Passing the torch: former and future Los Alamitos USD student board representatives share experiences

Alexa Dharmapalan is headed to San Diego State University, while rising LAHS senior Joelle Kaiser will be the student board member for 2023-24

Passing the torch: former and future Los Alamitos USD student board representatives share experiences
Outgoing Los Alamitos USD student board member Alexa Dharmapalan (left) and Joelle Kaiser (right), the student board member for the 2023-24 school year, pose after Dharmapalan’s last board meeting on May 8. Photo by Nichole Pichardo, Los Al USD Chief Communications Officer.

Alexa Dharmapalan, who graduated from Los Alamitos High School this week, was the Los Alamitos Unified School District’s student board representative for the 2022-23 school year. At the Board of Education’s meeting on May 9, she passed the torch to Joelle Kaiser, a rising senior at LAHS. Numerous members of the LAHS  Associated Student Body (ASB) also came to the meeting to support their friends.

The student board representative is usually also an LAHS ASB member.

Dharmapalan is attending San Diego State University next year and majoring in political science. All four years at LAHS, she was in ASB and the award-winning Soundtrax show choir.

She said her experience as school board representative changed her “entire life path.” After finding her passion in education, Dharmapalan now hopes to make her way back into a school board room.

Kaiser looks forward to joining ASB next year as the new student board member. She was on LAHS’s song team her first two years of high school, and she competed nationally on the varsity soccer team as a sophomore. Last year, Kaiser was a LAHS student mentor.

“I think being on a board is very valuable, learning how these decisions are made higher up at the district office. They impact students from TK to 12th grade,” Kaiser said.

Spotlight Schools spoke with Dharmapalan and Kaiser last week. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did your interest in board matters start?

AD: I was nine. Mrs. [Tami] Sciacca, who's currently the ASB director, was my fourth grade teacher. In elementary school, we had Disabilities Awareness Day, and she asked me to speak about it to the board on behalf of Rossmoor Elementary. So I went to my first board meeting in 2015, I think. Before they got to me, they did the student representative. She gave her report, and that was the first time I'd ever been exposed to a student being able to sit on the board. I thought, “That is really cool,” because I loved public speaking, and I still do. That was how I first got introduced to the position I held last year.

I didn't know exactly how to go about getting there, but I happened to apply for ASB going into my freshman year, and I made it on. Then I was informed that was one of the positions a senior could hold, and ever since then, it's been my line of sight.

JK: Similar to Alexa, I was in Oak Middle School’s ASB. The student representative to the board was a senior, Blake Ravelo, and he was pretty iconic. He had so much energy; they could be pretty repetitive board meetings, and he brought such a liveliness to them. I was so fascinated by his job as student board representative. At the end, he tried to recruit us because he's an ASB, and we're in ASB. He was talking to us about the job, and I thought it was a very tangible thing for me. It’s always been in the back of my mind, so once senior year came around, I wanted to apply.

Alexa, what’s your job as student board representative?

AD: In the beginning, that entailed making bi-weekly reports; now they’re monthly. Then I would do a report on everything involving the four A's at LAHS: athletics, activities, arts, and academics. Nico Villanueva, who was the student board representative the year after Blake Ravelo, introduced the student spotlight to the board meetings. Will Brandenberger continued that, and I continued it my year as well. That involves selecting a student and asking them about what they do on campus because they've shown exemplary examples of the four A's.

Joelle, what are you most looking forward to about being student board representative?

JK: Along with my report about the amazing things that happen at our school and the spectacular students, I'm excited to work with the members of the board, such as [Deputy Supt. Ondrea] Reed and [Board] President Forehan. When I went to Alexa’s “going away” meeting, they had such a strong connection with her. I really cherish their bond with Alexa, and I'm excited to make those new relationships with them, in addition to presenting my slides and showing off the awesome things at LAHS because I love to do that.

What do you feel nervous about?

JK: Filling Alexa’s shoes because she did such a great job highlighting different people at school. I'm a little nervous about seeing how I can shape it in my own way.

Alexa, what’s your favorite memory with the board?

AD: I have so many, but a lot of my favorite memories actually happened with board members outside of the board room. With the job comes new relationships because all the board members made such an effort to support me in my endeavors, which included choir shows, seeing me on ASB, going to football games, and winning basketball games. That always made my day.

But specifically, I'm fortunate enough to be really good friends with the executive assistant Tina Dingillo’s son. We're in choir together, and Mr. Forehan would always send us Thin Mints. During first period, he’d send them to Jake, and Jake would share them with me. We'd always get a nice little card, and I mentioned that in my board meetings, but I never had the heart to tell Mr. Forehan that I don't like Thin Mints. But I eat them every time, and I saved every single one of the cards.

Joelle, what do you hope to take away from this experience?

JK: I definitely am excited as a student board representative to highlight more students that aren't normally highlighted. People from all activities like journalism, marching band, robotics, etc. Ones that are somewhat more niche than what they're used to seeing.

Alexa, what was your most valuable take away from your time as student board representative?

AD: The relationships that I've made with people in that line of work. Those are relationships that I can carry with me to college, into the workforce. It was a really valuable experience for me to see the people that we put young minds and futures in the hands of, and truly, they deserve to be there. It gives me solace as an older student who is looking back on other experiences in elementary school in middle school. These are still the same people who have shaped our education, and it was invaluable for me to experience that and see it firsthand.

What advice do you have for Joelle?

AD: Don't stress. Your meetings are going to be great every time. Don't talk too fast. Don't be afraid to branch out. You said you were really excited to make relationships with board members - I know how I did that was I presented myself as open and welcoming. That's not hard for you to do because that's just who you are as a person, but as they walk in, greet them, and say goodbye before you leave. You'll have great talks with them; I'm not worried for you at all. You’re going to do great.

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