Linking Up

As a new class of Falcons adjusts to TPHS, a group of upperclassmen is working to make their transition to high school more smooth. The Falconer takes a look at the Link Crew program and how it creates a welcoming environment for TPHS freshmen.

When Erik Shamsedeen (12) ran onto the football field at the Aug. 24 home game, trailing streamers for an ASB-run game of flag football at half-time, he embodied a lesson he had shared with his freshmen mentees about an hour earlier: “Be an extrovert for a little bit.”

Shamsedeen is a mentor with the TPHS Link Crew, a campus initiative aimed at supporting freshmen in their transition to high school through connections with upperclassmen. Prior to the Aug. 24 game, Link Crew hosted a tailgate for freshmen and their upperclassmen mentors, or Link Leaders.

The tailgate was a festive gathering. Shamsedeen brought paint to decorate his peers’ faces and passed pizza around to the participants.

“[The Link Leaders] really tried to get you into the Torrey Pines spirit,” Kayte Ellison (9), a tailgate attendee, said. “I wasn’t super thrilled about the football games, but they helped me to understand how fun it is.”

Some mentors branched off with their freshmen, sitting around the TPHS Performing Arts Center to prepare them for the scene that would greet them in the student section; a popular advice topic was the grade-based hierarchy of student section seating.

“There are a lot of unspoken rules [during a TPHS football game],” Link Leader Anaclaire Fox (12) said. “I think it can be a little intimidating because you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.”

But this gathering was more than just a social affair or advice session; it marked the beginning of a new era of student support at TPHS.

The TPHS Link Crew is a branch of a nationwide peer mentorship initiative by the Boomerang Project, a national organization aimed at fostering student connection. While TPHS has housed Link Crew on campus for the past three years, this year is the first time the program will be a year-long endeavor, according to Angela Willden, a Link Crew Coordinator and TPHS chemistry teacher. Willden took over Link Crew at the same time she took on TPHS Peer-Assistant Listeners in late 2022. That year, she ran a successful freshman orientation through the program but was unable to continue Link Crew into the school year.

“It was one person trying to do this really massive thing, so [Link Crew] faded,” she said.

But, recognizing the need for freshmen support, Willden recruited two other teachers to the cause and stepped down from Link Crew Lead Coordinator, choosing to focus on PALs instead. Now, under the leadership of English teacher Olivia Bogert — with the help of math teacher Annie Polan — Link Crew is set to expand, connecting freshmen to upperclassmen throughout the year with monthly events like the tailgate.

“The program at its core works because it’s students helping students: juniors and seniors helping freshmen,” Bogert said.

With more regular events, those connections can help students find community at TPHS or, like Shamsedeen, “to be extroverts.”

“The data tells us that the most at-risk group of high schoolers is freshmen,” Willden said.

In fact, the Boomerang Project reports both academic success and attendance in freshman year have proven strong predictors of a student’s success throughout high school.

“We think that with extra staff and mentors … we can give [freshmen] tools early and improve their odds of success,” Willden said.

With these stakes in mind, this year’s Link Leaders began their work even before the first day of school, at freshmen orientation on Aug. 14, during which mentors met with groups of five to 13 freshmen in classrooms.

“When incoming freshmen come for the first day of school, they’re nervous … so during the orientation, they get paired with a bunch of random people so that they can start building those connections,” Polan said.

For Ellison, the orientation was her introduction to a large campus, as she previously attended Earl Warren Middle School, which has a student body approximately one-fifth the size of TPHS.

“It was a little overwhelming, but it was also pretty exciting,” Ellison said. “Coming into school on the first day, I knew where I was going, which was really helpful.”

Beyond establishing a familiarity with TPHS, the orientation was the first opportunity for Link Leaders to meet their assigned mentees.

“The thing about Link Crew is you’re not just doing outreach to freshmen; you get to be their friend throughout their high school journey,” Shamsedeen said.

For Shamsedeen, this goal of Link Crew — what Bogert describes as “students helping students” — is what he believes has made his time at TPHS meaningful.

“I know a lot of people have the personality of an introvert,” he said. “But the thing about football games and school events is they are why you want to have friends.”

The Aug. 24 game was Shamsedeen’s first time in the student section, but by following his own advice to his mentees, he donned an extroverted personality to make the most of the night.

“I had friends in ASB who were on the field and they invited me down,” he said, describing his ticket to the halftime flag football game. “[That is why] you always have to stay in contact and share your interests … with anyone you meet.”

Following the football game, Bogert plans to host one social event and one academic follow-up each month for freshmen and their mentors. The next event will be at Dave and Buster’s on Sept. 21.

While these events are exclusive to freshmen and their mentors, Link Crew does not operate alone on campus.

“We’re trying to establish three sets of leaders on campus,” Willden said. “We have our ASB leaders; they get us excited to be Falcons. PALs is the social-emotional connection and now we’re trying to create a set of leaders who are focused exclusively on the freshmen.”

The unifying factor of these groups, Polan said, is a focus on peer connection.

“They’re students who want to help other students,” Polan said. “They care about others’ high school experience and want to do what they can to enrich that experience.”

Embodying this commitment to TPHS, there are many students who participate in multiple of these groups.

Fox, a member of PALs, is one of these students.

“It’s nice to have a student who’s your own age who you look up to or who can relate to you,” Fox said, describing her motivation for joining Link Crew and PALs.

Talena Ladendorf (12), who helps plan Link Crew events as the program’s PALs liaison, echoed this sentiment.

“We help students at Torrey Pines find their place and be a part of the community,” Ladendorf said. “We help them feel like Falcons.”

As Link Crew enters its new phase, Link Leaders hope that a community continues to grow among freshmen. Through small moments of school unity — from connections formed during orientation to the line of freshmen waiting to get their faces painted before the football game — Link Crew mentors are investing in the future of TPHS.

For Shamsedeen, this investment is a desire to leave a legacy of connection at TPHS, whether it be to motivate a student to join Link Crew or to inspire another to play flag football at half-time, he hopes he “leaves an impact on his freshmen.”

photos by Anna Opalsky/Falconer

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