TPHS graduate and accomplished software developer gives inspirational presentation in Carmel Valley

By Karen Billing

The yellow posters were pasted around the Torrey Pines High School campus like advertisements in a coffee shop, “Take what you need” it read, but instead of a telephone number to tear away, there were words: Love, hope, patience, understanding, a chance, laughter, healing. All of the tabs on one poster had been torn away and kept, leaving just the quote on the poster: “Every day may not be good but there is something good in every day.”

The yellow posters were part of the high school’s Yellow Ribbon Week, a week devoted to suicide prevention and removing the stigmas of mental illness, encouraging students to not be afraid to ask for help and support each other.

“The most important resource for suicide prevention is each other,” said Don Hollins, Peer Assistance Listeners (PALS) advisor.

Throughout the week, students watched PSA videos made by their peers and heard from a lineup of speakers, including Dr. Paul Sargent, the psychiatrist for all of the Navy SEALS, and Torrey Pines graduate Oliver Miao, the CEO and co-founder at Pixelberry Studios. Miao founded Centerscore with three friends and sold his company to Electronic Arts (EA). Through Pixelberry, he released the game “High School Story.” The game has seven million downloads and about 10 percent of high school students in the country have it on their phones.

Miao grew up in Del Mar and was a student at Del Mar Heights, Earl Warren Middle School and Torrey Pines High School. He went on to attend Stanford University, graduating in 1997.

Miao talked about his memorable days at Torrey Pines with teachers such as Barbara Swovelin, who is still teaching there. He talked about his fellow classmates: the cheerleader who went on to be a professor at Yale University; the class clown that used to write papers with references to bodily functions who is now a brain surgeon. A person who never played any sports or was part of any club went on to do customer outreach at GoPro. A member of the Torrey Pines academic team who helped Miao and the team win two national championships is now a sports anchor on the local news.

“The point is that we all change. Who you are in high school doesn’t have to define who you become,” Miao said. “You have a whole future after school that will define who you can be.”

Miao was a self-described “nerd” who overcame some cruel bullies in his younger years.

In Del Mar, while in elementary school, he was one of few Asians but didn’t realize he was considered “different” until being picked on by older kids. He recalled coming home from school crying after being picked on for his last name, Miao, and when students mocked him by pulling their eyes. His mom helped teach him that his name was unique and that it was better to laugh along with people making fun of him than to get angry in return.

In seventh grade he had a terrible experience with a bully who used to pick him up and dangle him over a trash can or put him in a headlock. What he hated most was the helplessness he felt.

Miao said one of the biggest regrets of his life was becoming a bully himself and teasing another student. The student then passed away suddenly from a brain aneurysm and Miao felt horrible that he never apologized for the way he treated him.

“Some of the last things I said to him were making fun of him for something he should’ve been proud of,” Miao said. “It’s natural to tease friends or people you don’t know but next time, think about how you would feel if that person is no longer with you the next day. I hope you won’t have those same types of regrets.”

Miao talked about being an engineer who didn’t like talking to people, but then he got very lucky with his game designs and had to go outside of his comfort zone to expand his business. The guy who in high school couldn’t even say “yes” to a girl who asked him to leave a football game was suddenly taxed with having to speak to people he didn’t know to make business connections. He willed himself to go to conferences and speak to everyone he met — two of those people happened to work for companies such as Sega and Sony, companies he ended up working with that helped grow his business.

After becoming a father to twins, Miao felt like he wasn’t making enough of a difference in the world and wanted to make some kind of impact. With his game “High School Story” reaching millions of young students, he realized he had a platform. In addition to slipping in elements of learning and education in a fun way, he also used his game to promote diversity and acceptance and counteract cyberbullying and other high school issues.

He partnered with Cybersmile Foundation, a cyberbullying charity and has raised more than $100,000 for the group.

Unexpectedly, a user contacted the game through the support system to tell them she intended to kill herself. Miao and his team sent her messages to let her know that they cared and found resources for her to get help. After a week, she told them she was going to get help.

“We wrote the game to entertain people and it ended up saving a life,” Miao said.

Miao and Hollins told the students that as much pressure as they may feel or whatever they are going though, each one of them has the power to set their intentions and make decisions that can change their lives or the lives of others.

“We all have the survival instinct. I think we’re naturally wired to keep on going,” Miao said. “The best lifeline you have is your friends and I really encourage you to look out for your friends.”

As Yellow Ribbon Week came to a close, a PALS member received a text from a senior that showed just how powerful the week can be. The text read:

“I just wanted to talk, I am not usually the one to be moved by spirit weeks but the last video that we watched of the girl who committed suicide really spoke to me. I did not think it was important to talk about the thoughts that I was having and the damage I was doing to my own body because of the depression I went through because of the things that I went through and having to live with the people who did them to me. But now I know that I have people to talk to and I can be helped without being judged. I don’t know what to say right now, I guess I just need someone to vent to.”