Custom Class: post-landing-hero

Rowland Hall junior Cindy Shen is a cellist and fencer, and enjoys drawing for fun. She's polite and gritty, and speaks quickly and confidently about topics that interest her.

One of those topics is coding. Cindy taught herself HTML and CSS in eighth grade, and since then has created and sold Tumblr themes for a profit.

Cindy is just one member of a sizeable group of Rowland Hall young women currently excelling in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Notable recent accomplishments include the following:

  • In February, the National Coalition of Women in Technology (NCWIT) named Cindy, senior Sophia Nielsen, and junior Marguerite Tate Northern Utah Affiliate winners for Aspirations in Computing awards, "designed to increase women's meaningful participation in computing careers." Senior May Shaaban won runner-up.
  • As sophomores, Sophia and now-senior Rachel Nelson founded Rowland Hall's Science Olympiad Team. Not long after the NCWIT awards this year, the team—eight students, all girls—competed in regionals, placed among the top 25 teams, and qualified to the state tournament. At the state competition in late April, the team—this time with a few young men in the mix—had a strong showing, placing fifth in three Olympiad categories and sixth in another.
  • Cindy and junior Alicia Lu, along with 15 middle schoolers, spearheaded a project that in late April won first place in the Shane McConkey EcoChallenge. The victory comes with $6,000 to be used for environmental projects at Rowland Hall. The group collected over 1,000 gallons of dry non-recyclables to make eco-bricks for a bench around a tree on campus. Cindy and Alicia will use their STEAM (STEM plus art, specifically creative design) skills to finish the project.

Cindy's mom is an engineer, so coding wasn't a foreign concept to her. But she initially preferred English and didn't have an inherent love for STEM subjects—"If anything, I wanted to deter from it," she said. For Cindy, who has been at Rowland Hall since ninth grade, it took a good teacher in middle school to spark her interest in math. "I hated math forever and then I think in seventh grade, I was like, 'Oh, actually, maybe I like this,'" Cindy said.

Women make up 26% of the STEM workforce. That percentage is on an upward trend, except in computing, according to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data. A Code.org slideshow further explains that "the STEM problem is in computer science": 67% of all new jobs are in computing, but only 8% of STEM graduates are in computer science. Women are veering away from computing as employers are clamoring for computer scientists.

Nuanced Teaching and Collaborative Learning

Goal 2 of Rowland Hall's five-year Strategic Plan is to "provide the Intermountain West's most outstanding math and science program." While striving to accomplish this, Rowland Hall has an opportunity—and is on the right track—to reverse the trend of the underrepresentation of women and students of color, according to Ben Smith, who graduated from Rowland Hall in 1989 and returned here to teach in 2001. The school has recently increased participation in seventh- and eighth-grade robotics, computer science (CS), and Make Club, where Cindy and Marguerite are co-presidents.

"In two years, we have gone from virtually male-dominated classes to a much more representative comparison," said Ben, who currently teaches CS and environmental science.

Rowland Hall offers a sixth-grade grade CS Foundations course taught by Allison Spehar. That course is also taught in gender-separated classes—"an opportunity for girls at an early age to explore computer science in an environment free of stereotypes," Ben said.

"We also have a culture that celebrates academic achievement, and being a 'nerd' is 'cool.'"

Like Cindy, Sophia has a family STEM connection: she initially became interested in CS when her older sister, Caroline Nielsen '12, took a CS class. Sophia became hooked and talked to her teachers, such as Ben, who helped her find ways to further her CS education.

Sophia likes CS because it gives her the opportunity to solve problems in multiple ways. She plans to attend Harvey Mudd College or the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering for a bachelor's in CS with a minor or a double-major in psychology.

Senior Anna Shott is one of Ben's recent CS recruits. She's in his Advanced Topics CS class, along with Sophia. Anna plans to take a gap year to work and travel, then attend the University of Southern California (USC) in 2017. There, she plans to pursue a math or CS major. If she picks math, she'll at least pursue a CS minor.

"Computer programming is really interesting, how it translates into so many different aspects of our world right now," Anna said. "It's kind of at the forefront of science and math."

