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Campfire Soul Sessions: Seniors Set Intentions for Final Year
Mitzi Mock, Digital Storyteller
Seniors imitate Nueva's "Open N" logo.


On the Monday before the first week of school, the senior class piled into buses and headed east to the American River. The first afternoon took the form of advisory games and singalongs to early 2000s music. The next day they filled up 10 neon yellow inflatable rafts and drifted down the water, no destination more important than simply being in the presence of one another. And when night fell, they formed a circle to bare their souls.

Taking a class retreat is an annual Nueva tradition enjoyed at every grade in the Upper School. But since Nueva’s first senior class, the twelfth-grade retreat has held a special place in the progression of school trips.

“It’s a ritual to pause and reflect on a pivotal moment in life,” said history teacher Arta Khakpour, who has attended every senior retreat as an adviser. “I don’t think you could put together a group of people my age, in their 30s, who are this intentional, sensitive, and thoughtful. Every year, I find it a profound experience to witness.”

Advisory games at senior retreat.

When Upper School history teacher Brian Cropper sought out his new role as twelfth-grade dean, he had this trip in mind.

“I always joke that I’m a camp counselor masquerading as a teacher. Some of the most important revelations of my life have happened around a campfire,” he said.

This year’s trip did not disappoint.

“I was blown away by the students. What I experienced on this trip would be reason alone for me to come back to Nueva every year,” he said.

The Concentric Circles

The first circles of the evening came at the direction of the student council leaders. They asked their peers to form two concentric circles. The students in the outer circle faced outward with their eyes closed. Students in the inner circle followed the directions of their leading peers, each assignment growing in emotional intimacy.

Tap someone who you hope to have a class with this year. Tap someone who inspires you. Tap someone who you misjudged. Tap someone who you wish to apologize to...

Students perform skit to represent growth mindset.

“When you are on the inside tapping shoulders, it’s a time of vulnerability. Admitting that you misjudged someone is hard. On the other side, feeling like someone misjudged you is really hard,” said Maddie P.

“I felt myself worrying that the people I was tapping would turn around and see me. I was nervous even when I was tapping for positive reasons. It revealed to me my discomfort with being sincere and giving compliments,” said Tyler G.

“I remember as freshmen in our Science of Mind class (the Upper School equivalent of SEL), students wouldn’t buy into activities. But now here we are asking really difficult questions of each other and responding honestly,” said Maddie. “A growth mindset is in our blood.”

The “Campfire” Circle

After the concentric circles, Brian asked the class to form a circle around the “campfire” (this year a more environmentally friendly and less hazardous lantern). He asked them to reflect on who they’ve been and who they want to be — individually and as a class.

“When Brian first opened the campfire discussion, I thought, 'OK, another meeting, yada yada,'" said Tyler G. “But in this moment everyone focused. No one was cracking jokes or talking over each other. There was mass participation. The discussion was so raw, genuine, and vulnerable. It was a full manifestation of all the values we always talk about as a school.”

The discussion was so raw, genuine, and vulnerable. It was a full manifestation of all the values we always talk about as a school.” — Tyler G., Grade 12

As people went around the circle sharing their intentions, Tyler had his own revelation.

“I remember instances at the end of last year where classmates I didn’t know very well came up to me and started asking me more personal questions,” said Tyler, who found the experience suspicious at the time. “Now hearing them talk about their intentions to open up and make more meaningful connections made me realize that their behavior was them working toward that goal.”

“It was great hearing vulnerability from people you usually just share a math class with,” said Maddie P.

“The first intention I had was, ‘I want to be happy and make the people I love happy,’” she said. “Then, of course, college flashed into my head.”

An Intentional Senior Year

If the traditional narrative of senior year in America is one fraught with college-admission obsession, Nueva’s Upper School has always sought to rewrite the story. Not one in which preparation for college is any less rigorous, but one in which the effort to prepare students for a meaningful, productive life is so thorough that the ability for students to thrive in any academic environment follows naturally.

“We’re absolutely preparing students for college, but it’s a side effect of raising students to be well-informed, conscientious, engaged human beings,” said Arta. “Thriving during those four years of college is just a bonus.”

“We’re absolutely preparing students for college, but it’s a side effect of raising students to be well-informed, conscientious, engaged human beings. Thriving during those four years of college is just a bonus.” — Arta Khakpour, Upper School History Teacher

The Upper School’s founding class of 2017 took this ethos to heart as they embarked on their senior year, seeking a post-secondary journey focused on learning, personal growth, and optimal fit. Alum Henry Phipps ’17, now a junior at Dartmouth College, recalls the conversations he had with his peers during his senior retreat.

“We were scared because we had never seen another senior class go through this process,” he said. “We talked about where the pressure comes from and our desire to make our own path.”

“When Brian asked about our intentions as a class, I thought about the seniors that came before us,” said Tyler. “As a freshman, I was very anxious about the college process. But the past senior classes were very grounded. I hope that we can be that for underclassmen.”

“What I model this year is especially important to me. I have two siblings entering the Upper School,” said Jason H. “I don’t want to approach the post-secondary process as a negative experience. One of my intentions is to focus on, ‘Hey, I get to explore all these exciting things over the next four years.’ Getting rejected from X school is not going to define me.”

For Jason, setting a good model is also about more than the college application process.

“I want to show them that it’s cool to go to dances, to arts culminations, to sports games to support our teams, to be an engaged member of the community,” he said.

Setting a Compass for the Future

Looking around the “campfire” circle, Brian saw “a cuddle puddle of students, some of whom have known each other for 14 years.”

“With this retreat, I wanted to acknowledge their whole transformation, from that first day in class to upcoming graduation,” said Brian. “We held space for the intentions that went unsaid and for those that will develop in the future. We’re all lifelong projects.”

In that spirit, most of the intentions students shared weren’t bound by time. They were about “developing a compass they can live by,” said Brian.

“Through this reflection process, I realized that I resort to sarcasm to communicate with people because I’m uncomfortable with being vulnerable,” said Tyler, whose intention this year is to “embrace shamelessness” in the most basic sense of the word. “I want no shame in being completely myself, and being a more kind, supportive person to others.”

This semester he is making an intentional effort to sit next to new people in his classes, and to get to know them on a more personal level.

As a class, the seniors are already making good on their intentions to set a positive tone for the year. On the first day of school, they gathered at sunrise, making welcome signs and cheering as new freshmen arrived on campus.  

“I was scrolling Nueva’s Instagram and saw photos of seniors welcoming freshmen. I’m so proud of them for taking on this responsibility,” said Henry of his former, younger peers. “Just seeing them made my heart happy.”

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