Senior Spotlight: Ava on Prom and Taking Nature to Space

Senior Spotlight: Ava on Prom and Taking Nature to Space

Ava enrolled with the first cohort of students at Sora during her sophomore year of high school. Next week, she will be graduating along with her peers in a school-wide ceremony. We sat down with her to hear about her senior year and high school reflections.

Hi Ava, thanks for sitting down to chat with us about your senior year. It’s so close to graduation. You were part of the first student cohort at Sora, correct? Can you tell us how you came to enroll at the school?

My senior year is going well. Yes, I have been at Sora since it first started back in 2019. Before then, I went to a couple of different virtual high schools. I had to go at this set pace. One of them, all the information was presented in slideshows that I just had to click through, and I couldn’t speed through it quickly. There was also information I wanted to go in deeper and I couldn’t. 

So what I really enjoyed about Sora— I loved the flexibility.  I feel really, really strongly about the mission of Sora. It’s what drew me to Sora. I love the individuality. I love putting the power in the hands of the students to figure out, you know, to decide your path through education. And additionally, none of the other schools that I went to really had a successful thriving community. They would do certain things so that oh, you know, the students can communicate, there’s a chat function, but none of them had the real community of Sora. I have found some of my best friends through Sora. 

I feel connected to the teachers. I liked that the teachers are more than people who lecture. They really are more experts. It’s not such a rigid hierarchy that you’re afraid of your teachers. I talked to Michael so that I would get a high grade in his class, but I also joked with him about memes in the casual channel on Discord. I like how human it makes the experts seem it makes it very easy to connect with them. Yeah, the community aspect of Sora is really unparalleled, in my experience. 

The way that the classes are structured and everything it’s you know, you have you sign up for an expedition and you have two classes a week, and you have to do pre-work for that class. And it’s very much like a college class. And I’ve really enjoyed that. That structure is how I learned best and I really like being able to dive as deep and as far into content that interests me.

I have seen the school go through a lot of changes in the intervening time. It’s like, in a certain sense, I’m at a totally different school now. And in another sense, it’s stayed the same. The heart of Sora is the same but it’s so different from when I first joined. There’s so much to like, we could be here all day. I could tell you about all of my experiences at Sora. And then I probably would not have talked about all of them. For example, one of my earliest memories is when we established the student Houses. I was part of Nightshade — actually, I came up with the name Nightshade— but I wound up switching to Heqet, which Hannah was part of founding. 

I actually extended my high school career by a year, because I am a semi-professional ballet dancer and I wanted to have the extra time to work on my ballet technique. I also have a whole lot of projects that I’ve been working on that I wanted to be able to get further along on and complete before I move on to college.

Amazing! I want to hear all about that. First, can you tell us what your projects are? I saw your presentation at the Student Showcase and I have been telling everyone: Ava seems like she could have her own PBS show.

The whole time that I’ve been at Sora, I’ve been working on various projects having to do with the Biophilia effect, which is the physical and psychological effect of nature on humans. At first, it was just basic research on the Biophilia effect. But then I started on another train of research looking into the effect of outer space on humans. What is the effect of anti-gravity on astronauts? Or low gravity and radiation? And it’s a field where there is a lot of on-going research because we still don’t know a whole lot about what space does to the human body. And it’s something that we need to figure out if we’re going to send people to Mars or beyond.

Pretty early on in my Sora career, I combined these two avenues of interest. So I looked at how the Biophilia effect could be used to offset some of the more negative effects of space on the human body, particularly mental effects. The Biophilia effect has a whole lot of demonstrated effects on the human mind, in particular, that can be accessed without even having to be out in nature. Like, obviously, that is the most potent way to experience these effects is to be out in nature. It helps with your focus, it helps to reduce anxiety, and depression, effects of PTSD, and trauma. But you can experience those effects even just by looking at pictures of nature scenes, listening to nature sounds, or listening to birdsong. So in that sense, you can apply the Biophilia effect in deep space travel because all you need is just extra software on the spaceship so that the astronauts can have birdsong piped into their living spaces. 

I wrote a meta-analysis last year, kind of drawing from all sorts of studies on the Biophilia effect, specifically its mental effects and how that can be used in deep space travel. I’m taking a gap year next year before I go into college and in that time I’m going to be completing a study on the Biophilia effect as part of an internship that I’m doing.

I mentioned before that I am a semi-professional ballet dancer. And so very recently, I’ve sort of switched my research focus from the effects of space on the human body, to how the Biophilia effect could be used in performance spaces. Being a ballerina is actually very similar to being an astronaut in a weird way. You’re expected to perform at this incredibly high level, in a very high-stress scenario. And a lot of times you are sort of cut off from nature, you’re in a theater or you’re in a studio and you have artificial light, and you’re not really in tune with the natural world. So that’s the current focus of my research is the Biophilia effect. And its applications in a performance space. And I’m hopefully going to be working with an organization next year called Artists Becoming that is entirely focused on changing the conversation around mental health and ballet and making it much more openly talked about and discussed (and hopefully addressed) thing. And I am hoping to bring my research into intern with them and complete a study on this whole topic.

