Ally Wenzel, Stevenson’s director of information technology and a resident faculty member, is talking with a visitor in the Barrows dorm one winter afternoon, a fire crackling in the hearth, when Romi, a freshman from Mexico, rushes in with a backpack on her back and earbuds in her ears. Wenzel, who is direct in a way that students love, calls out to her—“Hey, Romi!”—and Romi stops and pulls the tiny white plastic knobs from her ears, smiling. Her cheeks are rosy, her ponytail askew. Wenzel says, nodding towards the visitor, “Tell her what it’s like to live here.”
Romi, practically bouncing up and down, says, “It’s SO much fun.”
“What’s fun about it?” Wenzel asks, and Romi says, “Like, you learn a lot of life skills. Actually, that’s what I was just talking about with my friend Olive.”
“Life skills?” Wenzel says, and Romi says, “I don’t know. I mean, as an only child, I would always be kind of shy . . . ” Wenzel laughs—“You? Shy?”—and Romi laughs, too, delighted with being teased in this way. Then she adds, “Yeah. And, like, I’ve gotten more open.” The conversation over, Romi excuses herself and rushes off. Wherever she’s headed next, she can’t wait to get there.
Dr. Kevin Hicks ’85 offers an explanation for how, after six months at Stevenson, a freshman could feel “more open.” He says, “We’re providing students with shelter, obviously, and access to utilities and food—that’s the bare minimum of what you’re obligated to do as a boarding school. But that is completely not the limit of what we do: we’re trying to create various conditions for students where they can become something that they wouldn’t become otherwise; we’re trying to find that balance point of supervision and liberty, such that they can become empowered people.”
Kyla, a sophomore from Sacramento, has a similar feeling to Romi’s. Sitting in Barrows one morning in a Stevenson sweatshirt, she says, “I don’t feel like I have to prove myself here. And I don’t feel like I have to act like someone I’m not. Which is something I learned here—it’s not something I was born with . . . ” Kyla pauses, and then says, “obviously.” She smiles, showing a mouthful of braces. “It’s hard to explain, really,” she continues. “I just feel like the environment is so positive that there’s no way that I could feel negative about any experience I have here.”
Three hundred out of 500 students at Stevenson these days are boarders, making the school the largest boarding program west of the Mississippi. Boys and girls, ages 14 to 18—from San Francisco, Munich, Bangkok, Boston, Mexico City, Beijing—live in six dorms that are no longer what Dr. Hicks calls the “charmingly rustic” conditions of yesteryear, but instead spacious, stately buildings, with vaulted ceilings and wide hallways, actually designed to be comfortable. Thirty-five faculty members live in the dorms, too, almost all of whom are classic triple threats (teachers, advisors, and coaches), with 13 non-employee spouses, 38 babies and school-aged children, and around 20 dogs, including Emmi, Bayley, Levi, Bee, and a little white dog named Cookie.
The single word most used to describe Stevenson by the students who live here is “fun.” Gunner, a junior from Santa Cruz, says, “One thing about boarding that I particularly enjoy is that my friends are always a few hundred feet away. Maybe they’re in a different dorm, but I can go see them after study hall and that’s really fun for me.”
Kyla talks about how one of the teachers who lives in her dorm, Mr. Rymzo, has parties. “He’ll have, like, a mochi party or, like, a smoothie party, and I go to those all the time because it’s so fun.” But Mr. Rymzo is not the only fun teacher. Kyla once went to Latin teacher Allen Garner’s place in Barrows for some baking. “My friends and I took advantage of her invitation and we got cookie dough at Whole Foods,” Kyla says, “and then we made cookies for, like, two hours and we just sat with her and her dog. It was really fun.”
Resident faculty are not immune to these good times. Once a couple of students asked science teacher Ian Haight if they could use his kitchen to videotape themselves cooking a meal while speaking Spanish—an assignment for Spanish class. Haight, once a Peace Corps volunteer who worked in an inner- city school in Boston before coming to Stevenson, says, “You never know when two kids are going to come in when you’re grading papers and suddenly they’re cooking things in your kitchen, making a Spanish video, and laughing the whole time.”
Students aren’t naive, though: they know that this relationship-building between student and adult is actually part of the residential community “curriculum.” The dorm faculty, that is, are tasked with building a small community—a container—inside which the students learn how to be not just good, hard-working students, but decent, thoughtful, and joyful human beings.
Please note: photographs in this slideshow were taken by Sara Forrest and Brian Wedge.
Media arts teacher Joel Fricker, who lives with his wife, Christy, and their puppy, Emmi, in Wilson/Treasure Island—the most populated dorm by far, with 70 freshman boys and a total of eight resident faculty members—is sitting at KSPB one day, helping Gunner with a playlist. A visitor sitting with them is curious about the “five core values” posted in the common rooms of all the dorms, and asks Fricker what they are. Fricker turns to Gunner. “Can you name the five core values?” he says.
