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High School Students Explore Career Interests and Personal Passions during Launchpad
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Read about two UPrep students' culminating projects and their alumni mentors. Pictured above is a painting by student Karina M.

High School Students Explore Career Interests and Personal Passions during Launchpad
UPrep alums mentor students during culminating project

During the winter and spring intensives, our 11th and 12th graders participate in and complete a required LaunchPad. Each UPrep high school student spends two weeks working on an experience of their design that speaks to their personal passions or professional, vocational, or academic curiosities. Each student partners with a mentor who works in their field of interest. During the third week of the intensive period, students finish writing a four- to six-page reflection paper and present their project during the LaunchPad Presentation event.

“LaunchPad allows students to put into practice all of the executive functioning skills they have learned at UPrep,” said Ed Billingslea, assistant head of school for academics.

“LaunchPad is a culminating project. It builds on the collaboration, communication, and presentation skills students have been working on during high school,” said Ed. “Having a mentor allows them to dive deeper and push themselves further in this real-life situation.”

During the January 2024 LaunchPad period, seven of the mentors were UPrep alumni. Below, we talked with two UPrep students and the alumni who were their mentors for their January LaunchPad projects.

LaunchPad Topic: Humans in the Build Environment

Photo of Seattle and book for LaunchPad project by UPrep student Owen D.

UPrep student Owen D. studied issues facing a few urban neighborhoods in Seattle.

Owen D., 12th grade

What led you to create this LaunchPad?

I've always been interested in the urban environment and how we live in such a different way than people have in the past. For most of human history, people lived as hunter-gatherers and foragers. Today we live in huge, interconnected metropolises. I’m interested in the effect on the human mind and behavior. My LaunchPad is a survey of urbanism topics and I looked at the issues facing a few urban neighborhoods in the Seattle area.

What have you learned from Don Blakeney ’94, executive director at the UDistrict Partnership?

Don provided me with resources, including urban neighborhoods to visit and study, links to nonprofit organizations that are doing advocacy work, and articles and books by interesting thinkers. One thinker who has worked on this topic is the city commissioner of New York, Amanda Burton, who developed Battery City Park. I’ve learned that humans have an intuitive aesthetic reaction to spaces. Sometimes we can't exactly articulate what makes it more pleasing to be in a European Christmas market than being on the sidewalk on Aurora Avenue. It turns out there are a lot of basic components in the design and structure of both places that shape the way that we view them and the way that we view ourselves.

What’s one area in the city that you studied during LaunchPad?

Northgate Mall was the first modern mall in the United States, and it was centered primarily around automobiles. Eventually, it became a dying mall. So, the city, the neighborhood, and a group of businesses came together and decided to revamp Northgate. It’s currently in redevelopment, with mixed-use zoning development. There are buildings with apartments and ground-level retail, commercial buildings, single and multi-family apartments and duplexes, the Kraken Iceplex, a library, and a community center. The new light rail provides access to people from around the city. The last piece is the public space: there’s a large open plaza right next to the Iceplex and the entire area has more greenery and walking paths. It’s a powerful and optimistic example of redevelopment.

How does this LaunchPad tie into your future learning goals?

I want to study history in college, so it’s not entirely related. UPrep has given me a lot of opportunities to explore different things, and I’ve benefited from UPrep courses and experiences. For example, I took the Marimba Band intensive. I had never really played an instrument before, and I learned to love it. When I knew I’d have school support to study anything that I wanted to, I thought, why not try something new? So, I decided to follow my interest in built human environments.

UPrep alum Don Blakeney ’94, executive director at the UDistrict Partnership

Don Blakeney ’94, executive director at the UDistrict Partnership

Mentor Don Blakeney ’94, executive director at the UDistrict Partnership

Tell me about the UDistrict Partnership.

We do marketing for the UDistrict and host major events and festivals. We run a cleaning program, where we pick up litter and remove graffiti. We also have a safety ambassador team that checks in with small businesses. We coordinate with the city of Seattle, the county, and transit on urban planning and infrastructure issues. We also coordinate with private developers who are building in the neighborhood, which is happening more and more lately. This is probably Seattle’s fastest-growing neighborhood. Twenty skyscrapers are currently being planned and built in this urban hub. It’s a lot of fun working with small businesses and stakeholders around managing this change and making sure that it works for the community in the future.

How are you mentoring Owen?

