How High School Students Should Approach Summer

Coming from Harvard-Westlake, a competitive private school in Los Angeles, I was well aware of the pressure of getting good grades, a high SAT score, and building unique extracurriculars in order to get into an “elite” university. The summer going into 9th grade marked a key transition point for me. I felt like I needed to do something unique to stand out from my peers to get into a “top” university. I realized that summer would no longer only be synonymous with fun, travel, camp, and hanging out with friends.

Having been a competitive soccer player in middle school, playing for Real so Cal Academy, a top ranked travel team in California, I had a big decision to make: would I put all my eggs in the “athletic” basket, essentially sacrificing my summer and high school extracurriculars to try to be recruited to a university as a soccer player, or would I stop playing competitive soccer to explore my other passions and work on unique projects that would help me figure out what I would want to study in college and, more importantly, pursue as a career?

During one of my one hour car rides to soccer practice, I realized that I wanted to stop playing Academy level club soccer. How did I make this decision? 1) I knew that I would not be a professional soccer player because I was not one of the better players on the team, 2) I could continue exercising my competitive spirit, team building, and leadership skills if I played on my high school soccer team and dedicated the newly opened free time to figure out what I cared about in the world.

When I quit, I was lost at first, spending hours consumed by Snapchat, my friend group chat, and thinking about girls! I quickly became restless and knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied or fulfilled if I didn’t channel my energy towards productive and impactful extracurriculars.

I didn’t know where or how to start. I didn’t want to listen to my parents because I was somewhat of a rebellious child during the start of high school, but in hindsight, they were both extremely supportive through this process. They encouraged me to pursue my unique path and when I told them I wasn’t inspired to pursue any of the cookie-cutter extracurriculars typically offered in high school, they helped give me the confidence to break the mold. I recognize my immense privilege coming from a school like Harvard-Westlake that equipped me with the resources and support to make my dreams a reality. Looking back, I wish I could’ve had a mentor to help guide me through this process because I didn’t always listen to my parents!

I wanted to be independent, so I did something unusual for a highschooler: I sat down and took out a white piece of paper, and I wrote all of the things that I was good at and all of the things I was interested in and circled where there was overlap. Physics, math, and airplanes, and business, problem solving, travel, taking risks, and French were the two trends that I observed, so I decided to pursue these deeply for the subsequent 3 years. This exercise fundamentally changed my academic and professional aspirations, inspiring me to hone in on the things I loved most.

This helped shape who I am today, leading me to pursue aerospace engineering as my major at Stanford University and internships in Senegal and Ivory Coast for the 4 summers leading up to Covid. This would eventually lead me to co-found an education company to give the next generation of students the opportunity to discover and pursue their passions in a meaningful way. It goes without saying, my high school summers had a huge impact on my life. I believe that summer is the best time for students to explore their passions and find unique extracurricular experiences that will help them determine what they want to study in college and pursue beyond. I hope my experience, research, and opinion can help high school students use summer as an opportunity to find their purpose and direction in life rather than turning to cookie-cutter extracurriculars, being sucked into a pressure-inducing system, and getting on a treadmill that blinds students of the why.

My Summers

In 9th grade, I was determined to find an opportunity to practice my French. In middle school, French had become one of my favorite subjects in school, and I knew that if I wanted to excel in my AP language course in high school, the best way to do that would be to immerse myself with the language in a francophone country. I was not particularly drawn to France because I was really excited to find an opportunity to immerse myself in a very different culture and wanted to do something unique and different. So, I started looking into programs in French speaking Africa. This was right around the time when I read the book Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunus. My mom recommended this book because she knew that I liked entrepreneurship, finance, and empowering marginalized individuals. This book opened my eyes to Microfinance and how this economic model could be used to empower struggling entrepreneurs and revolutionize developing economies. So, I looked into Microfinance in Africa and found Aider Sans Frontières, a Microfinance bank in the north of Senegal. I immediately knew that this was a perfect opportunity for my freshman summer. You are probably thinking: what?! Alec is crazy. No 9th grader does this. He went to Africa to work at a Microfinance bank? Who does that? I was very motivated by putting myself out of my comfort zone and learning about a new culture. My parents were also extremely supportive during this whole process. My mom helped me look into programs, draft emails to reach out to new people, and encouraged me to follow my passions. I reached out to one of my best friends who was also in my Harvard-Westlake French class to see if he would be interested in joining me. I knew that I didn’t want to go to Senegal, a foreign country where I was still learning the language, alone. He agreed to come but when he told his parents, they thought he was crazy and didn’t let him join. So, my supportive father offered to come with me. I will forever be grateful to him for this. My dad is an adventurer and really wanted to support me in pursuing my passions. So, my father and I left for Senegal that June. I feel very privileged to have had the support from my parents to travel to a country on the other side of the world, but most importantly, I feel immense gratitude for their encouragement to take risks and follow my wildest dreams.

Going to Senegal to work at Aider Sans Frontières was not easy. I was living with a host family with bucket showers, no wifi, and onion rice for food every day. I was miserable for the first few days. I was not accustomed to the scorching sub Saharan heat, flies everywhere, and shocking scenes of poverty. The experience was life changing though, and I left with resilience, appreciation for a new culture, new friends and relationships, and a better French accent! I decided to return to Senegal for the next 3 summers.