Without a hitch, Gunner says, “Respect, inclusion, belonging, safety, and trust.” He doesn’t gloat: knowing the five core values at Stevenson is like memorizing your ABCs. But then Gunner says, “But for me, it’s less explicitly about those five, and more about the overall message that those five give you: about being just a good person.”
Monday Night Dinners are occasions where boarders get dressed up in their best and are assigned to tables with teachers and students they might not otherwise meet. These weekly events, which usually precede Vespers (where a student will give a talk in the chapel to his or her peers) are meant to help students practice their table manners and conversation skills (as are House Dinners, where students go to the apartments of resident faculty for small, sit-down meals).
At one Monday Night Dinner, two freshmen, Addy from San Francisco and Kira from Hawaii, are proving themselves to be already adept at conversation with adults. They are talking about the dorm faculty in general, describing them as “jovial.” They both laugh at the word and shake their heads, their giddy agreement bouncing back and forth between them like a ping- pong ball, punctuated by yups and exactlys. They also describe the faculty as “kind.” After six months at Stevenson, both girls agree that the school now actually feels like home.
“Sometimes I will literally say, ‘Let’s go back home,’” Kira says, “and my friend will be like, ‘What do you mean?’ and then I’m like, ‘Oh, right, the dorm.’”
“Monday Night Dinner, Vespers, House Dinners—” says Dr. Hicks, “these are all pieces of the project in terms of creating a broader sense of community beyond just what’s happening for you in your room. I think most people who don’t know anything about residential life imagine a kid in a room the way many of them were in their dorm room in college—it was a house, but not a home. But here, faculty and senior administrators are all trying to collaborate in order to create an experience of the collective, which augments the experience of an individual. It’s helping people learn how to live with a roommate; it’s learning how to share and care for common spaces. That’s the curriculum of the experience—how to get along with people while holding on to your true north.”
“I’ve learned that people really do think differently than I do,” says Kathy Jung, a senior prefect who’s grown up between Korea and San Francisco. “I always thought my older sister was the polar opposite of me, but she really isn’t, compared to the people I’ve met here. Like, I’m extroverted, but my roommate was much more introverted, and I had to learn to respect her space. People are just really different—and even though I’ve lived in global and diverse communities, living with people here was a big part of learning that.”
Resident faculty are “on duty” one night a week, from 5:30 p.m. until the next morning, when classes begin. This involves checking students in at dinner to make sure that everyone is accounted for, then overseeing study hall in the dorm from 7:30 to 9:30, and then lights out at 11:00.
During study hall, the faculty member on duty goes from room to room and greets each student, checks to make sure the room is tidy and the bed made, asks how they are, and then listens to whatever might come up—pride over a perfect test score or a winning game, a tough phone call with a parent, relationship drama. In the old days, this practice of checking in on students during study hall was encouraged but not consistently practiced. Now it’s de rigueur.
Two prefects—junior and senior student leaders in the dorm—also make the rounds, checking in with each student. Ask any boarder why prefects are so universally respected by students, and they’ll say it’s because prefects are super “welcoming”—welcoming being the second word most used by boarders to describe both students and faculty at Stevenson.
Matt Law, the president of the student council and head prefect of Wilson/TI, says, “My prefect when I was a freshman was amazing; he made sure I did work, but he was also really nice to me. I wanted to replicate that for the freshmen.”
At 10:30 p.m., Sunday to Thursday, the resident faculty members on duty sit down with the prefects to compare notes on what they discovered during their rounds. The faculty member writes down the relevant information in a log and sends it to their dorm head. Once a week the six dorm heads meet with the associate dean of students to discuss any problems or issues the kids are having. This is unusual in boarding schools—not only the fact that they meet so frequently, but that the various teams work so well together.
When there are kids who need extra attention—because they’re having a hard week, or maybe because they seem to be making some bad choices—their names are passed on to the health and wellness team (made up of the dean of students, the associate dean, the associate head of the upper division, the nurses, the school counselor, the learning support director, and the director of equity and inclusion), who discuss the concern and come up with plan of action. This way, no one flies too low under the radar.
Resident faculty are also obligated to be on duty six weekends out of the school year, from 5:00 p.m. on Friday night to 5:00 p.m. on Sunday. On these weekends, they’re expected to offer, along with the regular evening duties, two activities for the kids—a pancake party, a hike in Big Sur or Carmel Valley, a trip to REI, baking brownies, showing a movie, or a visit to the aquarium.
