Broadly Speaking: The Legacy of the Legacy

Opinion by Molly Spaeth
Jan. 12, 2010, 9:13 a.m.

A friend of mine from back home in dear, freezing Fargo came to visit me this past weekend. I was ecstatic; I love Stanford, but going to school so far away from home in what my grandpa lovingly refers to as the “Fruit-and-Nut State” (the last time NorDak went blue was in 1964) definitely has its drawbacks, namely that my Stanford world and my past usually never intertwine.

But that all changed this weekend, when Grant got a little too drunk after a particularly epic champagne power hour.

“Molly, you got into this elitist institution because you’re a legacy. There are people smarter than you in North Dakota who should’ve gotten in, and you know it.”

The next morning, although Grant had no recollection of it and we merrily skipped off to have pancakes, the echoes of his drunken, belligerent rant remained: a friend from the past questioned my legitimacy in the present.

Here it goes. I’ll finally, painfully admit it: I. Am. Legacy. Not only am I legacy; I had to use an addendum to fit in all my legacy connections on my Stanford application. I have pictures of myself wearing Stanford pajamas hours after I left the womb, and ever since I can remember, I’ve dreamed of only Stanford.

This is not something I confess lightly. I’ve done everything in my power to hide my legacy background for fear that anyone who finds me out may arrive at the assumption my belligerent friend Grant made. While talking to a friend (also legacy) last week, she remarked, “I can’t explain it, but something changes when you tell someone you’re a legacy. It’s like a falter; you can see it in their eyes that their perception of you and your legitimacy has forever been changed.”

As I see it, there are two main responses a legacy student may have upon initial admittance to Stanford. There are those, like myself, who do everything in their power to keep their legacy a secret and perform in almost frantic desperation to prove to themselves and their peers that their admittance was not a product of a family name. You’ll find these students among the most terrified during NSO, pretending alongside their new friends that they, too, had no idea that John Elway went to Stanford (even though they’ve heard about Elway’s epic 1982 game-winning play five times a football season since before they could even say the word “Cardinal”).

And then you have the others, who have known since middle school that their acceptance letter has been their birthright and have used that advantage to its fullest. These are the ones at NSO who look you straight in the eye with their Christian Dior eyeglasses as they proudly display a framed picture of their dad receiving an award from Dick Lyman.

But then NSO ends, you start to get into the swing of things and, before you know it, you’re far too busy trying to create the most whacked-out thesis in IHUM to worry about anything that mattered in life before you met your tall, dark, handsome RA. However, that occasional B- on a paper or a poor presentation can always bring back the legacy insecurities faster than Bravman can throw out iPods at Mid-Year Convocation.

But all stereotypes aside, what can we make of the legacy institution as a whole? All it would take is one look at Dubya’s track record to make James Madison rise out of his grave with a new Virginia Plan abolishing any and all types of name-affiliated favoritism. But it must be said that there have been extremely talented families who have devoted their lives and their passion to doing good for this country, the extent of which may not have been possible without the existence of the family name (you gotta love those Kennedys).

In any case, the legacy of the legacy really comes down to what you make of it. Although it may have given me an advantage on my application, I can definitely assure you that my legacy status did not, unfortunately, give my GPA any advantage while I was trying to fulfill my natural science requirement (yeah, that was fun). But all in all, I’d say I hold my own pretty well with the rest of the non-legacies. Maybe I should just move on and accept my legacy acceptance as an unfair advantage I got in my youth–one that karma will be sure to make up for in the next 20 years of my life (dear sweet baby Jesus, I hope not).

Stanford’s relationship with its own legacy is extremely complex–a relationship that I cannot even attempt to fully explain. And although I by no means wish to come off as a poor, middle-class white girl suffering from some poor, middle-class, white girl guilt syndrome, I do hope to illustrate that at least for this girl, a student’s relationship with the existence of her own legacy is a little more complex than you might think.

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