of the rest of California’s, there are still many notable differences between California and Michigan —  one of the largest being the different way teachers in the two states perceive charter schools.
Wilson has sensed an understanding among Californians that both charter schools and public schools have their own separate purpose and that more importantly, the two can coexist. In Michigan, that wasn’t the case.
“I think in Michigan, if you’re a public school teacher and you’re a member of the union, you’d have a real hard time with seeing any value in the charter school system in Michigan,” Wilton said. “Because it just appears very clear that there’s a goal of… putting everyone into some sort of charter environment where the kids who can afford it are going to decent schools and the kids who aren’t are just kind of out of luck.”

Betsy Snow never taught in Michigan, but received her training to be a teacher there and is now a media specialist at Sequoia High School. Like Wilson, she also harbors similar reserves, saying that a basic education shouldn’t have any connection with a family’s financial status.

Wilson has had friends that taught in charter schools, but he says they haven’t lasted long for financial reasons.  The pay for a public school teacher might be low, but the pay for a charter school teacher is lower. According to Michigan Capitol Confidential, the average salary for a charter school teacher in Michigan during the 2011-12 school year at $42,864 was $20,000 lower than that of a public school teacher, who earned $63, 094 on average. That lower income, along with the fact that most charter schools aren’t unionized makes teaching at a charter school in Michigan a less than ideal job for someone hoping to raise a family or buy a house.
Yet from a student point of view, the perceptions are different, as junior Mritthika Harish knows. Harish went to Fuller Magnet Elementary school in North Carolina. A magnet school is another type of school that is similar to a charter school in that it is also an independently operated public school that can be started by for-profit companies or other individuals. Even though she was only at the school for half a year, the more hands-on learning environment where teachers were more involved at that school in particular makes it her favorite school to this day.
“I don’t think that where the money goes should [have an]impact as long as your child or your loved one is getting the education that they need,” Harish said.
However, despite the difference between the teaching style in the two, Harish considers both a conventional public school education and a charter school education to be equally viable in teaching the students effectively.
In Wilson’s experience, teachers got along regardless of what school system they taught in. Teachers’ incomes are an issue that teachers here in California face as well, yet in Michigan the two school systems themselves seemed to be in conflict, with what Wilson refers to as“the specter of charter schools” looming over public school teachers, this sense that the livelihood of public schools  is being threatened by charter schools supported by wealthy politicians looking for money.
Wilson watched firsthand as Michigan’s education system shifted over the years, deteriorating in part because of the emphasis on charter schools that DeVos supports. Over the years he couldn’t help but feel that there were politicians and business leaders who were out to dismantle the public education system. And as a teacher who taught in Michigan for most of his teaching career, other teachers from California often look to him for an explanation and expertise on DeVos. There’s a certain association between him and DeVos that he can’t quite escape, simply because he’s from Michigan. But it’s not a sense of guilt, it’s more of a sense of disbelief that she came from Michigan.
“I almost feel apologetic … teachers in [PAHS] would come up to me like ‘what’s the deal with this DeVos person?’ like I was somehow sort of responsible for it because I’m from Michigan, which is silly,” Wilson said. “There’s a certain level of like – not feeling culpable for it – but like, ‘what have we unleashed here?’”
PAHS and MVHS are schools where teachers are in little danger of losing their job. Yet, in past years, as schools closed and funding dropped, some of Michigan’s teachers were put on the chopping block. Wilson didn’t feel like he specifically was at the risk of losing his job, but he knew many of those around him felt like they were. But the impact of the annual  layoffs still affected him, creating an irreversible rift between the administration and teachers.
“Every year, administrators would be put in the position where they would have to make decisions to let teachers go,” Wilson said. “And when that condition exists I think it’s really hard for a principal and staff to be buddies and be on the same page… that becomes very hard because they know it’s gonna get to March or April and [then it’ll be like] ‘I have to fire 6 of these people so I can’t become close with them.’”
And Snow agrees that what will actually happen with DeVos at the helm of the country’s public education is yet to be determined. And rather than waiting for an enormous change that may never happen, the teachers will simply continue to fulfill their own duties as teachers — to help the students learn.
“I think we’re all conscious of what’s happening and yet there’s a lot of unspoken agreement that we’re going to hunker down, focus on what’s in front of us — the day to day… the fact that kids have assignments to write and they have essays to write, and they need support right now,” Snow said.
Public or charter school, Michigan or California, DeVos or not, the definition of education remains a constant. Wilson and Snow are just a few teachers among many that will always continue following that definition, guiding their students towards the best education possible.

Lessons from the Galapagos Islands

I co-wrote and reported this feature about a chemistry teacher at our school’s experience on a National Geographic expedition to the Galapagos Islands. We also interviewed National Geographic’s director of educator community, and one of the teacher’s former students who also works at National Geographic.