Like Cindy and Sophia, Anna enjoys the problem-solving aspects of CS, and has a family member—her older brother Blake Shott '13—who helped to inspire her by telling her how much he enjoyed his CS classes at USC.

Anna has also enjoyed the style of STEM teaching at Rowland Hall. She said the school has done "everything" for her interest in STEM.

"I essentially learned all I know here," Anna said, crediting her past teachers Bill Tatomer, Missy Tschabrun, and Brian Birchler for their effective teaching styles.

CS, she added, is "all about working with other people to solve problems," for instance, to "figure out how your app is or isn't working."

"Collaborative fields are more stereotypically in the arts, and I think it's really interesting how Rowland Hall incorporates them into the maths," Anna said. "I really enjoy it."

Based on Ben's experience, there is a difference in teaching STEM subjects to girls. "Girls tend to want to develop ideas, create, and learn based on a desire to solve problems in our world, to make the world a better place," he said.

He's also worked hard to make his own classroom into a welcoming, gender-neutral space. "I have art magazines, plants, and a collaborative atmosphere where problems are solved with peers," Ben said.

Cultivating the Best STEM Program

Ben has a few ideas about how Rowland Hall can attain the best STEM program in the region. He wants to see a CS course required for all high school students; more and further developed field science opportunities; and a reframing of science education to encourage use of the scientific method rather than rote memorization. He wants more opportunities for collaboration and project-based, hands-on learning in science, engineering, Make Club, and CS. "I think we have a duty to teach kids to use their intellect to solve problems in groups," he said. "I also think this will attract more female students."

Ben also wants more female scientists, doctors, coders, and other STEAM professionals to speak, visit, mentor, and engage in discussions about teaching STEAM. "Our girls need mentors to show them that indeed they can be successful, make a difference and compete at the highest levels in all STEAM fields," Ben said.

Anna thinks that sort of effort would be "awesome," and adds that peer leadership could be equally, if not more, valuable: "If you can get a really passionate female student who loves the topic and kind of recruits other kids into the program, I think that'd be really beneficial."

On Tuesday, May 17, Rowland Hall will present a screening of CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap followed by a panel discussion in the Larimer Center. The documentary "exposes the dearth of American female and minority software engineers and explores the reasons for this gender gap."

Ben said he's excited for the screening. "It is a powerful message and one that I hope will continue to push the conversation forward and encourage other teachers, parents, and students to make changes to give opportunities for more girls to believe they too could be successful."

STEM

Bucking Trends, Rowland Hall Girls are at the Forefront of STEM

Rowland Hall junior Cindy Shen is a cellist and fencer, and enjoys drawing for fun. She's polite and gritty, and speaks quickly and confidently about topics that interest her.

One of those topics is coding. Cindy taught herself HTML and CSS in eighth grade, and since then has created and sold Tumblr themes for a profit.

Cindy is just one member of a sizeable group of Rowland Hall young women currently excelling in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Notable recent accomplishments include the following:

  • In February, the National Coalition of Women in Technology (NCWIT) named Cindy, senior Sophia Nielsen, and junior Marguerite Tate Northern Utah Affiliate winners for Aspirations in Computing awards, "designed to increase women's meaningful participation in computing careers." Senior May Shaaban won runner-up.
  • As sophomores, Sophia and now-senior Rachel Nelson founded Rowland Hall's Science Olympiad Team. Not long after the NCWIT awards this year, the team—eight students, all girls—competed in regionals, placed among the top 25 teams, and qualified to the state tournament. At the state competition in late April, the team—this time with a few young men in the mix—had a strong showing, placing fifth in three Olympiad categories and sixth in another.
  • Cindy and junior Alicia Lu, along with 15 middle schoolers, spearheaded a project that in late April won first place in the Shane McConkey EcoChallenge. The victory comes with $6,000 to be used for environmental projects at Rowland Hall. The group collected over 1,000 gallons of dry non-recyclables to make eco-bricks for a bench around a tree on campus. Cindy and Alicia will use their STEAM (STEM plus art, specifically creative design) skills to finish the project.

