Beyond the Classroom

A Vistamar School senior follows his classmates as they explore future career choices during unique senior projects.

  • Category
    People
  • Written by
    Victor Alvarez

As the students of the class of 2014 begin a new episode of their lives, many find themselves caught in a transitional period that not only marks the beginning of college but the beginning of their professional, adult lives. I find myself faced with the same issue. Similarly, Alec Levee and Francesca Villa, two of my fellow Vistamar School graduates, confront a promising yet indefinite future.

Luckily they and the rest of the Vistamar class of 2014 culminated their secondary school experiences with three-week-long senior projects that helped them explore future careers. Both Alec and Francesca were out in the real world, working real jobs and exploring their interests in social justice through very personal and hands-on experiences.

As a writer, I chose to document their journey, and all three of us caught a glimpse of our possible destinies. 

Documenting the Documentarian: Alec’s Story

I’ve known Alec Levee for four years now. Over the course of my own senior project, I got to know Alec on a more personal level and experienced firsthand just how smart and kind he really is. Since our projects began, Alec was nothing but helpful and cooperative as I dove into his world to learn more about him and his career exploration plans.

For his senior project, Alec worked with two documentary filmmakers: Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple. Initially Alec was interested in learning about the documentary filmmaking process firsthand, as well as learning how filmmakers maintain their artistic visions for a film while staying true to the message they want to communicate. 

"The people that I deal with and the people that I have to have responsibility for—I want to make sure that EVERYTHING THEY’RE SUPPOSED TO GET, THEY GET. Whether that’s good or bad.”

Zach and Chris, Alec’s mentors, are currently working on a film called Salam Neighbor, which follows the lives of Syrian refugees in Jordan. After spending five weeks living with these refugees, the two college graduates returned home to Gardena and recruited Alec to help with the editing process.

When I asked Alec why he chose this project, he described his interest in the Middle East and the various tragedies that have kept the region in turmoil. Living in a world filled with social injustices, Alec has found motivation in social change. “I’ve never really been too focused on my problems only,” he says. “I sympathize a lot.” 

His love of giving back started with the Student Leadership and Diversity Conference (SDLC), which exposed him to social justice issues in his hometown. After taking an Intro to Behavioral Sciences course at Vistamar, Alec became fascinated by the different approaches people took to larger social issues. That fascination has become part of Alec’s desire to one day communicate an undistorted truth to the world, especially through film.

Alec has had a passion for film since middle school. Before this project, he pursued his interest by attending the Idyllwild Arts Program, where he took on an intensive writing, producing and editing project that culminated in a five-minute film. 

 

Since then, Alec has worked on various films with his peers at school, attempted to make his own short horror film and assisted on campaign videos. “Film is a very powerful medium—especially documentary films,” he says. 

Alec has chosen to combine his social activism with documentary filmmaking and has found that the life he sees his mentors living is exactly what he wants for a future career. Furthermore, seeing these two amateur filmmakers accomplishing their goals and succeeding financially is heartening to Alec. “Seeing how live, like right out of college, makes me confident I’ll be able to follow a similar path.”

During his time working on the film, Alec tackled tasks like updating film festival lists, discussing scene selection ideas and helping edit scenes. The work was engaging and exciting. ”I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying watching them, so I know it’s something that I want to do,” he says. 

While his revised initial question of “How do documentary filmmakers seek to influence social change?” was never exactly answered, after having spent three weeks working with Zach and Chris, Alec told me he has a better grasp of how difficult it can be to stay true to a single vision as a filmmaker. Although the senior projects ended after a month, Alec continued working with the two filmmakers well into the summer. “It’s not ending yet!”

After working closely with his mentors, Alec will study film at Wesleyan University and believes documentary filmmaking could be a career he pursues for the rest of his life. If you’d like to learn more about Salam Neighbor, visit livingonone.org.