If they need help with ideas, it’s the Resident Activities Committee’s job to provide suggestions. RAC, started five years ago, is made of 13 students and two student leaders, tasked with providing six activities for boarders every weekend. RAC organizes movie nights with pizza or popcorn, scavenger hunts, trips to the pumpkin fields and nearby escape rooms.
Sarah Howard ’09, director of outdoor education, also offers students surfing lessons on some weekends, or often takes them camping, kayaking, or cross-country skiing in the various California State Parks.
Sure, the purpose of all of these activities—whether faculty led or put on by RAC—is to give students plenty of structured activities over the weekend, so they don’t get stuck in their rooms playing video games. But these activities have other rewards: they’re designed to be inclusive of everyone (including day students), and they help create a sense that there is a strong, active community to which every student belongs.
Everyone knows that the Wenzels door is always open. Ally makes brownies for the students every night she’s on duty (sometimes gluten-free), and she lights a fire in the dorm common room, “just to kind of make it more homey.” On Super Bowl Sunday last year, Taja, a senior from Chicago, came over and made wings for Ally’s husband, science teacher Phil Wenzel, because she knows he loves them. She didn’t stay for the game— she doesn’t like football: she just wanted to do something nice. Sometimes students use the Wenzel’s kitchen for baking. One time, a member of the maintenance staff, Margarita, taught the students how to make tortillas in the Wenzel’s kitchen. Even Marisa Knowles ’06, director of both residence and student activities, likes to hang out there. “Sometimes I’m just like, ‘Ally and Phil, I’m just gonna lay on the couch.’”
Sarah Howard—whose parents were married in Stevenson’s Erdman Chapel—was a prefect when she was a boarder at the school, and so her view is particularly multi-dimensional. “I think it takes active participation on all our parts—students and faculty—that creates the sense of community and belonging here,” she says. “I mean, especially in our day and age with technology—there’s so many ways that we could all just escape. But to work hard to keep us all close-knit, and to engage with one another, it takes a beautiful partnership.”
But living with 300 adolescents is not always easy. To be a resident faculty member at Stevenson means never being without the sound of feet stampeding down hallways and balls slamming up against your door. It means giving up a significant portion of your privacy—never being able to totally let down, really, and not acting moody if you didn’t sleep well the night before or had an argument with your spouse. If you haven’t bought in completely to what the school is trying to accomplish— finding that balance point of supervision and liberty such that children can become empowered people—you probably won’t be very happy as a resident teacher at Stevenson.
Howard, sitting with Lucy Stockdale and Allen Garner in Garner’s Latin classroom in the Learning Commons, says, “It’s a lifestyle, as well as a profession. It’s in its own category. I mean, I don’t know how many people willingly share their home...”
“...and personal lives...” Stockdale says. “...with 30 or 40 adolescents.”
Stockdale, whose parents were Stevenson resident faculty
until she was four years old, says, “But I think you make it what you can. This can be a nightmare for somebody that doesn’t connect with people. Some days are going to be long—really long—and you’ve got to find ways to make that O.K. Dragging your feet in the mud is not going to be sustainable. Above all, you have to make sure that you have those people that make you feel like it’s worth it. And I’ve found people—both students and faculty—that really make it feel like it’s worth it here.”
Garner says, “This morning, Lucy and I got up, we jumped in the car with our dogs, and we drove down the road to get coffee. I don’t think that if I were living in Pacific Grove that would be something I’d be doing. Because we’re going through something together, which binds you. The people that I work with have been a huge part of this for me, because they often are the same people interested in this holistic learning experience.” They all shake their heads, and then Stockdale remembers something that happened with the students in Wilson—because it always comes back to the students.
“The other night I was on duty,” she says, “and I was in the boy’s wing watching one of my freshmen putt a golf ball down the entire length of the hallway into a coffee mug—as my dog is, like, running after the ball—and he made it in! And it was literally one of the highlights of my year!” Everyone laughs, and Stockdale continues, “Yeah, it was amazing. I was like, ‘O.K.’ Because a lot of times these freshmen boys kind of drive me bonkers. And at this moment, I adore them tremendously.”
“If adults have good boundaries,” says Erik Olson, the dean of students, “and they have healthy ways of interacting with each other—if they work well as teams, if they’re respectful of the students—that filters down. The kids just start modelling what the faculty are doing. You don’t see a lot of adult gossip around here, and because of that you do see a lot of trust between the kids and the adults, and the kids with each other, helping each other.”
Kyle Cassamas, who lives in Treasure Island, the freshman boys’ dorm, with his wife, Megan, and baby son, Quinn, says, “Everything pops up—every kind of question. We have to talk to them about good hygiene—like wash your sheets, wash your clothing—because a lot of them don’t even think about those things until mom and dad drop them off.” The next thing that Cassamas says is surprising; he says, “It’s fun.”