Cindy's mom is an engineer, so coding wasn't a foreign concept to her. But she initially preferred English and didn't have an inherent love for STEM subjects—"If anything, I wanted to deter from it," she said. For Cindy, who has been at Rowland Hall since ninth grade, it took a good teacher in middle school to spark her interest in math. "I hated math forever and then I think in seventh grade, I was like, 'Oh, actually, maybe I like this,'" Cindy said.

Women make up 26% of the STEM workforce. That percentage is on an upward trend, except in computing, according to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data. A Code.org slideshow further explains that "the STEM problem is in computer science": 67% of all new jobs are in computing, but only 8% of STEM graduates are in computer science. Women are veering away from computing as employers are clamoring for computer scientists.

Nuanced Teaching and Collaborative Learning

Goal 2 of Rowland Hall's five-year Strategic Plan is to "provide the Intermountain West's most outstanding math and science program." While striving to accomplish this, Rowland Hall has an opportunity—and is on the right track—to reverse the trend of the underrepresentation of women and students of color, according to Ben Smith, who graduated from Rowland Hall in 1989 and returned here to teach in 2001. The school has recently increased participation in seventh- and eighth-grade robotics, computer science (CS), and Make Club, where Cindy and Marguerite are co-presidents.

"In two years, we have gone from virtually male-dominated classes to a much more representative comparison," said Ben, who currently teaches CS and environmental science.

Rowland Hall offers a sixth-grade grade CS Foundations course taught by Allison Spehar. That course is also taught in gender-separated classes—"an opportunity for girls at an early age to explore computer science in an environment free of stereotypes," Ben said.

"We also have a culture that celebrates academic achievement, and being a 'nerd' is 'cool.'"

Like Cindy, Sophia has a family STEM connection: she initially became interested in CS when her older sister, Caroline Nielsen '12, took a CS class. Sophia became hooked and talked to her teachers, such as Ben, who helped her find ways to further her CS education.

Sophia likes CS because it gives her the opportunity to solve problems in multiple ways. She plans to attend Harvey Mudd College or the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering for a bachelor's in CS with a minor or a double-major in psychology.

Senior Anna Shott is one of Ben's recent CS recruits. She's in his Advanced Topics CS class, along with Sophia. Anna plans to take a gap year to work and travel, then attend the University of Southern California (USC) in 2017. There, she plans to pursue a math or CS major. If she picks math, she'll at least pursue a CS minor.

"Computer programming is really interesting, how it translates into so many different aspects of our world right now," Anna said. "It's kind of at the forefront of science and math."

Like Cindy and Sophia, Anna enjoys the problem-solving aspects of CS, and has a family member—her older brother Blake Shott '13—who helped to inspire her by telling her how much he enjoyed his CS classes at USC.

Anna has also enjoyed the style of STEM teaching at Rowland Hall. She said the school has done "everything" for her interest in STEM.

"I essentially learned all I know here," Anna said, crediting her past teachers Bill Tatomer, Missy Tschabrun, and Brian Birchler for their effective teaching styles.

CS, she added, is "all about working with other people to solve problems," for instance, to "figure out how your app is or isn't working."

"Collaborative fields are more stereotypically in the arts, and I think it's really interesting how Rowland Hall incorporates them into the maths," Anna said. "I really enjoy it."

Based on Ben's experience, there is a difference in teaching STEM subjects to girls. "Girls tend to want to develop ideas, create, and learn based on a desire to solve problems in our world, to make the world a better place," he said.

He's also worked hard to make his own classroom into a welcoming, gender-neutral space. "I have art magazines, plants, and a collaborative atmosphere where problems are solved with peers," Ben said.

Cultivating the Best STEM Program

Ben has a few ideas about how Rowland Hall can attain the best STEM program in the region. He wants to see a CS course required for all high school students; more and further developed field science opportunities; and a reframing of science education to encourage use of the scientific method rather than rote memorization. He wants more opportunities for collaboration and project-based, hands-on learning in science, engineering, Make Club, and CS. "I think we have a duty to teach kids to use their intellect to solve problems in groups," he said. "I also think this will attract more female students."

Ben also wants more female scientists, doctors, coders, and other STEAM professionals to speak, visit, mentor, and engage in discussions about teaching STEAM. "Our girls need mentors to show them that indeed they can be successful, make a difference and compete at the highest levels in all STEAM fields," Ben said.