Published on elestoque.org on Aug. 23, 2017
Story by Ilena Peng and Anjini Venugopal
Subscriptions to National Geographic and Reader’s Digest were a significant part of chemistry teacher Kavita Gupta’s carefree childhood. As a 2017 Grosvenor fellow, Gupta was able to go to the Galapagos Islands with a National Geographic expedition, forging a new connection to the magazine she’d read growing up. And when she arrived at the island, she found more that was reminiscent of her childhood — a community that followed a simpler, more trusting lifestyle.
“We were just carefree, happy [when we were young],” Gupta said. “Our biggest crime was stealing fruits from someone’s house, for which we would get yelled at by our mom. It was just simpler times. And I might be nostalgic when I say that but I noticed that there is a lot more trust. There is a simplicity about life.” 
It was the type of trust that she saw when she visited the Tomas De Berlanga School in the Galapagos, a school for students from pre-K to 12th grade. Fascinated by the school, she wanted to take pictures of the students to post online and asked their principal whether there was a waiver that had to be signed, some sort of paperwork like the forms at MVHS. He was surprised to hear the question and told her that it would be fine.
Two students served as her guides for the day. Both were bilingual, fluent in Spanish and English. They hoped to leave the island for college, to get a higher education. Gupta asked about their classes, and they told her that their favorite classes were the ones with the teachers they liked best. In those ways, Gupta found that the school resembled MVHS. The different surroundings had led her to expect a different answer, but she realized students share similarities everywhere.
“I was expecting something so different, because the surroundings look so different and I realized even though we are all so different, a teenager is a teenager,” Gupta said. “They have the same issues everywhere, just the faces look a little different.”
But Gupta also learned that unlike MVHS, the students at the Galapagos can’t perform labs in their chemistry classes. There are tight restrictions concerning chemicals on the island. And of course, with her love of teaching — Gupta’s still in touch with teachers at the school — trying to set up a way for the two schools to collaborate via Google Hangouts.
“I thought ‘Oh, how good it would be if my kids here did the lab and via Google Hangouts we connected, those kids watched and [MVHS] kids could learn a thing or two about just letting it go a little bit,’” Gupta said.
Even the school itself seemed more relaxed as some of the younger students played on the playground during lunch. With cement pillars supporting a roof, and no walls to close it off from the outside world, the school’s cafeteria itself was built with nature in mind. Gupta describes a certain sense of “oneness” in the way animals simply came and went while the students ate their meals.
“The animals are not afraid of human beings,” Gupta said. “A bird could be sitting in its nest on the eggs and you can go close. It doesn’t fly off because animals don’t know what humans can do. They’ve always lived on their own. They’re fearless.”
One of Gupta’s past students, MVHS Class of 2011 alumnus and Educational Specialist at National Geographic Jordan Lim works closely with Szopinski. He reconnected with Gupta when he came to Earth Deconstructed at the Tech Museum on May 18, 2017. He received an email from work asking if anyone was interested in helping out at the event in San Jose and knew that he had to go.
Gupta often talks about the joy she gets out of interacting with students, so it is fitting that her favorite part of the trip was visiting the school. Even the National Geographic Director of Educator Community Alison Szopinski was able to see her genuine passion for education from their few interactions.
“I feel like throughout my life, I’ve taken a little bit of the best practices from all of these [teachers], and Mrs. Gupta [was]so friendly and empathetic and flexible,” Lim said. “And having things like open office hours and really being present and just super available to the needs of students … was super awesome, and I definitely carried that into the tutoring that I did during college and then when I taught abroad.”
Lim has a more unconventional background in education, having tutored at Macalester College, where he graduated from in 2015, and having taught in Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo through a Fulbright English teaching assistantship position. He gives credit to teachers at Monta Vista, especially Gupta, for directing him towards education.
Szopinski first met Gupta when Gupta went to Washington D.C. for the pre-expedition workshop. They had been in touch before, and Szopinski was impressed with the events, such as Earth Deconstructed, that Gupta ran for her students. But when they did meet, Gupta left a lasting impression on Szopinski.
“When I met her in person, it just was so wonderful to see her passion and enthusiasm and talent shine through. Her commitment to her students and her teaching was so evident,” Szopinski said. “But also just her own curiosity to see new places in the world and then bring those experiences back to her students just really shined through.”
Throughout her trip, Gupta found herself immersed in nature. She saw hammerhead sharks and the famous Galapagos tortoises. She describes the habits of blue-footed boobys and watched a baby sea lion without a mother pass away — the naturalist with the group said they didn’t interfere with natural processes. And in one special moment, another baby sea lion approached her. Gupta said it almost seemed like the sea lion was having a conversation with her.
“We had a heart-to-heart for two to three minutes,” Gupta said. “And I didn’t take my camera that day because I just wanted to soak in the nature, because when you see everything through a lens, you are removed.”

Spending more time away from technology during her time at the Galapagos Islands helped Gupta discover the calming presence of nature. But here in the Silicon Valley, she realizes it’s a neglected presence that she wants her students to explore.
“I feel like in our area, we are moving away from nature, not by choice, but just because we live in a very populated city, our lives are so busy,” Gupta said. “We don’t often get to go out and explore and just be with nature.”
Gupta went to the Galapagos Islands to study ocean acidification, but returned with so much more. In its simplest form, she can only describe the experience as life-changing. Even though Gupta saw similarities between MVHS and the Tomas De Berlanga School, the community she’s experienced is still so different in it’s more relaxed atmosphere and its peaceful coexistence with animals.
She’s become more conscious of not only the ways she’s helping out or giving back to the earth, but her connection to nature itself. And she hopes all her students will do the same, whether it’s through the collaboration she hopes to start with the Tomas De Berlanga School or just by going outdoors more often.
“I would always encourage that what we study should also tie into and have some connection with how to help people,” Lim said. “And I learned a lot of that through Mrs. Gupta. She definitely praised and supported me with that direction in my learning.”
So while Gupta focuses on adjusting her teaching to get her students to learn to let go and be one with nature, she already has had success in pushing her students to be more helpful people.
“We keep chasing this artificial world and it’s so peaceful out there in the natural world,” Gupta said. “Go hike once a month. Go out, pet some animals. Go be yourselves. Find your place in this humanity. You have a place.”
All photos of Gupta are used with permission of Kavita Gupta. More of her photos from the expedition can be found here.
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