The Campus Beat: The Limits of Opportunity

Oct. 14, 2010, 12:17 a.m.

The Campus Beat: The Limits of OpportunityOver the last couple weeks, dorms have had the pleasure of enjoying the 7 a.m. wake-up thunder of roll-outs. It’s auditioning season for student groups! What isn’t heard is the disappointment of those who tried out but weren’t forced to get out of bed and run around campus sycophantically before breakfast. You got accepted to Stanford, but that doesn’t guarantee you a spot in that dance company or that instrument ensemble. They just don’t have all the space and resources to accommodate everyone.

Universities are primarily educational institutions—does it matter how we parcel out the extracurricular resources? We do live here for four-plus years, so non-academics make up a significant part of our lives. And, arguably, those activities are as much about education as our classes. They give us hands-on practice rounds of activism, business, performance arts and so forth. Many of us will attempt to earn a living with those skills, and those who don’t will still benefit from the breadth of experiences. So why can’t everyone do all the activities they want and reap the full educational benefits?

Well, we have some elements of a meritocracy here and there, for good reasons. I’m sure you would learn a lot playing football under the coaching of Jim Harbaugh, but that’s just not in the cards for most of us. And when it comes to music, performance groups have just as good a reason for auditions. At this age, people expect a level of musicianship when going to shows—we’re no longer in elementary school orchestras with audiences of proud parents listening to us squeak away.

But what about when there’s a clear demand for people to learn something, and a clear desire to teach them? I’m in Cardinal Calypso and we saw over 50 people audition. All would have clearly loved to learn about the steel pan, yet we could only take three. Our mission includes teaching, so we show new members how to play. The rest we teach about the sound and versatility of the instrument via gigs and shows, which is great, but not the same.

We simply don’t have enough instruments for a 60-person band. We don’t have enough time in our schedules to try to put together a B band using the instruments we already own. We don’t have a full-time instructor who could run several ensembles. And even if we did, we don’t have a practice space with the flexibility for us to use more than the few hours per week we already occupy. In theory, the music department would have that kind of jurisdiction and could provide some of those opportunities, but part of the point of a VSO is that it’s student-run.

Calypso has a music ensemble’s version of the timeless problem of resources. Other groups get to wrestle with the same issue in different ways. But the solution is always money.

I’m not going to get into an argument about special fees. That is but one potential source of financial help that can provide opportunity to more students. Other options include ASSU discretionary funding, all shapes and sizes of grants, The Stanford Fund, income from performances and our own wallets. Each has its own process, its own limitations (of time or amount or purpose), and you can get into arguments about the justice or appropriateness of using any of them. Suffice it to say, there is a variety of places groups can go to ask for resources.

So even though not everyone gets to benefit from all the opportunities they see at Stanford, the farm doth have fertile ground if you want to get some money to plant something. And given that musicians are usually pretty strapped for cash, at least while you’re in college you can apply for funding to record an album or start a steel pan group.

Besides, is it even a huge deal that some doors are closed to students? With all the classes and activities to choose from, a few unavailable options might make it a bit easier to pick among the thousand other things on your to-do list.

Let’s be clear, though: This issue of unavailable opportunities due to short resources is not unique to Stanford student groups. It’s a part of life. My point is merely that, as I advocate for a stronger music presence on campus, I lament the times when situational factors prevent more people from joining in. Taking the long view, groups can build themselves up over the years, enabling them to share music with more people later. Right now, they might not have room, but things can change. And when you don’t make it the first time around, Stanford’s got some resources if you’re enterprising enough. Who knows, it might teach you something.

Got any pedagogical or opportunistic comments? Email [email protected].

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