We continue our alums series with a compelling conversation with high school senior and SGS alum Maya Shields. Maya shares how her experiences of service while at SGS have shaped her sense of community, as well as the events that influenced her vision for a future in law and social justice.
As an SGS alum, can you talk about your overall experience with the school?
I remember my first visit to SGS when I was in third or fourth grade. The sixth graders at SGS were doing a presentation about the body systems to teach little kids – like me – about biology. I was so impacted by that visit, and since that moment I knew I wanted to go there. When I was in sixth grade, I got to do the same for elementary school children, and it was like going full circle for me.
My experience overall with the school was very positive. What stands out most is the amount of public speaking we did. Recently, I was looking at a video from my sixth-grade orientation day, where I was speaking in front of every other student in my grade, giving a presentation about myself on the very first day. And that has totally transformed into the kind of thing that I do today. I now talk in front of my whole high school, and I have a lot of confidence in terms of public speaking. SGS taught me to be confident and that I can do whatever I put my mind into. We were given opportunities to really push ourselves and get to the next level of where we wanted to be. And I have taken that trait – that drive that was instilled in me – and I use it in everything that I do today.
What characteristics/traits of the school are important to highlight?
Middle school is where I started asking myself what kind of person I wanted to be. I was trying to figure out if I was going to be loud and outgoing, or shy and quiet. I think SGS does a great job helping students to find out who we are, pushing us to be the best version of who we want to be. They foster growth, encourage exploration, and instill confidence by providing unique and challenging educational experiences. For example, in 7th grade we conducted a mock trial, and a big part of the reason I want to be a lawyer is because of that experience. In fact, I am planning to do pre-law when I start college next year. SGS helped me find my passion by providing hands-on experience through project learning.
Are there any significant moments or events that stand out to you during your years at SGS?
I was part of a club called IMPUHWE, which means “compassion” in Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan national language. We fundraised to help girls in Rwanda obtain the resources and funds needed to get an education. I was a part of this club for the three years that I attended SGS and I loved it. One time, we got to do a Skype call with the girls in Rwanda. That moment was so impactful, because I realized that there was so much more to what we were doing. On my side, we did fun fundraisers such as bake sales and I loved that. But then when I got to meet those girls, I realized the impact that we really had, from what seemed like small efforts on our part.
That is a moment that I always carry with me because it also made me realize that there are bigger things in the world that I need to focus my energy on and places where I can really help people. And that instilled in me the sense of commitment to justice.
Tell us about the relationships you built with your teachers during your years there. How were those relationships influential in your life?
We were able to build close relationships with our teachers, which not a lot of schools even offer because they’re so big. Our small class sizes allowed for closer interactions, and if we were struggling we could go to our teachers and feel comfortable about sharing our concerns. They were totally open and accepting.
I had a close relationship with Wendy. As she was the teacher facilitator for the IMPUHWE club, I got to spend a lot of time with her. She was my teacher in 7th grade when we conducted the mock trial, and that same year when I realized my interest in pursuing a career in justice, Wendy backed me 100%, encouraging me to learn more about it and assuring me that I could do it. SGS really gave me the opportunity to build strong relationships with teachers, to not be afraid to ask for help, and to value the importance of those relationships to succeed in school. I took that with me, and I continue building relationships with teachers now in high school.
What is the most significant memory you have at the school?
The Pay it Forward Project. In this project I got to pick an issue that I was passionate about and spend a few months learning about it and presenting a solution. I picked the issue of homelessness in Seattle for my project. It was such a cool opportunity to do research and interviews to community members outside of the school. I got to interview an executive director of a mission-based organization that worked on the issue. As a 7th grader doing an interview with a grown-up leader of an organization and having a real sophisticated conversation seems unreal now that I look back. This specific experience increased my confidence and taught me that by taking action I can make an impact on things that I care about.
How did your years at SGS influence your decision to study law?
During one project in 8th grade, I learned about the criminal justice system and the inequities that affect many Black people. I learned about the school-to-prison pipeline concept, which I hadn’t heard about before my involvement with the project. It gave me a first look at how unjust the criminal justice system is, and it fed my passion for a career in law. Because of those learning experiences I continue to pursue this passion in high school, and I am currently doing an internship for the Seattle Clemency Project, a small non-profit that provides pro-bono attorneys to people who are serving outdated prison sentences. This internship allows me to have hands-on experience in the field and furthers my education in this topic. SGS inspired me to be involved in this type of work which is really going to help me get to the next level when I go to college to pursue my pre-law degree.
In addition to your internship with the Seattle Clemency Project, are you currently involved in other work or activities?
Last year, I started a new club in high school, which is now the largest one at my school. It is called Environmental Alliance and we educate the community about the environment and how to combat climate change. The biggest success so far is the removal of all the single-use plastic bottles from our campus, which we replaced with aluminum bottles. It grew from two members to 30 people last year, and now we are at 90. I definitely learned from SGS to pursue the changes that I wanted to see made. And that is how the club started.
Also, I recently finished a youth ambassadorship with the Green Seattle Partnership. The organization focuses on restoring Seattle’s urban parks and green spaces, because a lot of them have been destroyed by human activities. Through this project I learned about the impact of educating others, which reflects my SGS lessons on the impact of sharing information and how that can make others take action. Through the ambassadorship we reached tons of different high school students from across Seattle, and different ages. It was very successful, and I am proud of the work we did.
What would you say to students that may be attending SGS in the future?
Some might hesitate about attending an all-girls school, but in my experience, it provides more opportunities for girls to participate in class, have their voices heard, become leaders, and make a difference. At SGS you will learn how to take your passions to the next level. Plus it is academically amazing. All SGS students are very well prepared for high school, not only in academics, but with strong social skills as well. SGS forms well-rounded individuals who are confident and can excel in all aspects of their life.
Do you have any advice for the current students of SGS?
Every opportunity that might frighten you will make you grow. Enjoy middle school while you are there. Don’t be nervous about going to high school, SGS prepares you for any situation that you could encounter there.
Do you have anything you would like to say to the teachers and staff at SGS?
Thank you! I would not be who I am without them. The connections that I made with the teachers and staff – plus their guidance and support – shaped who I am today.