The GAO Report: The Great Student Theory of History

Opinion by Shelley Gao
Jan. 15, 2010, 4:28 p.m.

At the Stanford-in-Washington (SIW) Fall 2009 reunion this week, we discussed the concerns toward our reintegration into life at the Farm. Similar to our classmates who study abroad, we return to campus from a quarter in D.C. experiencing “reverse cultural shock.”

Practical and tangible challenges dominated the conversation: feeling isolated living in non-traditional settings like Oak Creek and Escondido Village (a mom yesterday chided me for endangering the lives of small children by forgetting to close a gate in EV), having to adjust to the rigorous standard of classes at Stanford, dealing with the onslaught of summer internships recruitment and facing the imminent entry into the real world upon graduation. People missed the SIW house, the clear delineation of the day between eight hours of work and evening classes (unfortunately, there is now more potential for time mismanagement), the physical convenience of living in a city and uhmmm…the brunches (yes, SIW has an amazing chef).

The overwhelming attitude toward these challenges was that they can and should be conquered easily, with the passing of time. The focus is on surmounting, rather than understanding such issues. There is nothing like spending time in the nation’s capitol that forces you to be a pragmatist. While some of my peers felt “old and disillusioned,” and commented on the disconcerting insularity, what seemed to be missing from the conversation was a broader discourse about the underlying sources of our displacement. Perhaps struggling more than in this process than others, I am desperate to theorize and seek answers.

As someone who has been on campus continuously for the past two years, the last four months was the first time that I left “the bubble” and lived in an actual American city. For those of us whose being was inherently connected to the movement and rhythm of this place, we deal with the strange paradox of Stanford after some time away–confronting a place that remains the same yet changes rapidly. The world that was my Stanford has become radically different. June 2009 Stanford is not the same as January 2010 Stanford.

Sure, things have stayed constant. As I stroll (okay fine, more like madly dash) around campus, there is comfort in the familiar sights and patterns. The frightening thing was realizing that Stanford goes on without you. It raises the questions: Do we matter? Do our four years here on the Farm make a difference in the long run?

In an uncharacteristic moment of fatalism, our dear columns editor Zachary Warma published a column on Monday that offered a disheartening conclusion: we are not so special. I disagree. A sense of cyclical repetition of experiences and norms certainly govern our time at Stanford. But, we are unique and make distinct contributions to our environments. Individuals matter. Individuals make history.

While it is difficult and almost impossible for us to directly measure and quantify each of our impact on the campus community, our mere presence affects others and inevitably this University. Indeed, the tough readjustment some of us are encountering can be attributed to the change in people. Undoubtedly, the graduation of last year’s class witnessed the departure of some of my closest friends and intellectual and political mentors.

As a result, this place feels different. Whether it is dropping by The Daily office last week or sitting in ASSU meetings, the dynamics and atmosphere seem drastically altered. It is the personalities that define campus institutions and culture. Ideas and ideologies are important. However, without people pushing them forward and driving implementation, they would be insignificant.

The behavior of institutions at Stanford springs from the behavior of individual actors–their idiosyncrasies, ambitions, abilities and foibles. Individuals define the intention of the organization, formulate its priorities and devise its strategies. There is no such thing as inevitability. Individuals are the ones that make decisions. More importantly, our predecessors have laid the foundation for all of us–just as we will be laying the framework for future generations of Stanford students.

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