Anna thinks that sort of effort would be "awesome," and adds that peer leadership could be equally, if not more, valuable: "If you can get a really passionate female student who loves the topic and kind of recruits other kids into the program, I think that'd be really beneficial."

On Tuesday, May 17, Rowland Hall will present a screening of CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap followed by a panel discussion in the Larimer Center. The documentary "exposes the dearth of American female and minority software engineers and explores the reasons for this gender gap."

Ben said he's excited for the screening. "It is a powerful message and one that I hope will continue to push the conversation forward and encourage other teachers, parents, and students to make changes to give opportunities for more girls to believe they too could be successful."

STEM

Explore More Alumni Stories

Sara Matsumura playing volleyball.

Haverford College senior Sara Matsumura ’16 added to her impressive list of achievements on September 9, when she was awarded the Centennial Conference’s Player of the Week after being named Most Valuable Player of the Ford Invitational only two days earlier. Then, on September 16, the NCAA announced that Sara was ranked third in Division III in total digs and seventh in service aces.

“I am over-the-moon ecstatic,” Sara said about the start of her senior season.

Despite the recent attention she has personally received, the Haverford volleyball co-captain remained focused on her team. “It is amazing to see all of our hard work coming to fruition and so motivating to see everyone reaching and playing at their full potential,” she said. “I feel a lot of appreciation for the group of girls I get to play with."

I am over-the-moon ecstatic. It is amazing to see all of our hard work coming to fruition and so motivating to see everyone reaching and playing at their full potential.—Sara Matsumura, Class of 2016

Kendra Tomsic, Sara’s former coach and Rowland Hall’s director of athletics, was not surprised to learn of Sara’s focus on teamwork. “Sara never cared about individual stats or accolades—she loved her teammates and celebrated their accomplishments as if they were her own,” she said of Sara’s time playing for the Winged Lions. “Her unmatched work ethic, positive attitude, fiery spirit, enthusiasm, heart, and passion for the game were an inspiration to her teammates and coaches.”
 
Kendra also praised Sara’s athletic prowess. “Sara is undoubtedly one of the most talented volleyball players to come out of our program. Her stats were tops in nearly every category, and she was instrumental to our winning several consecutive region titles,” she said. “I am so very proud and excited, but definitely not surprised, that Sara has continued to excel and has made such an amazing impact on her Haverford College team.”
 
Sara credited Rowland Hall for preparing her for success at the college level, both on the court and in the classroom. “The endless support I received from Rowland Hall’s coaching staff gave me the confidence I needed to gain an I-own-the-court mentality. As a back-row player, that is essential and has definitely been tested when facing strong teams,” she said. “Rowland Hall also prepared me to balance school and volleyball, as academics is our top priority at Haverford too.”
 
These balancing skills, first gained at Rowland Hall and then strengthened at Haverford, are essential to Sara’s success. When she isn’t excelling on the court, the chemistry major is researching microplastics and bioplastics for her senior thesis. After graduation, she plans on taking a gap year to work at an environmentally focused company, then earning a PhD in environmental engineering or chemistry. Armed with an arsenal of skills she has gathered as a student-athlete, we have no doubt she’ll continue to do great things, and we can’t wait to see them.

Update November 12, 2019: Sara was selected for a first-team spot for the 2019 All-Centennial Conference volleyball teams; this is the third consecutive season Sara has been named to an All-Centennial squad. She was also named to the Centennial Conference All-Sportsmanship team for the fourth consecutive season, becoming the first player in program history to earn that distinction four times since the introduction of the plaudit to the conference's postseason awards in 2009. Read the news release.

Update November 14, 2019: Sara was selected to the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Division III All-Mid Atlantic Region team. She is the first Haverford player to garner all-region honors since 2015. Read the news release.

Update November 19, 2019: Sara was named an All-America Honorable Mention. She is the first Haverford player to be included on the list since 2015 and the tenth in program history. Read the news release.

Congratulations, Sara!


Top of page: Sara Matsumura playing in a Haverford College volleyball game. (Photo courtesy David Sinclair)

Alumni

Claire Wang in front of US Capitol
Winged Lions on the Rise—title page graphic featuring six alumni.

