From 48.5 Print: Menlo Seniors and Alumni Pursue Unconventional Paths after Graduating

Illustration+from+48.5+Print+Edition+front+page.+The+cover+showcased+stories+on+the+Global+Expo+and+unconventional+college+paths.+Staff+illustration%3A+Sophie+Fang

Sophie Fang

Illustration from 48.5 Print Edition front page. The cover showcased stories on the Global Expo and unconventional college paths. Staff illustration: Sophie Fang

By Erica Fenyo, Menlo School

College sweatshirts abound and students rush to update their Instagram bios as seniors receive their acceptances and decide which university to attend next year. However, not all Menlo students choose the “standardized” path following attending a prep school: gap years, overseas universities, boarding schools, military academies and community colleges also entice some Menlo students. 

Aside from the usual enrollment in four-year universities, gap years represent Menlo students’ second most prominent choice. Some register for programs while others design their own path.

Senior Meera Rajagopal plans to participate in a semester-long program in Europe at the start of her gap year and end with a road trip encompassing California’s national parks. 

“I’m doing a program called ‘Art History Abroad,’ so you go to six European countries with like 18 kids, and you spend the morning going to certain art installations and museums and learning their history. Then you spend the second half of the day doing art,” Rajagopal said. “In the first semester, I’ll have a program with kids my age, but the second semester will be more like me learning how to be with myself, so I’m nervous for that. […] I’ve set goals for the gap year, and that’s a goal that I have: to be more comfortable by myself.”

Senior Tessa Frantz also chose a gap year to have time away from school and learn more about herself. “I don’t have [my gap year] very structured, which I think is good for me, but I definitely want to backpack and travel,” she said.

“The main reason why I want to take a gap year is that I just want to travel on my own and see parts of the world that I haven’t seen before and also just kind of get away from the normal viewpoints and conversations that I’m always having in this area,” Frantz said.

Alumna Elisabeth Westermann, ‘21, deferred her admission from Stanford University to attend St. Clare’s International College in Oxford for a year. “I wanted to do something productive that would allow me to live in a new place. One goal for my gap year was to have a stronger humanities background before college,” she said. 

Elisabeth Westermann explores Amsterdam during her gap year. Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Westermann

“Through my classes, I have been able to explore topics like Victorian literature and the Enlightenment in a lot of depth, and that learning experience has been fascinating and transformative,” Westermann said in an email to The Coat of Arms. 

Even though she feels homesick at times, Westermann believes her year at Oxford will give her a better sense of direction when she starts as a freshman at Stanford. 

Although less common, some Menlo students also enroll at foreign colleges. This fall, senior Samantha Floyd will attend the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

“I’ve always wanted to go to school abroad […], experience a lot of cultures and just get out of the bubble,” Floyd said. “I think a big thing that pushed me to think about going abroad was kind of the whole political situation in America after the 2016 [election].”

When Floyd initially started exploring international universities, she focused on Oxford and Cambridge because they were the most well-known. “Then, I found St. Andrews […] and it just had everything that I wanted: majors, the type of school environment and in terms of student happiness,” Floyd said. “I visited [St. Andrews] and I just fell in love.”

Floyd’s mother lived in Europe for 15 years, and her whole family moved to Germany, so her mother and aunts always push her to see what exists outside the United States. “I also have a few friends from when I went to middle school at Castilleja who went to St. Andrews, who I went and visited when I was there,” Floyd said. “But it was really more so my mom’s experience living abroad that pushed me to go there.”

Floyd looks forward to traveling and exploring, but she is also anxious to be so far from home. “The time difference is seven or eight hours, so I’m a little nervous to be so far away from my parents, at least in the beginning,” she said. “But I mean, I did want to experience the world, and I’m sure it’ll make me become very independent very fast.”

Recent alumna Alix Borton, ‘21, is a freshman at the University of British Columbia. As a dual citizen of the United States and Canada, Borton always regarded Canadian universities as a viable option. “After I toured a few schools in Canada, I decided I wanted to apply,” she said. “This was around the time of the [2020] presidential election, so at that point, if someone was reelected, I would definitely be going to school internationally.”

Borton found the Canadian application process to be very straightforward. “For a lot of Canadian schools, although not for UBC, you just submit your transcript, which makes it really easy to apply,” she said. “Also, as a citizen, [Canadian schools] were way, way cheaper.”

