Friday afternoon, the halls of South Medford High School were full of students in dresses, suits and ties, exclaiming congratulations and murmuring encouragement. The conversation lent the mood a mix of anticipation and closure.
The final days of a Medford high school senior’s academic year are full of the bustle of preparing materials, rehearsing presentations and calming nerves. Such is the way of the senior project.
For some students, the senior project is primarily something to get done, a box to check. For many, though, the spark of interest that ignited the capstone projects of their high school careers connects directly with their passions and the paths they see themselves following far beyond the commencement stage.
Parker Burrill is one of the latter group. His project was an eight-minute short film about Camp Divide in the Wallowa Mountains, which helps rehabilitate veterans returning from combat. Burrill, an aspiring filmmaker, sees the project as a stepping stone on his journey rather than a requirement to fill and forget about.
“I’m game for telling any kind of story that will benefit all different types of people,” he said. “I really want to get my and others’ ideas out there for people to hear and understand. Where else would we be without stories and hearing them and telling them?”
Burrill said he decided filmmaking was the career track for him when he first started making movies around age 10.
“It’s what I want to do and what I’m going to do, now matter how that process goes,” he said.
Others approach the project emphasizing community service or outreach, such as Malia Sprague.
Sprague’s project focused on providing Christmas dinners to families through Kids Unlimited Academy. She helped provide meals to 250 families, supplied Christmas presents to kids who weren’t going to get any and, for one family, paid their heating bill for a year (corrected).
At 3:15 p.m. Friday, Sprague stood in front of a classroom of 14 peers, teachers and community members. She told the story of partnering with coffee stand company The Human Bean to organize fundraisers and soliciting businesses including Adroit Construction and Umpqua Bank for donations.
Her goal had been to raise $2,000. She raised $7,000. That garnered an audible reaction from her audience.
“From the beginning, I kind of just wanted to do something that would have an impact on people,” she said.
Sprague, who is headed to the University of Oregon in pursuit of a business degree, said she sees community service in her future, whether by working in the nonprofit sector or by volunteering her time outside of work.
Burrill, meanwhile, will take classes at Rogue Community College for the first step on his filmmaking journey.
Two English teachers, Camille Schuler and Leslie Davis, coordinate project presentations at South Medford, which is credited with being the birthplace of the senior project requirement and format in the school district. They believe getting students fired up about their projects is a matter of framing. With the flexibility to pursue a wide range of activities, students sometimes wind up learning what career is not right for them.
“They’ll say, because it wasn’t how I thought it was going to be, Ms. Davis,” Davis said. “So that can seem like a project that’s not going to be particularly interesting or unique, but it was a project that was important for that particular student.”
Becca Newell, who partnered with fellow student Maizy Kesterson to raise $1,850 for Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, said that although fundraising work doesn’t much interest her, she is attracted to the possibility of working for Doernbecher as a physician. Kesterson, who has experience with Doerbencher as a patient, receiving treatment for psoriasis and Crohn’s Disease, also said the fundraising was “stressful and not something I would do for a career.”
But, Newell said, “(Doernbecher is) just a great organization. I was proud to fundraise for them.”
Davis and Schuler both said the time when seniors present their projects is a time of mixed emotions, as was evident at South the last two days heading into the weekend. When all the students in younger classes leave school early on those days, only the seniors remain, encouraging each other through the final hurdle they have to clear before they leave high school behind.
“It’s like a rite of passage,” Schuler said. “A boy will have his tie on or a girl will have her suit on, or a dress … and they finish their speech and it is a sense of accomplishment for them, and this is the last thing they have to do before they’re done with school.”
“It’s a great way to end the year,” Davis said.