Editor's note: this is one of six profiles republished from Rowland Hall's 2018–2019 Annual Report feature story, "Winged Lions on the Rise." Millennial alumni are finding their voices and already shaping their fields and communities—from physics to film, music to medical innovations, and environmental policy to conservation-minded real estate. Learn how Rowland Hall impacted them, and how they’re impacting the world. From left, Jared Ruga ’06, Claire Wang ’15, Phinehas Bynum ’08, Jeanna Tachiki Ryan ’01, Tyler Ruggles ’05, and Sarah Day ’06.


In her daily fight against climate change, Claire Wang’s weapons of choice include her bicycle, travel utensils, and reusable water bottle.

But the 21-year-old’s real arsenal is her character: her empathy, intellect, and contagious optimism that she wields to mobilize peers, negotiate with institutions, and drive environmental progress locally and nationally. Now, Rowland Hall’s first Rhodes Scholar graduates to the global stage.

There’s no choice but to be hopeful. We have a collective obligation to keep working towards a better future. Giving up would be a selfish act.—Claire Wang ’15

In Claire, the daunting problem of climate change finds a formidable opponent: the former nationally ranked Rowland Hall debater loves what she does and refuses to be discouraged. “There’s no choice but to be hopeful,” she said. “We have a collective obligation to keep working towards a better future. Giving up would be a selfish act.”

Claire was always interested in science and environmentalism; after coming to Rowland Hall in seventh grade, relevant curriculum furthered her interest in climate advocacy, while debate turned her into a policy wonk. In high school, she started volunteering for Utah Clean Energy through a school connection. “That was the moment I realized that I love this work and I want to do it for a living,” Claire said. “Rowland Hall was really supportive of that.” As a senior, she co-organized a press conference—held at the McCarthey Campus and covered by local news outlets—advocating against new fees on solar panels. And just before she finished high school, the Sierra Club asked her to help plan a national youth-led movement for renewable energy.

Claire Wang speaks with a broadcast news reporter at a 2015 press conference on solar panels, held at Rowland Hall.

Claire graduated as valedictorian and accepted a full ride to Duke University, where she majored in environmental science and policy. As a freshman, she worked with college administrators to secure Duke’s official support for renewable-energy policy reform. Then, Duke Energy—a large utility company unaffiliated with the university—announced plans to build a natural-gas plant on the university’s campus. It was the first of eight small-scale gas plants planned for the Carolinas. Claire spent two years fighting the campus plant proposal, and the university suspended the plans in spring 2018. Since then, none of the other North Carolina plants have entered the planning process. “Turning the tide early with the first plant ended up being really impactful,” Claire said.

Claire thrived in community campaigns at Duke and beyond—she even won prestigious Truman and Udall Scholarships in recognition of her work—and envisioned a career in national policy. But a 2018 study-abroad program on climate change and the politics of food, water, and energy spurred a shift. She visited a hydroelectric dam in Vietnam, and an ethnic-minority community displaced because of that dam. She also learned about how extreme weather impacts farmers, from drought in Bolivia to hail in Morocco. Now, Claire wants to reduce financing for fossil-fuel infrastructure, especially in developing countries. “We're not going to be able to achieve a livable climate future without cutting those back,” she said.

Eschew the conventional belief that salaries define successful careers. “Instead, focus on the impact you have on the world,” Claire said. “What you do with your life is not just a job—it’s a legacy.”

That global perspective drove Claire to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship—the oldest award for international study, covering graduate school at England’s University of Oxford. When she learned she’d been selected, Claire was elated, but incredulous. “It was a mix of nervousness, excitement, pride, and a general sense of, ‘Wait, did this actually happen?’”

Claire will be at Oxford for two years, starting with a one-year master’s in environmental change and management. She expects to land in policy, perhaps working for the government or an international group. Regardless, she’ll be doing work that’s meaningful to her, and she encourages other young people to follow suit: eschew the conventional belief that salaries define successful careers. “Instead, focus on the impact you have on the world,” she said. “What you do with your life is not just a job—it’s a legacy.”


Top photo: Claire in front of the United States Capitol. Over the summer, Claire interned with the Natural Resources Defense Council as part of the Truman Scholars' Summer Institute.