Although Canadian and American schools follow a relatively similar path, the main difference Borton found was the party culture. “The drinking and substance age is 19 [in Canada], and I feel like everyone is more settled back,” she said. “There’s less of a binge drinking and party culture here because [alcohol] is so accessible, so I guess people don’t feel like they need to compensate for anything or catch up.”

A select few graduates apply to other high schools — typically boarding schools — as “super seniors” to boost their athletic or academic skills before attending college.

Alumnus Josh Poulos, ‘20, deferred from New York University to attend Phillips Exeter Academy for a year. “I played water polo pretty competitively throughout high school, and I just got to the point where after ten years of grinding, I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to play in college anymore,” Poulos said. “So, I heard about an opportunity to go to Exeter for a year and just take some time to think about [college] and take a little break.”

Josh Poulos (’20) attended a post-graduate year at Phillips Exeter before going to NYU. Photo courtesy of Josh Poulos

Poulos believes that the fifth year of high school helped him adjust once he started at NYU, and he decided not to pursue collegiate water polo. “It was another year to grow up; I think just with one more year of anything, you grow as a person and learn more about yourself, especially with the boarding school experience,” he said. “Academically, Exeter is also just a great school with a great support system, and I was able to take a lot of classes that got me ahead in college.”

Similarly, alumnus Brady Kline, ‘21, went the fifth-year-senior route and currently attends Lawrenceville School. “I just felt like attending Lawrenceville was the right thing to do to ensure I’d get one more full season of football, and as I had started to hear back from some colleges, I wasn’t super happy about the decisions and wanted to reapply,” Kline said in email to The Coat of Arms. 

For many, military academies represent a stark contrast to the laid-back Menlo atmosphere. Not many Menlo students envision themselves in the service, but a select few the path to a military career.

On average, one Menlo senior enrolls in a military academy each year. This year, senior Andrew Yagen accepted an offer from the United States Military Academy, also known as West Point. Yagen will join three other Menlo graduates currently attending military academies: Emilio Simbeck, ‘19, at the United States Naval Academy, Avery Patel, ‘20, also at West Point and Christopher d’Alencon, ‘21, at the United States Air Force Academy. 

Yagen first thought about joining the U.S. Army through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) about a decade ago, which prepares college students for life as Army officers, but he got serious about joining the military at the start of the pandemic.

“I think the Army just calls to me because […] you’re really on the ground fighting the war,” Yagen said. “I’m most excited for the Army stuff that you do: the infantry stuff, the competitions, to practice all of the skills that will give me a head start in the military.”

Yagen turned to Menlo’s football team to prepare him for military life. “The [football team’s] culture seems pretty similar to that of the Army,” he said. “I talked to a division commander who has a kid on the junior varsity team, and he attested to the fact that the brotherhood is really the same between the Army and football.”

West Point graduates must complete at least five years of active duty service and three years in the reserves. Yagen plans to serve eight to ten years in the Army before continuing up the military ladder or pursuing a law degree.

Community colleges also attract students with the opportunity to take classes locally at a vastly lower price than state schools or private institutions. Graduate Marianne Siulangapo, ‘19, studies at Foothill College full time and takes a course at the College of San Mateo, but she did not always plan on attending a community college.

“I was looking at all of my financial aid packages, and all [colleges] had the same price; it didn’t really matter where I went to school because everything still had the same price tag,” Siulangapo said. “I actually had never considered community college before then.”

Siulangapo loves community college for three main reasons. “Number one, I would say for financial means; I actually pay for my community college classes myself. […] Number two, I would say the curriculum,” she said.

“The third aspect that I really like is that you have people who are coming from all different ages, all different walks of life. […] I remember the first class I was taking at the College of San Mateo, I [was in a class with] someone that already had their Ph.D., but for the sake of an enjoyment of learning, they wanted to take a class that they had never learned about before,” she said.

For Siulangapo, choosing a community college over a four-year program sparked some judgment from the Menlo community. “There were a few positive reactions that were happy for me,” she said. “Then there were others, like Menlo parents and other students, who would say, ‘Where are you going to college?’ Then, [I] would tell them the community college name, and they would be like, ‘Oh.’”

Siulangapo believes community college was the right choice for her and her finances, but deciding to attend was not easy. “It can be a very guilty choice, like, ‘Oh, I went to Menlo, but I’m just ending up at a community college anyway. […] There is almost guilt to teachers, too, where it’s like, you put so much work into me, and it’s almost like it’s amounting to nothing,” she said. “In reality, […] there are professors who are at your four-year schools that are teaching the same exact courses at community colleges but at a cheaper price.”

This story was originally published on The Coat of Arms on May 12, 2022.