Principal's Blog: Follow that Star! Aka Celebrating Sophomores

This week, as we prepare to celebrate a quiet Christmas with our families, a massive cosmic event is unfolding in the heavens, as Jupiter and Saturn head for a celestial convergence many call "the Christmas Star."

Meanwhile, here on earth, four Jesuit sophomores are reaching for the stars. Despite the myriad challenges of COVID-19, these stellar students have continued to pursue their passion for service based on research.

Since 2017, Darsh Mandera has been working with Reed College Professor Anna Ritz. His proficiency with machine learning programs has enabled Darsh to predict the effectiveness of specific drugs in combatting cancers, leading to an invitation to present at the 28th Annual International Conference on Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology in July 2020.

Last year, Darsh joined the youth board of a non-profit called Chetana, focusing on hunger relief, education, empowerment, and the environment. Since September 2019, the Chetana Foundation has delivered 6,800 meals to Transition Projects Homeless Shelter in Portland, and written holiday cards to 2,500 senior citizens stuck in elder-care facilities during the COVID crisis.

As an officer of Jesuit's Healthcare Leaders of Tomorrow club, Darsh reached out to OHSU President Dr. Danny Jacobs, MD in September to invite him to speak to the club. After two months of planning, Darsh succeeded in getting Dr. Jacobs to spend an hour sharing inspiring ideas with 35 Jesuit students in November. Not many sophomores would have had the courage to ask, nor the tenacity to follow through on what turned out to be a riveting hour for our students.

Meanwhile, two old friends from St. Pius X, sophomores Caitlin Thomas and Creighton Martz, were searching for a Sophomore Service Project that would be "transformational, not just transactional" (ie, not just for an A in Theology!). Together, they created a Portland chapter of the nonprofit Handle With Care. In July 2020, the two began to research homelessness in Portland, especially as it impacts young people during the COVID crisis. What they learned stunned them, as the rate of homeless youth has risen 20% in the past year.

The two friends presented their research to the board of the LA-based nonprofit Handle With Care. "We were pretty nervous," Creighton admits, but thanks to their professional presentation, they received the board's blessing to bring Handle With Care to Portland (click here to see their Instagram).

According to Caitlin, HWC's mission is straightforward: To make those experiencing homelessness "feel human again," through personal connection and individual care kits that include socks, a tarp and rain poncho, personal hygiene items, nutritious food items, water and more. Caitlin and Creighton set out to raise $700, but soon raised ten times that amount, allowing them to plan multiple care kit distributions, starting with 250 care kits at Blanchet House on December 17 and 19. While at Blanchet, they encountered a reporter from KOIN, who shared their story on the 10 'clock news.

Creighton and Caitlin have reached out to other Jesuit students for help. With the aid of JHS Arrupe Center Director Andrea Casey, they connected with Sophia Pi '22 and Samantha Tan '23, who are lending their web skills to HWC, with mentoring support from Pat Anderson of the user research and design firm Concrete UX.

Last up is Samyak Shrimali, one of only six National Power of Children awardees in the whole U.S. You may already have read about Samyak in our previous news post, but his story is worth revisiting as we wrap up 2020. After his mother experienced an infection in a hospital visit, Samyak's research revealed that 1.7 million people suffer from hospital-acquired infections around the globe each year.

Instead of shaking his head and moving on, Samyak decided to research this problem and work toward a solution. It turns out that insufficient hand washing by hospital staff is a leading cause of infections. With the guidance of Dr. Mahfuza Ali, Samyak developed a software program that alerts hospital staff when they do not follow proper hygiene. Samyak's work led to his recognition as one of America's Top 10 Young Scientists in the 2019 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

Says Samyak, "The main skill I learned was empathy and compassion towards the millions of people who suffer from these infections every day. I developed the motivation to do something for my society and the rest of the world."

As we wrap up a tumultuous year, that determination to "do something for my society and the world" remains at the core of a Jesuit education, as we seek to educate leaders in service, "men and women for and with others." We are so inspired by Darsh, Caitlin, Creighton, Samyak, and the hundreds of other JHS students who serve our region and our world, from the streets of Portland to hospital beds throughout the globe, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

As the Christmas Star shines down, and we celebrate the birth of the Light of the World, these students' illuminating examples of service bring tidings of comfort and joy. Merry Christmas, y'all.

Paul J. Hogan