I think it goes without saying that winter quarter has a reputation as the most uncertain of quarters. On top of frequent accounts of subdued mood and academic overload, this part of the year is prime time for us Stanford students to consider our summer plans and our goals for the next six or so months. It’s application season, the time to think about upcoming responsibilities, which can spiral into considering the whole enchilada, our capital-F Future. Now, thinking about summer internships, next year and all those impending times of self-discovery could serve as the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel of February rains, but more often than not, it seems to have the opposite effect.
For weeks, my Facebook news feed has been full of agonized status updates about summer research and major grant applications, my friends have rushed around stressing over interviews, managing to look organized and dapper despite the harried lines on their faces. The people fortunate enough to lock down summer jobs early, I imagine, must bask in self-congratulation; at the opposite end of the spectrum, others react to the uncertainty by withdrawing into projects and papers. These minor daily challenges do have their advantages, simply by being immediate. As much as Stanford likes to inundate its students in rhetoric about the brilliant futures we have ahead of us, the truth is that some of us would rather burrow deeper within the tepid reassurance of a problem set than face that much more fearsomely looming hole.
Yet the questions of our future linger with us all the time, even if they only reach fever pitch during the heightened application deadlines of winter quarter. At Stanford, with so many options to shape our personal trajectories, it would be difficult not to think about long-term goals. The opportunities available to us are part of what make our campus environment so wonderful — but, combined with a campus culture that places tremendous emphasis on personal success, they can make us approach every decision already panicking about its lasting ramifications. Not only do we feel like kids in a candy store, but we also want to know exactly how that candy we buy will impact our nutrition 10 years from now.
Face it: summer internships don’t have to be the beginning of the rest of our lives, not really. Yet we can tend to frame them that way. Wrapped up in the rush of winter quarter, we can view them as another step down the path of becoming that Successful Stanford Student that we (or is it our campus culture?) want ourselves to be. Maybe we imagine standing at a class reunion 20 years from now, sipping wine and saying, “Well, [insert successful enterprise here] all started with the summer after my sophomore year…”
I’ll say it again: one span of three months will not fundamentally define our entire trajectory. Even if, at the same time, it can. This sense of duality, and of possibility, is what can paralyze us even more than the prospect of biking to class in the rain. We want to embrace the “go-get-’em” attitude that seems engrained into the Stanford spirit, not only about internships but about job and graduate school prospects. Many of us do embrace that positivist mindset more often than not, but at the same time, we can feel uncertain about how to choose and then achieve our goals.
In one sense, these dilemmas are unnecessary. As undergraduates, we still have many years in which to “discover” ourselves. Our degree, as well as the experiences we have on campus, will not necessarily define who we are or what we do in five years, much less 50. We can embrace the chance of learning all that we can, for the sake of learning, while we still have the opportunity.
Yet, in a world overflowing with information and a campus environment that can make us feel pressed for time, there remains the question of just what we find most worth learning. One thing that I think we have all been told is to follow our passions. But which passion? Which future version of ourselves? Just because I enjoy something doesn’t mean that I would want it to be the central focus of my life. What’s more, I’ve come to realize that too much passion and not enough balance can lead to burnout or bitterness, or both.
The central question that we undergraduates might be asking ourselves, within the flurry of both short- and long-term decisions, is just what that healthy, self-sustaining passion is. To be honest, there are so many options and so many areas of need that what we choose might not matter as much as we think, as long as we retain the perspective that, indeed, our current campus lives are helping us to develop.
Rachel wants to know what’s in your lowercase-“f” future. Send her a message at: [email protected].