Seeking to Inspire: Mount Madonna School YOUniversity Learning Days

By Director of Upper School Shannon Kelly

On January 25 and 26 Mount Madonna School (MMS) middle and high students participated in the first annual MMS YOUniversity learning days.

“We were seeking to inspire the creative energy of our students, faculty, staff and alumni,” commented Dean of Students Bob Caplan. “We asked all of our community members to consider making a 15 to 60 minute presentation to teach a skill, share a passion or hobby, or explore a topic of interest. We received a wide range of proposals infused with learning and fun. There were 26 sessions scheduled, 18 were shared live and eight were pre-recorded.”

The project was initially conceived as a way to engage students during parent-teacher conferences, however the faculty committee organizing the event, comprised of teachers Anand Darsie, Angela Willetts, Bob Caplan, Dan Gurska, Lisa Catterall and myself, quickly realized it held great potential.

Junior Amirah Alexander shared her enthusiasm for the American Sign Language (ASL) class taught by Lower School Director Kami Pacheco.

“I really enjoyed Kami’s class on ASL,” said Alexander. “It was a good introduction and I really liked how she made it clear that ASL flows once you get the logic of it. I would take a course or some classes on ASL again.”

Seventh grader Alyssa Hocevar Tabuchi enjoyed learning basic needlepoint, and shared her appreciation with instructor Dr. Nicole Tervalon.

“Thank you for the amazing class you taught on needlepoint,” commented Hocevar Tabuchi. “It was my first time ever doing it and it was so fun and awesome to create the pictures.”

Both mornings started with an alumni keynote speaker. The alumni guests were invited so that the current student body could see a Mount Madonna School education in action. The speakers were also selected because of their unique perspectives and the different paths they took to turn their passions into purposeful lives.

On Monday, Soma Sharan (‘11), a Gates Millennium Scholar, and founder of Her Future Fund (, spoke about her work as a philanthropist, and her evolving path toward her goals.

“From a young age, I knew I wanted to be a philanthropist,” commented Sharan. “I didn’t know the word or what it meant, but I understood that the reason I was alive and able to live a life filled with opportunities was due to the generosity of those who supported the orphanage where I grew up. I knew I wanted to save a little girl’s life, just as they saved mine.”

Hearing Sharan speak about her philanthropic work was inspiring.

“Soma got me interested in philanthropy,” said senior Oliver Mensinger. “I contacted her and I am going to ask her for advice in the future. She explained everything very well and as a result I listened closely.”

Musician Jake Ward (‘14) shared his story in a keynote address on the second morning.

“I grew up in a musical household and have always been very musically inclined,” explained Ward. “I now have a small but loyal network of other artists whose records I engineer/produce, and since 2018 I’ve fronted a band called Watch Me Breathe, which has a weirdly real online following. Making a living as a singer-songwriter and producer is a very steep climb and I still have a long way to go; yet it’s well worth it for the independent freedom, sense of purpose, and belonging to a diverse and passionate community.”

Among the courses offered was a workshop by a professional author who coached participants on writing cathartic reflection about how they have been impacted by the pandemic.

“The sessions were informative, varied, engaging and quite memorable,” commented Caplan, “ and included such topics as civil engineering, learning basic Japanese, Minecraft, baking a chocolate cake, how to invest, all about cats and math games. This was a resoundingly successful experiment!”

Participants were able to select one course from each of the four sessions offered, and each session had two to three classes to choose from. Students said that they liked being able to learn from one another.

Eighth grader Colby Culbertson commented, “Thank you for putting together a great two days of YOUniversity. I really liked choosing my own classes and getting to see different passions and expertise other students and people had. My favorite was learning with Ronan Lee because I had never played before, and it was a lot of fun to play with other students.”

In addition to participating, students, faculty and staff also appreciated being given the opportunity to teach classes. Seniors Kira Kaplan and Sara Bautista were excited to share their experience volunteering with the American Red Cross.

“It was a great opportunity to delve into a subject we’re passionate about and share our knowledge!” shared Kaplan. “I loved the enthusiasm and questions from the younger kids, and hopefully inspired a couple of people to go donate blood!”

Sixth grader Delmi McWilliams shared a bit about her experience presenting.

“I loved learning new things, and teaching was fun,” said McWilliams. ‘It’s a lot harder than I thought to teach when all you see is a bunch of black rectangles. But my subject was something I really loved, and all my friends were supporting me.”

Another wonderful aspect of the YOUniversity experience was that students, faculty and staff were able to get to know each other in different contexts.

“One of my favorite classes was Herbert’s “How to Bake a Chocolate Cake,” commented sophomore Mariah Cohen. “I personally love all cooking and baking shows, and knowing Herbert has a place in our school made it much more enjoyable, and I found his decorating style very satisfying and fun to watch.”

“Sixth grader Noa Zands gave an intriguing and wonderful presentation on cats, encouraging participants to showcase their feline friends while watching entertaining cat videos,” commented Kaplan. “This was by far one of my favorite classes, and I don’t even have a cat!”

By the end of the final YOUniversity sessions it was clear that this is the start of a new MMS tradition. Everyone that participated had overwhelmingly positive feedback to share. Sixth grader Kenzie Culbertson sent the planning committee a sweet note.

“Thank you so much for the work you put into the classes,” wrote Culbertson. “I had a great time! One thing that I really liked was the Red Cross presentation. I could tell they worked hard on the slide show and was I grateful for it. I also really enjoyed Luis’ presentation on civil engineering, he put a lot of work into it, and it was really good. One thing I learned was how people build and manufacture coastal engineering. I also learned in the Red Cross session that they want people that have already had COVID-19 to give blood because they have antibodies.”

It is our hope that YOUniversity will continue to grow and that next year we can host it in person and open it up to our larger school community.


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 375 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a diverse learning community dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.


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