Okay, so I can’t provide any inside scoop on Stanford life. Yet. But I do still have a view of the institution as an incoming freshman. I will admit that I am not completely objective; I grew up in Palo Alto, the child of a faculty member. I’ve sat in on my father’s IntroSem, have messed around the AI Lab in Gates when he dragged me to the office with him, have attended the DARPA Urban Challenge and cheered on the Stanford team as they were unfortunately beaten for first place by Carnegie Mellon (damn technicalities)…I’ve also lived in dorms at boarding school, spent a year abroad, and thus know what it’s like to live away from home.
Suffice to say that I’m not quite doe-eyed or fresh-faced the way some of my comrades may be. But I’m still new to what we might call the Stanford experience, i.e. what it’s like to be a student there.
If anyone has time to waste or gives enough of a crap to do so, a brief once-over of the “The Official Stanford Class of 2015” Facebook group reveals a group of Energizer Bunnies, constantly posting upbeat messages and questions with repetitive punctuation used as emphasis (“!!!!!!!”). Some even post those little ice cream cone heart things (<3) everywhere. Others prefer a more whimsical approach, ending their posts exclusively with ellipses. Normally I’d be a bit annoyed by such openness on a social networking site – okay, I am a bit annoyed – but I’m mostly struck by the intense energy that comes from being part of a select group. Everyone is so excited, it’s unnerving. Perhaps I’ve become jaded after the harrowing college process, which, contrary to all the reassurance I had, sucked even worse than anticipated. My own personal cynicism aside, it must be noted that the aforementioned phenomenon of hyped-up teenagers is not unique to our institution. It can be seen all over, as my high school friends, all of whom will be attending other colleges, have reported similar experiences on their respective Facebook groups. My question is: what exactly is it that drives everyone to wet themselves to such a degree in anticipation?
One hypothesis might have to do with the ever-shrinking acceptance rate of an already highly exclusive school. But the widespread nature of my compatriots’ reverse nostalgia contradicts that theory. Many subsequent theories (regarding the arguably superior California weather, location, school opportunities unique to Stanford, etc.) can be stifled by the same argument; lots of colleges have incredibly vast resources. So perhaps this needs to be looked at more globally, and I should instead wonder why recent high school graduates and incoming college freshmen everywhere are like hyperactive kids right before recess, fidgeting and bouncing around in their seats, itching to be unleashed unto the playground.
I think that it’s a combination of a) the nearing reality of actually attending Stanford, which is shrouded in a sense of exclusivity and inaccessibility to any outsider, and b) the nearing reality of finally leaving home for many, of having to make new friends, learn to live independently, do one’s own laundry and all those things that, until now, have remained unchanged. People are trying to reach out and create some stability before they actually arrive on campus and realize they have to create a new life for themselves. It must also be that primal urge to feel loved and safe that drives so many of my peers to reach out with such fervor. Do not misunderstand – I admire their openness and gregariousness, their willingness to share (even if it’s online)…hell, I couldn’t do it. It takes a certain degree of self-assuredness to be so forthcoming. I guess personally, I’ve bounced around too much and had to start over enough times that I approach new groups with some trepidation, waiting to get a feel for everything before submerging myself. Or maybe I’m just not as excited as my classmates are. There have been so many times when I’ve told someone my plans for the fall and their reaction is “Wow”, “Holy [fecal matter]”, or some version of that. And it’s almost always followed up immediately by “Are you excited?”
I always have a difficult time answering that (perhaps rhetorical) question. On the one hand, I am excited to start something new. I mean, I’m always trying to do new things (I get bored easily), and that feeling of starting with a clean slate, meeting people who don’t know your baggage, etc. is always exhilarating. On the other hand, my excitement isn’t because I’m going to Stanford specifically. My feeling about that could more accurately be described as apprehension, or intimidation; I will be attending classes with people much, much smarter than me and might just come out of discussions looking like the idiot I secretly fear I am. Plus, after growing up in Palo Alto, leaving years ago and never looking back, the thought of returning for the next four years doesn’t really make the sun shine out my ass. Again, please don’t misunderstand and construe my words as a sign of ungratefulness or worse, faux snobbery – I am painfully cognizant of my wild good fortune in being accepted. And I fully intend to make the most of the opportunity, both academically and socially. But that doesn’t mean that I think my life there will be a movie.
So how do I convey this chain of overthought to my interlocutors? Why, with a very articulate awkward stammering of “Yeah, sure.” Unless I sense that there will be follow-up questions in the event of my response being anything short of vehement, in which case I try my best to squeal and say “Oh my God, totally!”
That being said, I’m sure all of us, to some extent, feel this same way. It would be a bit weird if someone were completely apathetic towards the prospect of college, let alone Stanford. And the fact that we’re in the same boat, in my opinion, is a good thing; after all, we’re going to have to help each other through it. A shared base of mixed emotions might help even two polar opposites find some common ground.
With less than a month left before move-in day and (what I anticipate to be) the hyper, overly energetic “welcome” and “bonding” activities of New Student Orientation, I find myself trying to envision what I want my time at college to be. Do I want my years spent in a drunken, drugged-out haze, improving my currently abysmal beer pong game? Or would I rather live in a library, hunched over books and a computer, leaving only to spend more hours in a lab as a research assistant? Predictably, the answer is neither. Or rather, it’s both. I don’t want to regret these prime years because I only used them as a platform to medical school. But I also don’t want to waste what some misguided admissions officer has chosen to give me, over a likely much more deserving candidate. I guess that’s what college is basically about, finding that fine line, putting a toe or a whole extremity over it, and possibly learning something as a result.
Hopefully I’ll come out of it all a better person. Maybe I’ll even get to read a few good books in the process.