BY ALLISON LEVITSKY
Daily Post Staff Writer
A teen who wowed Palo Alto school board members with articulate comments on tough issues is getting ready to leave for Washington D.C., where he plans to study at Georgetown University in preparation for a career in public service.
Advait Arun, 18, represented Gunn High School as a nonvoting student board rep this year. He gave the board his perspective as a high school senior about such things as equity, campus climate around harassment and graduation requirements.
At a late-night meeting in March, when dozens of parents filled the board room for a contentious discussion on the renaming of Jordan and Terman middle schools, Arun spoke for six minutes. He described the tension between inspiring students with the school name Fred Yamamoto — a Palo Alto High School graduate who was held in Japanese internment camps, then enlisted in the U.S. military and died in combat — and the risk of offending the Chinese parents who said the name reminded them of the Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.
“Is the chance at diversity in our names worth controversy in our community? And once again, are we willing to live in the gray area and ask hard questions?” Arun asked. “In the process of community healing, no matter what option we choose, we need to ask the questions.”
In the end, the board opted to avoid offending parents and chose the school names Frank Greene and Ellen Fletcher. But when school board President Ken Dauber spoke after Arun, he commended the teen’s remarks.
‘Sparkling and erudite’
“Well, I am certainly inspired by the education that Gunn students are receiving by Mr. Arun’s — I would call that sparkling and erudite discussion of the question of identity and naming,” Dauber said to laughter and scattered applause. “It does help ground us, actu- ally, in what we’re all about here.”
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell said she was also impressed with Arun’s contributions.
“Advait was one of the dedicated student school board members who I have worked with,” Baten Caswell told the Post in an email. “His careful study of the board packet materials was often augmented by his own investigation into student opinion. I appreciated the student voice and enthusiasm that he brought to our board discussions.”
A student’s perspective
Arun said he appreciated being able to give the board a student’s perspective on the district’s homework policy or the proposal to make computer science classes a graduation requirement — which he said was a well-designed proposal that he ultimately opposed because “students do make good decisions for themselves when it comes to choosing classes.”
“I wish those kinds of conversations happened more often,” Arun said. “To be honest, (the board’s) awareness of students’ lives could definitely be improved.”
At Gunn, Arun saw some of the fallout of the district’s suicide streak. Two Gunn students, a Paly sophomore and a 19-year-old Gunn graduate died by suicide between October 2014 and March 2015, Arun’s freshman year.
His view of student wellness
But Arun said he didn’t accept the connection that some have made between teenage suicides and stress caused by the district’s academic rigor.
“I definitely make the contention that academics are not really what’s causing suicides or mental health problems,” Arun said. “From what I’ve seen, Palo Alto’s always been a really high-achieving place.”
Arun said he was proud of the district for opening wellness centers on school campuses, where students can talk to counselors, and building a culture of having more open conversations about student mental health. He said he had noticed a real change in other students’ willingness to talk about mental health from four years ago.
But Arun said he thinks the district places an over-emphasis on testing and grades and that he thinks too many student conversations focus on those topics.
“It’s very dissatisfying to have those kinds of conversations,” Arun said. “I think just the nature of testing at Gunn and just Palo Alto in general really contributes to stress and … a dejected view of school.”
Leaving his comfort zone
Arun will be the only Gunn graduate in his class heading to Georgetown, where he said he’s leaning toward majoring in international politics and eco- nomics at the School of Foreign Service.
“I’m kind of excited. I enjoy going out of my comfort zone,” Arun told the Post. “I’ve transitioned schools enough for me to be OK with it.”
Arun grew up in Fremont, where his mom worked as a teacher while Arun attended Challenger School, a private school in Newark that his parents opted for because of budget cuts to science and art programs at Fremont public schools.
Arun’s mother taught at Escondido Elementary School last year but is moving to Hoover Elementary School next month. His dad is a management executive at an international tech company, Arun said, and his brother will be a sophomore at Gunn this year.
In 2013, his family moved to Palo Alto, where Arun said he found community in Gunn’s Model United Nations and theater programs, which he called “one of the biggest sources of strength for me at Gunn.”
“I definitely don’t think I would have had these kinds of chances in Fremont, where I moved from,” he said.