The final thing – like Alexa, I too am graduating and returning to Sora as an intern. I’ll probably be working with Michael, who’s the Dean of Students. And probably with the Student Senate, I’m actually a Senate Member right now. 

That’s really exciting Ava! I love how you’re exploring these ideas, and I love that you’ll be around to share with us what you find. Switching topics for a bit – I think it’s cool that you’re a ballet dancer…and you were on the prom committee that organized Sora’s first ever prom.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect when the community team first told us a prom was in the works. I got a sneak peak at what y’all were working on, and jumped on the chance to chaperone. Can you explain all the work that went into creating this year’s Enchanted Masquerade prom?

I really enjoyed being on the prom committee. I was not on the committee for the previous two dances that we had. We had a homecoming in the fall and a winter formal and December. But being a graduating senior, I wanted to seize every opportunity. And I really enjoyed being on the prom committee. If you told my third grade self that I would one day not only be going to a fantasy masquerade, but part of planning it…I would have like, fainted on the spot. It is exactly the type of dance that I’ve always wanted to go to.

I was part of building the theme and narrative for the dance. I love stories, I love to read. And I have been a writer since I can remember. I’ve always been coming up with stories. Right now I’m in the middle of writing my first book. It’s a space fantasy novel. I worked on that in Sora’s writing track with my best friend who’s also named Ava [and who was also on the prom committee]. She has actually finished a draft of her book. When the prom committee voted on holding a masquerade ball, that was very exciting for me. I cannot tell you how many books I’ve read that have masquerade balls in them. 

We had all of these different ideas. We wanted it to have Victorian aspects, we wanted there to be Regency aspects to it. We wanted to bring in fairies and steampunk things. So right now, what we have is that the narrative is that the people who go to prom, they’re they’re going to like typical, like traditional prom. While they’re there, they’re in like, whatever a gymnasium, there’s a power surge. When the lights come back on, everything seems to be sort of different. 

And well, the Wisps, which are these like, glowing fairy lights are leading you out the door, and they lead you into this magical world that sort of outside of time. So we have a Masquerade Ballroom where there are ghosts from ages past who were dancing, we have a Fairy Revel in the Woods, we have a Witch’s Hut, where we’re actually going to have Tarot Card readers, and you can get your future read. So you’re sort of taken into this, this magical world that’s out of time, it has all sorts of elements from different time periods interlaced throughout it.

When I was there, it felt like being in a video game. Can you talk about that? Can you help people imagine visually what this virtual prom experience was like? 

Yeah, so we had this really cool platform that one of our prom committee members suggested, which is called Spatial Chat. And the way that it works is that you have these different rooms, and everyone has a little icon. And depending on where you move in the room, depending on how close you are to other people— if you’re really close to them, you can hear them. If you move farther away, you can’t hear them. 

So it’s like you’re in an actual physical room, and that a bunch of different people can be in a room and having different conversations at once. So unlike a Zoom, where unless you’re all in different breakout rooms you’re talking over each other, it’s kind of hard to have different conversations going on. It allows for real, like, you know, mixing and mingling as if you were at a real party.

Our prom had different rooms you could explore, each with a different theme. Kira chose the artwork in each room. She’s amazing. She found a backdrop for the traditional prom room that fits the vibe perfectly. It’s steampunk and there’s this giant clock in it. I don’t even know how she found that, but it’s perfect.

She did do a good job, the images were beautiful and also gave a sense of “space” because they were a little out of focus and felt “distant.” Okay, so you’re graduating soon. When you look back at all the learning expeditions you’ve been on are there some moments that stand out? Light bulb moments, epiphanies.. 

Absolutely. I always knew that I was interested in philosophy and mythology before Sora, which is kind of funny because it doesn’t have much to do with my whole Biophilia research project. But I’ve always liked philosophy and mythology, and I’ve taken practically every philosophy class that Michael has offered, since Sora started, and I just can’t get enough of it. I want to go into classics in some way in college, maybe it’s a minor in classics, I don’t even know. There’s so much that I still have to learn. But I really like sinking my teeth into it. 

I also got the chance to teach an expedition on mythology in January of this year. I was able to design it. We were focusing on Greek mythology, and the idea of the Greek hero, which is an archetype that comes up a lot in the Greek myths. And that was really scary, because Michael was like, “Okay, so I’m just going to be here, in case you need help, but you’re going to be leading the expedition.” So before I was like, I don’t know what to do. But it was one of my favorite experiences that I’ve had at Sora was being able to lead that expedition, and it is an opportunity that I would not have gotten elsewhere.

What advice do you have for students who are enrolling at Sora now? What would you want to say to students who are just getting started on their Sora journey?

I want to say: Sora does things differently, probably different from anything that you’ve ever experienced before in school. But if you lean into that, and you lean into the period of maybe discomfort as you try to, as you figure out how the system works, and how you can best make the system work for you, then that’s how you get the most out of it. The system is built for the students who are really active in their, I guess, their education. The students who really know what they want to do, or they want to figure out what they want to do. The system is there to help you along that path. So if you can really get into that active mindset and seize the reins, then you’ll have a fantastic Sora experience. 


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