Independent Projects deliver invaluable experience

Seniors tame the wilds of Alaska, start a coffee shop and more

This spring, the 77 members of the Class of 2014 have been busy — and not just with normal end-of-high-school-career activities like exams, prom and bittersweet goodbyes. One senior summited a formidable peak in Alaska, and another learned to fly a plane. Others built a Habitat for Humanity home in Georgetown, Delaware, or engineered a speedy electric car. Still others honed their cooking skills for college or started up their own coffee shop right here on campus.

These experiences are part of Landon’s Independent Senior Project program, which for the past 20+ years has given soon-to-be-graduates the opportunity to conceive of and execute a unique project of their choosing. The students are paired with two faculty/staff sponsors each to provide them with advice and support when necessary. At the end, the seniors hand in a portfolio that documents the project, and they deliver an oral presentation explaining what they learned.

Upper School Registrar Lisa Goenner, who oversees the program, views the Independent Senior Projects as a great way for seniors to develop the confidence and ingenuity to work independently, a skill that will be invaluable as they head to college and beyond.

“The students are expected to develop an idea on their own, and do long-term planning to ensure that it fits the time allowed and is challenging,” Goenner said. “It’s a good transitional program because next year when they go off to college they’ll have the experience of figuring something out on their own. We do give them appropriate help, but we expect them to mostly find the way themselves, knowing that next year they’re not going to have the same support system in place that they do now as high school students living at home.”

With business advice from Chief Financial Officer/Chief Operating Officer Jeremy Kugel and food-services guidance from Sodexo General Manager Charmion Wood, seniors Robbie Hefferon, Ed Wolins and Raman Ananthanpillai opened the wildly popular on-campus coffee house The Landon Cup, complete with its own Facebook and Twitter pages. Most impressively, they handled all the preparations themselves: They rented the equipment, bought the coffees and foods at cost from Cameron’s Coffees & Chocolates (owned by a Landon family), and worked as baristas to master their beverage-making techniques.

The coffee shop was an instant hit when it opened in mid-May. “We bought 200 cold drink cups and thought that would last us the entire project,” Wolins said. “But we ran out halfway through the second day.” The Landon Cup paid for its overhead within the first week, with all profits thereafter going to Autism Speaks, a charity near and dear to Ananthanpillai, who has family members in India with autism.

“It’s been a great experience figuring out all the different factors that go into a successful business,” Hefferon said.

Another successful venture was the No Bull Sports Network, a sports blog that seniors Ishan Satwah, Thomas Dunigan and Harry Laird launched with the help of their faculty sponsors, Associate Director of Communications Rob Yunich and English Department Chair Peter Swinehart. “We didn’t want our blog to be like other sports sites out there that are like celebrity gossip magazines,” Laird explained. “We just wanted straight analysis of games with an emphasis on facts, not superstition or public opinions.”

While that sounds simple enough, the seniors soon learned that to design and sustain a website often required them to work six- to seven-hour days out of The Landon Cup and their own homes. “The experience has really helped us as writers, learning to maintain a daily schedule,” Dunigan said.

“We learned about the nuances of making a website, like which images you can use, styles of writing you should use and citing sources,” Satwah added. “Mr. Yunich was a big help with that.”

Yunich, meanwhile, thinks that the seniors ultimately discovered an even more valuable lesson. “The boys learned that hard work pays off. They saw that their posts were followed by some notable readers, including Cincinnati Bengals player Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones,” Yunich said. “I’m pleased that they devoted themselves so wholeheartedly to the project.”

The rest of the Class of 2014 also showed thoughtful selection of Independent Senior Projects. Trey Lundelius took flying lessons and aims to eventually receive his pilot’s license. Twelve seniors joined Upper School math teacher David Wray in building a house in Georgetown, Delaware, for Habitat for Humanity. Thirteen students, supervised by Mrs. Goenner, participated in Model Senate debates. Walter Spak painted portraits of Landon faculty and staff, including Headmaster David M. Armstrong. Four seniors learned how to cook on a college budget, using inexpensive ingredients to make gourmet meals (“I feel ready for Top Chef!” Kevin Soraci enthused). Pravin Fonseka and Alex Liu built and raced an electric car.

And Garland Kennedy traveled to Anchorage, Alaska, where he hiked to the top of Cantata Peak, one of the most difficult ascents in the Chugach mountain range. Only two-dozen or so people summit the peak each year, due to its steep climbs and unstable shale makeup. Kennedy, at the behest of his advisor, athletic trainer and experienced hiker Stephen Herman, took a wilderness survival class before making the trip.

“I learned everything from how to staunch traumatic blood loss to how to deal with spinal injury when there is not a hospital,” Kennedy said. “There is no cell reception on the mountain, so if anything had happened, it would have been, ‘How can I fix it?’” Luckily, nothing happened, but that doesn’t mean the going was easy for Kennedy. He had to climb 70-degree slopes with shaky footing and handholds, and even had to chop firewood with a knife to keep warm.

“I learned a lot out there, like how we take things like running water and fire for granted,” Kennedy said. “Hiking Cantata was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was amazing — one of the best experiences of my life.”