Freshman year can be a tough transition for kids, but for over 20 years, the student club Griffins with a Mission (GWAM) has made that transition easier. Formed by students and faculty at Los Alamitos High School in the 1990s, GWAM creates opportunities for inclusion, connection, and understanding of the range of cultures and personal experiences students bring to the student body.
Each fall, junior and senior leadership students, under the direction and mentoring of faculty members, help organize and run this one-day GWAM retreat for all freshmen. So, on one recent morning, school buses pulled up to Weaver Elementary (empty for vacation) to deliver hundreds of curious high schoolers for an off-campus day of small-group conversations and activities designed to create connections and a sense of solidarity.
The day emphasizes the importance of empathy and respect.
“Throughout my pre-high school career, I never felt accepted or understood social dynamics outside of doing everything I could to fit in,” said Angelyka Chaviano-Montes, a GWAM senior leader and co-president. “When I went on the retreat I learned about myself, others, and most importantly about how to keep my privilege, ignorance, and open mind in check. GWAM continues to teach me and other students about positivity, diversity, and mindfulness. Not only is the club important to our school district, it’s important for crafting the next generation into citizens worthy of our American value of equality for all.”
As the retreat day goes on, the conversations and sharing, led by junior and senior students who have gone through training, become more personal and intense.
“It really helps to bring us closer together,” said freshman Alex Pham. “I learned that some people have lost loved ones the way I have. We’ve gone through the same experiences; we’re dealing with the same problems. Before GWAM I was really thinking only about myself, but now I realize everyone else has their own issues, and it helps me connect more with other people at school.”
When the buses load up at the end of the retreat day, GWAM leaders hope the new high schoolers will see that while many things make them unique — culture, language, life experiences — they need the same understanding, connection and support as others around them.