IN THE TRENCHES Alec with his mentor Zach at his studio in Santa Monica.

 

Courting Justice: Francesca’s Story

While Alec wanted to share social justice stories through film, Francesca Villa’s senior project focused on social justice through a more literal lens, as she worked with various research attorneys and judges at the Los Angeles Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center. Despite having already been a close friend of Francesca’s, this project revealed a whole new world where I learned more about who she is as a person and why she’s so passionate about working with the law.

Francesca’s interest in law and justice began when she first read Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. The book revolves around the murder of a criminal who is acquitted after rigging his own trial. After reading this book, Francesca first encountered the concept of a justice system that had failed, and her disdain for criminals who could avoid legal consequences ignited a desire in her to work with the legal system to ensure justice.

Francesca’s initial thoughts going into this project focused on the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law—how their application may differ from the original intended meaning of the law. She described her fascination with how the justice system could incarcerate innocents and free criminals on the basis of technicalities and loopholes.

Initially Francesca knew what she wanted her senior project to involve. “I wanted to work in the criminal courthouse. I didn’t really care who I worked with or what I did. I just wanted to be there, watching it,” she says.

While she questioned at first whether this career field is really for her, after witnessing firsthand various murder trials and even an innocent man being released after 10 years of wrongful incarceration, she remains adamant in her endeavors to work with law. Francesca admits that she doesn’t have a desire to change the world, but she still feels a strong need to see justice carried out in everyday life. 

 

“The people that I deal with and the people that I have to have responsibility for—I want to make sure that everything they’re supposed to get, they get. Whether that’s good or bad.” 

During her time working with her various mentors, Francesca has had the opportunity to experience a day in the life of a judge. She’s observed how a judge signs off on appeals, read parole cases and got the chance to write denial orders to various defendants’ petitions. 

"Alec has found motivation IN SOCIAL CHANGE. ‘I’ve never really been too focused on my problems only,’ he says. ‘I sympathize a lot.’”

She sat in on trials that ranged from attempted murder to gang shootouts. She met various judges, talked with them about their experiences and has really come to understand what it means to work in a courthouse. 

“I wouldn’t trade this experience,” she shares. “This has definitely been the best thing that has happened in high school besides mock trial.” Mock trial is an interscholastic competition that Vistamar’s Law and Society class participates in. The competition aims to inform students about the justice system, as they attempt to either prosecute or defend a suspect during an imitation trial. 

Francesca explains her participation in the mock trial made her realize she has no other desire but to one day be a lawyer—and possibly even a judge. Besides her interest in law, she also hopes to write a mystery novel, as well as travel around the world to places like India, Thailand, Italy and Brazil.


WRITER'S ROOM Victor gets to work at Vistamar.

 

She will attend Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, next fall and continue exploring the field of law while working full-time to ease her financial transition into college. Thanks to her senior project, she feels she has some direction regarding her future. “Honestly it’s been one of the most rewarding and probably the most self-illuminating experiences of my high school career,” she says.

"My experience working with my own mentors, working with my peers and putting this piece together will be invaluable as I decide WHAT I PLAN TO DO FOR A CAREER.

More Than a Project

I feel lucky to be connected with Southbay magazine and to be offered the opportunity to write this piece and take pictures of my fellow peers. Had it not been for these senior projects, I would have never had this opportunity. 

Now that it’s all said and done, I can say I’ve discovered a deeper and more profound interest in the publishing, writing and photography that I will explore at Brown University. My experience working with my own mentors, working with my peers and putting this piece together will be invaluable as I decide what I plan to do for a career.

Similarly, Alec and Francesca express tremendous positive sentiment for these projects. They note that these important professional experiences will be invaluable as they head off to college and into the working world. 

Not many high school seniors can say they played a role in creating a documentary film or sat in on court trials or were published in a local magazine. Alec, Francesca and I have had these opportunities thanks to Vistamar and the mentors who took us in and guided us through the whole process.

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