O’Dowd students rise up on campus and beyond

Programs at the college prep school encourage students to take on leadership roles.

Sam, a recent O’Dowd graduate, became a team captain and went on to activism. Credit: Steve Loewinsohn

This story is bought to you by Bishop O’Dowd High School.

“When I first came to O’Dowd, I didn’t see myself as a leader,” Sam remembers. He’s tall, with a mop of springy blonde curls and a kind smile. “I was shy and awkward and quiet. But then I joined the volleyball team, and I really came out of my shell.” 

Sam ended up playing three sports at O’Dowd — volleyball, water polo and football. He ultimately became the captain of the varsity volleyball team. 

“It was through volleyball that I discovered my drive to make a difference for others,” he says. “As the captain, it’s my job to keep everyone on the team positive, and playing their hardest. It taught me what it takes to lead.” 

Inspired by his experience at O’Dowd, Sam joined Jewish Youth for Community Action, where he got involved in a campaign to stop a coal terminal in West Oakland, phone banked for the 2020 election, and started guiding high school students across the East Bay and Peninsula to engage in a range of justice efforts, including addressing criminal justice reform and food insecurity.

Today he’s studying economics and political science at UC Davis. “I left O’Dowd with a lot of confidence,” he reports. “I know how to express myself. I trust my skills and abilities. And I want to make a positive change in the world.” 

From the moment the ninth grade class steps on campus, O’Dowd’s curriculum and programs encourage students to explore their leadership. Opportunities range from the casual, including a range of clubs and affinity groups, spirit week and cultural heritage events, Mass and student retreats, to more formal representative groups, like the Associated Student Body, Campus Ministry Team, and more. 

“Students create our culture,” says Interim Principal Dr. Lisa Lomba, who has been with O’Dowd since 2019. “They embody the values of our school community. We know that leadership opportunities, across a spectrum of interests, help students realize their gifts, develop deep self-awareness, and contribute to communities across the East Bay and beyond.” 

Mary, an O’Dowd senior, founded a student club and presents on intersectional environmentalism. Credit: Steve Loewinsohn 

“We watched a documentary in my environmental studies class about extinction that really got me thinking about how I could make an impact,” says Mary, a senior at O’Dowd. Her passion is infectious, bubbling up and spilling through her voice as she speaks.

“For my junior year service project, I started an O’Dowd student group called ImpactZ,” she continues. “Our mission is to give people information about important global and social issues, so they can take action.” Mary and a team of student leaders have presented at Oakland’s City Hall and led collaborative projects on a number of local issues. Recently, they partnered with Alameda’s St. Joseph Notre Dame High School to make hygiene “goodie bags” for women in homeless shelters throughout the Bay Area. 

Mary intends to go into public policy. “Through my leadership experience at O’Dowd, I’ve learned not to be afraid to take risks or fear failure,” Mary says, grinning. “I’m proud that my peers and I can showcase the strength of our generation.” 

Today on O’Dowd’s campus there are more than 100 students who serve on nine advanced leadership groups. Together they shepherd critical elements of the school’s programming and initiatives, including:

  • Eco Leaders steward O’Dowd’s 4-acre Living Lab and spearhead sustainability initiatives on campus and across the East Bay.
  • Dragon Ambassadors welcome prospective students to campus and lead events with the Admissions Department.
  • Solidarity in Action engages O’Dowd’s community in social justice campaigns.
  • Health and Wellness Leaders use a peer education model to strengthen students’ physical and social-emotional health.
  • Lead Peer Tutors partner with O’Dowd’s Academic Support Center, training and guiding more than 40 peer tutors who offer drop-in support for all interested students. 
  • Student-Athlete Leadership Team empowers student-athletes to use their leadership beyond the court or field to make positive change.
  • Campus Ministry Team nurtures spiritual development across a diverse community of faith. 

“Through their leadership, our students activate our mission and values, making them authentically realized,” says Dr. Lomba. 

O’Dowd senior Myles (right) serves in several student leadership groups. Credit: Vincent Jurgens

Myles is a senior on the Campus Ministry Team. Walking with his friends through the O’Dowd hallways, he’s cheerful and supportive, listening intently. His Campus Ministry peers know that he has a pulse on the student body and they trust his judgement when it comes to making Mass culturally relevant and accessible. “Myles has really stepped up,” says Ryan Dilag, director of Campus Ministry. “At the beginning of the semester he was pretty quiet, and now he’s not only leading schoolwide prayer, but also coaching his peers to lead prayer, too.” 

O’Dowd’s educational philosophy is rooted in the belief that every student brings unique gifts and talents to the community. The school aims to give students a spectrum of learning experiences to unlock their own potential. 

 “The leadership opportunities I’ve had through O’Dowd have taught me about myself,” Myles says. “I haven’t always been a great leader, student, or even friend. But through the relationships I’ve formed, and the lessons we’ve experienced, I know I’m on the right path to finding out who I am.” 

This story was written and paid for by Bishop O’Dowd High School. A Catholic college preparatory community, O’Dowd engages students in learning experiences that encompass mind, body and spirit, and it emboldens graduates to build a more just, joyful and sustainable world.