Category Archives: Alumni

Michelle Maltais Gurdal remembers well her first day at Palm Valley School. With her English professor mother distracted as the morning bell rang, the intrepid four and a half year old made her own way across the campus in search of her class. “I saw the playground, so I knew I must be in the right place,” Maltais Gurdal recalled. “A couple of teachers directed me to Kindergarten, where I was welcomed so warmly by Mrs. Null. To this day, it’s a warm, indelible memory, walking into that Kindergarten room, seeing a bunch of faces I had never met before, but knowing this was my community.” It would remain so for the next nine years as she and many classmates advanced together.

At Palm Valley School, Maltais Gurdal would regularly start each day greeted by a friendly face. “Millie Lynch drove the bus I rode for nine years and she was as much a part of my daily experience and my Palm Valley family as any of my teachers,” stated Maltais Gurdal. “She was a teacher for me, too. She was there for a long time and at the time, there wasn’t a great deal of diversity among the student body or among the faculty, but she was one person I could relate to daily who looked like me.”

Her four older Wade cousins who had attended PVS made the school the top choice for Maltais Gurdal when she started her educational journey. Maltais Gurdal felt well-prepared to face the larger world once she had completed eighth grade. “Palm Valley was a nurturing community that was safe to explore,” Maltais Gurdal said. “I felt confident in who I had become with the help of my class and the teachers who had become not just teachers, but mentors.”

Mr. Schutz and Mr. Roop were among those mentors for a student who liked computers early on. Latin classes with Mr. McGowan would prove useful for years to come when puzzling out unfamiliar words. Music teacher Mrs. Uhls broadened the horizons of all her students by taking them to perform in and out of the desert community, while a variety of English teachers at PVS nurtured the love of literature which her own mother had instilled in Maltais Gurdal. By her own example of serving for years on the Board of Trustees, Dr. Joyce Wade-Maltais also impressed upon her daughter the importance of giving back to the community.

“We were not a wealthy family and we were fortunate to receive financial aid, but my mom was an educator and she donated time, knowledge, and guidance to the school,” Maltais Gurdal said.

Now a mother to Gabrielle, age 5, and Christopher, age 7, Maltais Gurdal lives in Los Angeles. After a 20-year stint at the Los Angeles Times, she is now the National Consumer Editor for USA Today.  “As a journalist, my main focus is to enlighten, educate and represent the voices of the community of readers that we have and hope to reach,” stated Maltais Gurdal. “Particularly as consumer editor, my focus is providing information to help navigate lives in the best possible way. We hold proof and accountability as two of our missions.”

On a more personal note, she and her husband Rodney prioritize for their children’s schooling finding a learning community similar to the one which shaped her. “The things I value as a parent now, it all comes back to elements that were important to me as a student at Palm Valley,” said Maltais Gurdal. “It was the academic rigor, but also the chance to try, to learn something in a new way.”

Zach Jenkins ‘17, a Palm Valley “lifer” who now attends Lake Forest College (Class of 2021), offers insights based on lessons imparted after his first school year away from the desert.


Make new friends: At Palm Valley, you know everyone and you’re all friends. When you get to college, you have to learn to build a new group of friends. It was different, but the nice thing about going to college, especially during freshman year, is that everyone else is also confused and an outsider. Everyone’s looking for someone else to hold on to, which makes making friends easier. Living on campus and with your peers all the time, you get close to a lot of people quickly. Everyone’s in the same boat, trying to figure out what type of person you’re going to be in college.

But keep the old: Someone set up a Snapchat group that the entire class is on. We all chat, send stuff back and forth that relates to something we did in high school. If we ran into each other, we’d post a picture and it would start up a conversation. We have tons of inside jokes, like about things Ms. Steinman would say that we’d all crack up about.

The Winds of Winter: Most everyone wants to get out of the desert heat. I was in a small group who was okay with the palm trees and the 102 degrees. I ended up in the Midwest, where the winters are harsh. Going from the desert to Illinois was something else. It is so cold. I’d never owned a snow jacket before. I recommend getting a good jacket. You can get away with hiking shoes rather than snow boots, but the jacket is the most important thing. Also, it’s a pain, in general, to get going when you have an early class; I can’t imagine doing that during the winter. The weather app on your phone -- check it religiously and don’t trust it at all. Just subtract ten degrees; that’s how it feels.

Money, money, money:  I picked my college for the scholarships it offered. That was the main reason behind it. It is nice to know my student debt is going to be small, as opposed to a heavy burden. I really do appreciate that Palm Valley got me so geared toward that.  I felt like it was the right decision, that Mr. Hewitt had helped steer me to the colleges that were right for me. There was really no going wrong with any of my choices. Looking back at my freshman year, I had a great first year of college and that’s something that a lot of Palm Valley students may not realize -- college is going to be a lot of fun.

Know thyself: I’ve settled on a business major. I wasn’t sure going into college. I started undeclared. My entire family is into business. I enjoy it. Others found new passions. David Kocen, a PVS classmate of mine, he’s a triple-major now.