This would then inspire me to apply for and win an $8,000 grant from Harvard-Westlake my junior year through the social entrepreneurship fellowship and start a non-profit, Soles4Good. I would later write my personal statement on the common app about this experience.

Meanwhile, it was always my dream to get my pilot’s license. In elementary school, there was something called career day, where we got to go to work with a parent from our class. I decided to go to the airport that day with a pilot, my best friend’s father, and came home that day telling my parents I would be a pilot when I was older. After returning from Senegal my 9th grade summer, I begged my parents to allow me to fly with my best friend’s father who I went to career day with, who offered to teach me how to fly. My best friend was also learning to fly at the time, so I thought it would be a fun and enriching activity to do together. I ended up soloing the subsequent year and getting my pilot’s license in my 11th grade summer. Again, this might sound a bit crazy. My parents were extremely supportive in this whole process, helping me find flight schools, financially supporting this endeavor, and being by my side every step of the way. In pursuing my pilot’s license in high school, I learned how to multitask, study for something that I was passionate about and not forced to learn, and helped me discover a new form of meditation, creativity, and wonder.

My experiences taking a leap to pursue my passions in aviation and entrepreneurship/business in Africa had an immense impact on my life, teaching me to take risks, build resilience, and invest my time in the things I was most curious about at a young age. I often felt exhausted and uninspired after final exams in school since so much studying was through rote memorization. By working on my own passion projects, I was excited to exercise my interpersonal skills, build empathy, and learn about new cultures. I felt more invigorated to learn by pursuing the topics that I was passionate about. This helped me figure out what I would study in college, what careers I would want to pursue, and taught me how to be resilient, entrepreneurial, and get things done, not motivated by an end grade but by personal and professional growth and impact.


As Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, recently said, personal projects are what education is all about:

Instead of telling kids that their treehouses could be on the path to the work they do as adults, we tell them the path goes through school. And unfortunately schoolwork tends to be very different from working on projects of one’s own. It’s usually neither a project, nor one’s own. So as school gets more serious, working on projects of one’s own is something that survives, if at all, as a thin thread off to the side. It’s a bit sad to think of all the high school kids turning their backs on building treehouses and sitting in class dutifully learning about Darwin or Newton to pass some exam, when the work that made Darwin and Newton famous was actually closer in spirit to building treehouses than studying for exams. If I had to choose between my kids getting good grades and working on ambitious projects of their own, I’d pick the projects.

In Steve Jobs’ famous 2005 Stanford commencement speech, he advises students to pursue their passions and trust that the dots will connect:

I decided to take a calligraphy class… None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Having personal projects is a lifestyle. You are taught to be more than a cog in a machine. I believe that all students should experience the journey of going from project ideation through implementation. I urge students to follow in the footsteps of Steve Jobs and listen to influential leaders like Paul Graham and use summer breaks as an opportunity to explore their curiosity and exercise their imagination. Build a treehouse. Learn calligraphy. Find your own passion project.

Curious Cardinals: Build a Projects with a Mentor This Summer

Audrey and I started Curious Cardinals because we noticed that high school students lack inspiration and structure for tapping into their unique interests, often succumbing to the same cookie-cutter extracurricular activities. We noticed a system that puts pressure on students to exaggerate the clubs, research, and internships they participated in but often dreaded on their college application activity sheet. We realized that our classmates at Stanford got there because they each had their own passion projects that made them interesting and unique. We wanted to create a community that championed individuals to collaborate and share their projects with the world. We saw that our peers at Stanford each had their unique journeys and knowledge that they were itching to share with their younger self. So, we connected the dots, and created a company that was focused on project based mentorship. We hired our 2 first employees that had vast experience in education to create a framework for the passion and project based learning pedagogy that we were preaching.

We reflected on the challenges we had in pursuing our unique projects in high school, immigration reform for Audrey and starting the non-profit in Senegal for me. We spoke to hundreds of students to understand their pain points and how our mentors could provide structure to amplify and enhance their experience working on projects. We mobilized industry leaders to judge our project symposium and give students feedback. And, we built a technology platform that gives students a place to reflect, have accountability, receive feedback, and connect with other students and mentors that might want to collaborate.

Find Your Direction

Although there is a lot of stress and pressure for high school students to build the most impressive resume for college admissions, in the long run, finding and working on meaningful projects gives students better opportunities to learn more, figure out what they want to study in college and career paths to take beyond that, and in the long term, differentiate themselves through authentic and meaningful learning experiences that will pay off when applying to college but most importantly in life. Too often, I am now seeing friends graduate college and not know what industries to go into or hate their first job. In interviewing candidates to work full time for Curious Cardinals, I hear common narratives of career pivots full of twists and turns. These are adults that are drawn to work for Curious Cardinals because they value the twists and turns in life. They believe in Steve Jobs’s thesis of taking a calligraphy class and trusting that the dots will connect.

In my eyes, high school summers should serve as a compass. Before GPS was invented, pilots would need to get their bearings right to arrive at the correct destination. If the pilot was a few degrees off in his initial heading, he could be thousands of miles away from the final destination. Students that are able to find that initial direction will be able to reach their goals years before those that aren’t thoughtful and intentional about finding their purpose and direction.

With all that said, I recognize that it is not easy, that you have to be creative, that you will make mistakes, but if you take risks pursuing things you care about, it will pay off in ways that take years to measure.

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