Throughout her time at Los Altos High School, Isabel Berny took on a leadership role on campus, working to bring students together, and she didn’t let the pandemic stop her.
Part of student government since her sophomore year, Berny, who graduated last week, served as Associated Study Body treasurer her junior year and this year as the wellness week and diversity week coordinator.
In that role, she worked to help students stay connected during online learning, adapting an annual “Gifts of Gratitude” event so that students could still take part and send gifts to their friends, even while at home.
“I think people’s spirits were kind of down, so we definitely did not want to just skip out on ‘Gifts of Gratitude’ this year,” Berny said. “Even though it took a lot of planning … I was motivated to do it just to give people something to look forward to.”
In a typical year, “Gifts of Gratitude” gives students the opportunity to pick from a selection of small gifts – such as fuzzy socks or stress toys – to send to a friend, along with a personalized note. ASB students then collect the responses, buy the gifts and deliver them to the recipients during the school day.
Berny spearheaded an adapted version this year, where she then packaged all the gifts at her own house and created detailed driving routes so that ASB students could deliver the presents to hundreds of students’ homes.
Berny’s commitment and high level of focus are something English teacher Michael Smith said he’s seen since her freshman year, but over the course of high school he has also watched her leadership skills develop.
“It’s a cool thing to see her find her voice and to able to be confident, to contribute and lead and do things positively in the community,” said Smith, who taught Berny in both her freshman and junior years. “I’m just excited for her opportunities in the future.”
A naturally reserved person, Berny said she never thought she’d get involved in student government when she first came to high school. It wasn’t until her freshman-year Spanish teacher suggested she would be a good fit for ASB that she decided to apply.
“I got in, and from there, just immediately, I was super drawn to it,” Berny said.
Through her participation in student government, Berny said she got more comfortable talking to people she didn’t know and learned verbal communication skills, as well as how to tackle new situations. Last school year, Berny took the lead role in organizing the school’s annual homecoming parade.
Now that she’s graduated from Los Altos High, Berny is headed to Stanford University in the fall, where she plans to major in computer science, with an interest in also studying political science.
Berny wants to pursue both areas because she said computer science inherently intersects with public policy, as technology now impacts nearly every other field. To be able to use computer science to help others, Berny said it’s important to understand how various groups have been treated over time.
One example Berny pointed to of how computer science has overlooked people is data showing facial recognition software is less effective at identifying people of color, because the data sets used to train the artificial intelligence were disproportionately composed of white men.
“That’s one of the important things that I think computer scientists really need to think about, because you’re just completely ignoring this huge population of people,” she said.
Over the past year, she worked on a newly formed diversity and inclusion subcommittee within ASB. The group’s work has included surveying students on how to make the school’s curriculum more inclusive, as well as teaming up with Mountain View High’s ASB to organize a series of “Candidly Speaking” events, where students come together and discuss issues of race and culture.
Beyond ASB, Berny has been involved in other groups on campus, including the Girls Who Code club. As president this year, she led weekly meetings, where members would learn about women in STEM, do coding activities and work together on projects.
Regardless of what she was working on, Smith said he’s always seen that Berny has an inquisitive mind and takes a “holistic” approach to learning.
“She was always a joy to have in class: always participated, always encouraged and worked with just about anyone who was thrown her way,” Smith said. “There’s not a moment where she’s not trying to absorb information or dish it out to someone.”