I love his project. Owen has explored different ways to talk about urban issues and learned that planning issues aren’t linear. There’s not a right and wrong answer, but if you approach issues with continual curiosity, you’re able to find solutions along the way and answer questions. But those questions sometimes lead to more questions. Owen is curious about public spaces, and he’s diving in to explore a couple of examples in Seattle. I talked about the UDistrict and some of the dynamics that are going on here. We also talked about some of the spaces I have worked in, including Chinatown and Third Avenue downtown, and we talked about Cal Anderson Park, which is where I live on Capitol Hill. It’s a dynamic public space that requires a lot of thinking. I sent him a long reading list, and he absorbed it with great gusto.

How did UPrep prepare you for your career path?

Although UPrep was a small school, it had so much to offer students. It was easy to try many things and there was an expectation that we would try new things. I was on the soccer team and the tennis team, but I also participated in theatre and mock trial. We had Winter Opportunities, a 2-week period where you explored a series of topics, whether it was basket weaving, a trip to Paris, or mock trial, and it was really fun. I think that spirit still lives on at UPrep.

Students were always encouraged to drive the show, too. For example, we wanted to add music to the beginning of basketball games, and the teachers said, sure, let’s do that, and we made games more fun. It felt collaborative, like we were thought partners with the teachers, and this has impacted my career path. The urban planning that I do now means I’m throwing events like a bubble tea festival and I’m also dealing with serious issues like homelessness. Being able to fire on all cylinders and look at different things at once through various lenses is something that I began to learn to do at UPrep.

LaunchPad Topic: Portraits of Activism

Painting by UPrep Student Karina M.

UPrep Student Karina M. painted this to convey how women, especially women of color, are overlooked when looking at American history.

Karina M., 11th grade

What led you to create this LaunchPad?

The one thing I could picture myself doing for three weeks was creating art. I asked Alumni Manager Claire Fallat to help me find an alumni mentor, and she suggested Avalon Hester. Most of the portraiture and artwork that Avalon creates serves a cause and focuses on feminism and advocating for women’s rights. I thought creating artwork that tries to make a difference was a good goal for me.

What have you learned from artist Avalon Hester ’19?

During our first conversation, she said she is trying to bring awareness to women’s rights in a visual way. I learned that it’s easier for people to form an emotional connection and investment in an issue through looking at art than it is through reading. I’m hoping the artwork I create for this intensive will be something the viewers can have an emotional connection with. Avalon has also helped me with some technical aspects of painting, too.

Tell me about your portraits and your goal for this LaunchPad.

I'm creating three paintings that show different aspects of womanhood. For the first painting, I used reference pictures to capture a moment where girls are having fun hanging out together. It was inspired by some work that Avalon did where she photographed herself and her friends in size-adjustable designs that could fit across their different body types; those pictures captured women having fun together. My first painting portrays the innocence of girlhood. The second painting was inspired by Avalon’s project Overlooked, which was a dress that shows a series of paintings of overlooked women throughout history. My painting is supposed to show how women—especially women of color—are overlooked when looking at American history, even though they are a fundamental part of it. The third painting is a portrait of a woman. I hope the viewers of my painting see that being a woman is not just one experience; there are multiple perspectives.

How does this LaunchPad tie into your future learning goals?

This LaunchPad is teaching me to be more thoughtful with my work and realize my artwork can make an impact. In the future, I want to focus on trying to emotionally connect with the viewer. I think the viewer is more interested in a painting when they can see struggle or real-world issues being shown.

UPrep Alum Avalon Hester

Avalon Hester ’19 wearing her UPrep LaunchPad creation

Artist Avalon Hester ’19

Tell me about your degree path.

I’m at The New School in New York City, which is the umbrella university that includes the Parson School of Design. This spring, I’ll earn a degree in journalism and design and a second degree in fashion design at Parsons. During my last semester, I’ll be part of a Parsons plus-size design competition along with working on my thesis.

How are you mentoring Karina?

It was such an honor to be contacted by Karina. She had great questions for me about activism and art. She was very inquisitive about my process and learning about the perspective from which I make artwork. I’m very excited to see how she incorporates reference art into her first piece of artwork. We have had mutually beneficial conversations about the artistic process, especially from a sense of activism.

How did UPrep prepare you for life beyond UPrep?

UPrep’s art faculty is world-class. The classes that I took at UPrep were on par with the most interesting art courses that I took at Parsons. The experience of looking at art through the lens of social justice and history and as a storytelling medium is such an advanced way of thinking about art. When I took a UPrep history class titled Africa Since 1945, I used art to explore African textile traditions. That idea still drives what I want to do with my career as an artist: to think of art as a tool to explore and explain the world around me.



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