Alumni

Phinehas Bynum performs in Candide
Winged Lions on the Rise—title page graphic featuring six alumni.

Editor's note: this is one of six profiles republished from Rowland Hall's 2018–2019 Annual Report feature story, "Winged Lions on the Rise." Millennial alumni are finding their voices and already shaping their fields and communities—from physics to film, music to medical innovations, and environmental policy to conservation-minded real estate. Learn how Rowland Hall impacted them, and how they’re impacting the world. From left, Jared Ruga ’06, Claire Wang ’15, Phinehas Bynum ’08, Jeanna Tachiki Ryan ’01, Tyler Ruggles ’05, and Sarah Day ’06.


Phinehas Bynum makes “whizbangs and gizmos” to automate mundane things in his Minneapolis house. A motion sensor on his washing machine messages him when the washer stops. Between loads, he composes and plays music in his DIY home-recording studio. It’s a delightful showcase of his two biggest passions.

Phinehas—Phin, for short—holds a music and computer science degree from St. Olaf College in Minnesota. By day, he works for software company Jamf on a technical-implementation team that teaches and trains clients. But the renaissance man has also been a lifelong singer—performing with the likes of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as a fourth grader, the renowned St. Olaf Choir as a college student, and operas around Minneapolis, including the Minnesota Opera (MNOp), since college.

You can make someone's day better by fixing their computer, or by singing them a song. And both of these involve compassion, creativity, logic, and technique.—Phinehas Bynum ’08

“I was just about born singing,” said Phin, whose parents prophetically gave him a name that means, among other interpretations, mouth of brass. “Every time you say ‘Phinehas’ a trumpet gets its wings,” the alum quipped. Naturally, young Phin also dabbled in reverse engineering. “Mama and Papa stepped on clock springs and screws on the daily because I took everything apart to see how it worked,” he said. “Computer science was an extension of tinkering for me because you could change how something worked just by telling it to change, no take-apart required.” 

Phin has deftly balanced singing and computing, which he said similarly fulfill him. “You can make someone's day better by fixing their computer, or by singing them a song,” he said. “And both of these involve compassion, creativity, logic, and technique.” And he continues the balancing act, in part, because of Rowland Hall. “I was always encouraged to spend time doing what I was passionate about, and that goal has stuck with me,” he said. “Ultimate frisbee, robotics club, cross country, choir, jazz band—most of the things I am doing now, I was also doing in some form in high school.”

Actors on stage in front of orchestra.

Phinehas Bynum, second from left, stars in VocalEssence and Theater Latté Da’s March 2019 production of Candide. (Photos by Bruce Silcox, courtesy of VocalEssence)

Now, Phin’s arts life is expanding. The singer made his theatrical debut in March to rave reviews. Two Minneapolis arts organizations collaborated to present Candide, a reimagining of the Leonard Bernstein operetta. Phin landed the titular role. Tickets to the five-night, 505-seat show in the heart of downtown sold out early, so the final dress rehearsal became a sixth production. Phin called the performance—his largest to date—transformative. He described his character as an optimist whose misadventures make him wiser instead of bitter. “I'd consider myself a stubborn, but quiet optimist,” Phin said. “It was core-shaking to inhabit a character who lives his optimism completely on the outside, and it challenged me to let the rest of the world, the audience, see that element of me.” His months of practice paid off. In the Star Tribune, critic Terry Blain praised Phin’s performance: “Bynum cut a convincingly boyish figure, his light tenor imparting a touchingly artless quality to songs.”

Since Candide wrapped, Phin has spent more time making his own music—an exploration of jazz, pop, and electronic. He’s recording an album, a longtime dream that combines his musical and technical pursuits. He’s also excited to sing with MNOp again. “I get to sit in a room of wonderfully passionate and diverse folks and bring feelings and ideas and notes and rhythms off a piece of paper and into reality,” he said. “It's the best.” 

Phin credited Rowland Hall for a solid foundation, and expressed gratitude to teachers and administrators—particularly the late Linda Hampton, a beloved Upper School staffer who attended nearly all of his performances. “Linda called herself my ‘biggest fan,’” Phin said. “I’m blessed that my musical endeavors have always been supported by my family and friends, but Linda will always have a special place in my heart.”