Dr. Amy Jacobs, who teaches art history, is off to Costco to get the ingredients for do-it-yourself ice-cream sandwiches for a dorm birthday party. “The prefects did most of the planning,” she says. “I just said, ‘What do you want to make? Do you want to make cake?’—and they said, ‘Cake is boring!’” Jacobs laughs. She’s been living in the dorms for six years, since she first came to Stevenson from the University of Virginia where she was teaching college-level students while getting her PhD. Jacobs finds living in the dorm with her students and advisees helpful to her teaching. “I think it humanizes them in the classroom,” she says. “I think it makes me more empathetic as a teacher, when I see kids in the dorm who are just like, ‘I’ve got this, this, this, and this due tomorrow!’—who are prioritizing or stressing out or just feeling the elation of ‘I did nothing today and it was awesome!’ I’ve wondered what it would be like to be a day teacher and not live on campus, but I don’t think I want that—I like to see these kids in different contexts.”
On the weekends, Stevenson students have a lot of freedom to wander. Many students report having more freedom, in fact, than they do at home. As long as they keep in touch by Reach, a mobile app that students are obliged to use to tell the school where they are at all times, they can leave campus on Friday nights after dinner check-in, and stay out until 10:30, when they come back for a “face-to-face”—a few minutes when a faculty member can look in their eyes and ask about their day. On Saturdays, students can be gone until dinnertime, and then again afterwards until curfew. Same with Sundays, until supper time. Shuttles are provided so students can go to the mall, or get an ice cream in Monterey, or take a walk on the beach in Carmel.
“Stevenson extends more trust to students than a lot of other boarding schools,” says Dr. Hicks, “and invites students to live up to the trust that’s been invested in them. There are some key moments of check-in, but we always expect them to be living up to what our expectations are. Though it’s certainly true on occasion that a kid may vex the adults and prefects with her or his questionable decision-making, it’s much more often the case that our students respect the system’s general good faith.”
“You definitely have to be responsible,” Kyla says. “The school is giving you a certain level of freedom, and how you conduct yourself in that environment really says a lot about your character and how you develop as a person. That’s kind of the basis of how Stevenson is—they’re basically saying, ‘We want you to develop into the best person that you can be, and by doing so, we give you a certain amount of freedom. But not to the point where it’s reckless freedom.”
“The goal, ultimately,” says Dr. Hicks, “is to invite them to be able to impose self-discipline in the place of the discipline imposed by the institution. That is usually most challenging for freshmen, who upon arrival are essentially eighth-graders plus a summer. It’s not that the structure changes radically by the time they’re seniors—but it weighs less to them, because they’ve internalized it—they’ve become naturalized to expectations that, quite frankly, are pretty reasonable compared to a lot of other boarding schools.”
Nat Schulhof, a golfer from Santa Barbara, and a senior prefect, doesn’t bridle at the restrictions that Stevenson imposes on him, even though he’s 18 and on his way to college. “I have to be here every night between 5:45 and 6:45 to check in,” he says. “I have to be in my room every night from 7:30 to 9:30. I have to make my bed every day, keep my room clean every day. And on weekends, I have a curfew. I have to sign in and out. It teaches responsibility more than anything else. I totally understand the fact that they have to keep us safe.”
The basic experiment at Stevenson works: that because faculty members have a multifaceted relationship with resident students—they teach them, they coach them, they advise, and they live with them—because there is mutual respect, the boundaries set are not seen as scold- ing, but as support.
Kyla is too young to be a prefect, so she’s part of Green Key, the group of kids whose job is to give admissions tours to prospective students. “I definitely have to put Stevenson’s best foot forward,” she says, “and in doing so, it teaches me how to be a leader. I think that’s very important, especially later in life, so that you can conduct yourself in a way that you’re comfortable with, rather than the way someone else tells you to be.”
When Kyla is asked if she was always this enthusiastic about school, she says no, definitely not. In fact, she says, she was one of the moodier students at her middle school. “Or,” she says, correcting the record, “I was more shy and reserved. But I’ve been more outgoing since I’ve been here.” She thinks about this for a moment, and then she says, “I don’t feel like I have to be reserved now, because everything that I give here, I get back.”
Our dormitories are places of shelter, safety, rest, study, spontaneous fun, and leisure. They are also places where our students learn to mature intellectually, emotionally, and physically, and live well with others in order to prepare for, most imminently, the greater liberty of college life.
At the core of the student experience is a shared set of values and standards of conduct by which our community agrees to live by. From this foundation, the opportunities to lead, get involved, or find a new passion allow students to thrive in new environments, both on campus and off.
Because of our proximity to numerous outdoor adventure sites, the school encourages participation in our Outdoor Education Programs. Opportunities include hiking, overnight backpacking, whitewater rafting, sea kayaking, surfing, and rock climbing.