Surviving dorm life: I’m very fortunate - I got a position as a resident advisor for next year, so I’ll be living on campus again in a freshman dorm. Have a snack drawer. Use shower shoes. Clif Bars - they’re a miracle food. Be smart and eat a Clif Bar. Get a good coat. Get involved. That’s general for all colleges and that’s how you meet people. Follow the stuff you were interested in at Palm Valley because it carries over to college. I got involved in student government, which was really nice. It’s a passion of mine and I didn’t realize it until Palm Valley. I picked up model U.N. again, too.

You were right: I hate to admit it, and I’d never actually admit it to her, but Ms. Steinman made us write a 15-page paper at the end of AP Government which all the seniors hated so much, but her style and helping us to set up that entire paper was super-useful for college. In other ways, because I have more choices, I’ve been doing my absolute best to avoid STEM. As a business major, I can avoid chemistry and biology. One thing that Mr. Hewitt explained, when we were all hanging out in his office one day, was about how you can change your personality and be a little more expressive when you go to college. It’s true.

Stay tuned for the full Alumni Newsletter, coming Fall 2018. To receive this newsletter, update your information on our alumni form.

Spencer Virtue, Palm Valley School Class of 2012, graduated Vassar in 2016 and was recently accepted to Yale's graduate program at their School of Divinity. He plans to become an Army chaplain and considers his time at PVS, which spanned from fourth grade until his senior year, vital to forming his character.

“The majority of my life influences came from my teachers,” Virtue said. “I would definitely be a vastly different person if I hadn’t gone to Palm Valley. Most notably, I was able to come out of my shell.”

Spencer Virtue - Mock Trial, 2011

Participating in mock trial, drama and combining his public speaking skills with classes designed to teach students how to defend their views, Virtue became an articulate, award-winning rhetorician. However, Virtue cherished as much the room PVS teachers gave him to fail and learn, even when there was a lot at stake.

“Riverside County is one of the most competitive regions in the country,” Virtue explained. “It holds you up to a standard of performing like an adult and facing the criticism that you would as an adult.” One of his first mock trial duties was to be the timekeeper. “I completely screwed it up,” said Virtue, yet his teammates and coaches didn’t dwell on it. “It wasn’t, ‘You failed, and you’re on your own.’ It was, ‘You failed, here’s how to make it better.’”

At Vassar, Virtue saw a number of students unused to setbacks struggle. “Children can be almost coddled in ways that really prevent them from becoming adults,” Virtue said. “We had a lot of students who came there and who were told they were God’s gift to scholasticism. They didn’t know what it was like to fail.”

The high expectations from his teachers at PVS pushed Virtue, who learned to excel at the tasks he was given.

“Children are capable of remarkable things if we treat them like adults and give them the opportunity to reach their full mental capacity,” Virtue said. “I know the students [at PVS] are given the respect of doing challenging work.” Beyond learning resilience, Virtue maintained he was also taught at PVS to ponder the larger questions of life and society, which he finds vital in his chaplaincy role today.

“The Army deals with death and morality all the time,” Virtue said. “To be the person there who is sort of the moral compass seems a great responsibility and also a great honor.” The military itself presents Virtue with moral issues he finds fascinating.

Spencer Virtue, 2018

“Running into battle is so anathema to everything we know about the survival instinct,”  mused Virtue, using D-Day as an example. “These soldiers believed in an ideal that they valued higher than their own life. If they didn’t, they’d refuse to fight. That lofty ideal is a religious experience.”

The theology program at Yale is a three-year Master’s course that emphasizes projects in the community, something that Virtue, who has worked in different churches as a musician already, is eagerly anticipating. “It’s actually the same program you go through to become ordained as a priest,” said Virtue, though he points out it’s open to laypersons as well.

His own personal religious journey has involved a denominational detour. “I was a Catholic for my whole life and I actually recently converted to the Episcopal Church,” Virtue said. “It’s a much different institution in terms of what they believe about morality, but the liturgy and the services look similar.”

More than anything as he reminisced about his school days in Rancho Mirage, Virtue commended how PVS teachers urged him to realize his own potential and his capacity to contribute to others in doing so.

“Part of raising kids in a society is teaching them that as they receive from their community, they too are called to give back,” explained Virtue. “In those times when I was in error, I was brought to feel love in my faults, to be cared for and nurtured to become a better member of that community. I was never punished. I was never talked down to. I was treated like a member of a family who wanted me to be my best. Being your best self is all you are ever called to do in order to better society in the biggest way.”

After leaving PVS, Virtue realized how unique its learning environment, geared toward preparing students to contribute to a global society, really was. “I look at my peers who are from different places who unfortunately haven’t learned this lesson,” Virtue said. “It has to be inculcated. It isn’t a natural trait. I’m really glad I learned it there.”

While Virtue is working continuously on becoming his best self, he’s also planning to contribute to his alma mater in another way in the future.

“One day, when I have money, I will be most happy to support Palm Valley, because it gave so much to me.”

On behalf of Mrs. Rice, 2/23

Dear Palm Valley Families, It is with great pleasure that I announce our new Development Associate and Alumni Coordinator for the school, Andrea Turner. Andrea comes to us with a varied background of experiences and a true passion for education, people, and fundraising. She, along with her husband and daughter, are a welcome addition to…
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