Alumni

Jared Ruga '06 at whiteboard during writing session
Winged Lions on the Rise—title page graphic featuring six alumni.

Editor's note: this is one of six profiles republished from Rowland Hall's 2018–2019 Annual Report feature story, "Winged Lions on the Rise." Millennial alumni are finding their voices and already shaping their fields and communities—from physics to film, music to medical innovations, and environmental policy to conservation-minded real estate. Learn how Rowland Hall impacted them, and how they’re impacting the world. From left, Jared Ruga ’06, Claire Wang ’15, Phinehas Bynum ’08, Jeanna Tachiki Ryan ’01, Tyler Ruggles ’05, and Sarah Day ’06.


Rowland Hall lifer Jared Ruga grew up directing friends in eccentric homemade movies, including a “sci-fi space opera retelling” of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for freshman English. The young auteur was self-taught, though he did glean inspiration from attending the Sundance Film Festival every year since age 16. One decade and three advanced degrees later, he founded Vavani Productions. And in 2018, Vavani’s first film debuted at Sundance—it was chaos.

Jared and his team crafted a stirring documentary in Quiet Heroes. It tells the story of Dr. Kristen Ries and physician assistant Maggie Snyder, the only Utahns treating HIV/AIDS patients at the peak of that crisis. Vavani submitted a rough cut to Sundance expecting a rejection, so when it got in, they scrambled to finish it. Then came the thrilling-but-exhausting process of shepherding the film through the festival—Jared delivered his second Q&A with a 103-degree fever. He looks back on the madness and laughs, noting he’ll know to handle it if there’s a next time: “Maybe have the film totally done by the time you submit.”

Jared's time at Rowland Hall taught him that focus and commitment yield long-term rewards, even if it takes some short-term pain.

Still, Vavani’s bold moves paid off. Quiet Heroes secured three distribution deals. A TV showing qualified it for a Daytime Emmy, and in May, the doc won in its category—even edging out an Oprah special. Quiet Heroes was a challenging film to make over three years, Jared said, but his time at Rowland Hall taught him that focus and commitment yield long-term rewards, even if it takes some short-term pain. Plus, he knew the narrative deserved attention, and he was fueled by Salt Lake City’s supportive LGBTQ+ community. 

Three people standing together, around an Emmy award.

Jared Ruga holds his Emmy for Quiet Heroes, flanked by documentary subjects Dr. Kristen Ries and physician assistant Maggie Snyder. The trio visited Rowland Hall in May 2019 for Jared's speech during our annual Alumni Senior Breakfast—read that story.

Jared learned about Kristen and Maggie while earning his JD, MBA, and film MFA from the University of Utah (he credits Rowland Hall for sparking his interdisciplinary curiosity). As a gay man from Salt Lake, he was embarrassed he’d never before heard of the duo. “The scourge of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and ’90s is a crucial part of Queer history that we in younger generations must understand and appreciate,” Jared said. So he shared the story, and it moved local audiences to tears: people who’d lost family to the epidemic told Jared the film was a beautiful, meaningful portrayal of that struggle. Plus, the movie’s message extends beyond that crisis: it’s about standing up for your community amidst adversity, and creating a sense of family for people who are otherwise ostracized. 

There’s a sense of duty that you need to pay it forward. Twenty years down the road, I hope that I’ve created an ecosystem for change.—Jared Ruga ’06

And that’s why Jared got into filmmaking. Upon founding Vavani, he wrote an ethos to tell compelling, socially conscious stories from underrepresented perspectives. The philosophy reflects his Rowland Hall roots: “Teachers were focused on making sure we weren’t just learning facts, we were learning how to be good stewards of our society,” he said. “There’s a sense of duty that you need to pay it forward.” Jared and his team have already released another documentary, and eventually hope to have a few films out every year. They’re also exploring “impact campaigns,” which could involve sending movies on tour, creating survivor-support networks, and more—part of Jared’s greater goal of advancing the conversation. “Twenty years down the road, I hope that I’ve created an ecosystem for change.”


Top: Jared in a Vavani Productions writing session for narrative TV series Graduates, one of several projects in development.

Alumni

You Belong at Rowland Hall