Op-Ed: Where is Stanford’s sense of community?

May 18, 2012, 12:10 a.m.

Ken Auletta wrote an article for The New Yorker (“Get Rich U,” April 30, 2012) that makes every Stanford parent even prouder to be a Stanford parent, and every wannabe Stanford parent make their high school junior take three extra full-length practice SATs. He described Stanford’s relationship with Silicon Valley and its place as an incubator of technological innovation and creativity. The relationship to Silicon Valley corporations and ensuing conflict of interests aside (that is the subject of an entirely different op-ed), Auletta described accurately how Stanford’s successes, at their core, are based on collaboration, communication, teamwork and friendship. Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, the founders of Instagram, provide one example of a perfect co-founder match – one had the idea, the other brought a complementary engineering skill set. And let’s not forget other famous Silicon Valley pairs who have made their mark: Sergei and Larry, David and Bill. Sergei Brin and Larry Page, Bill Hewlett and David Packard, that is.

The photo of d.school graduate students that accompanied the article perfectly symbolizes Stanford’s obsession with a word that is rarely used in the context of engineering. Stanford is the epicenter of the Silicon Valley engineering community, a group of individuals sharing common occupations, geographical location, interests and values. When President Obama visited Silicon Valley, he sat down to dinner with the leaders of this community, now captured in an iconic photograph. Together with Bill, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, our very own University President John Hennessy, and other prominent Valley leaders, Obama raised his glass to toast. But more importantly, he acknowledged the way this community has fundamentally changed the way we live.

As the breeding ground for “future leaders,” another catch phrase that can be heard almost every five seconds somewhere on the Farm, it makes natural sense that part of Stanford’s educational philosophy ought to include values like communication, negotiation, accountability and teamwork. If it’s cooperation that spawns innovation, it makes sense that these lessons, most effectively taught outside the classroom, be incorporated into Stanford undergraduate life. How should Stanford build community?

An entire department of the Office of Student Affairs is dedicated to cultivating a rich and meaningful residential experience at Stanford, Residential Education. Through themed houses, Resident Fellows and dorm staff, ResEd tries to create mini-communities that fit students’ needs. It’s funny, though, how an institution that prides itself on commitment to community left me “community-less” for two of my undergraduate years. I lived in Yost my sophomore year; I shared a room with my best friend, and yet, I’d never felt so alone. I didn’t learn the names of the other residents in the dorm until the middle of winter quarter, and I can’t even know for sure that I knew everyone’s name because I think there were some residents that I never met. They will forever remain, in my eyes, the “Ghosts of Yost.”

Abroad at Oxford the fall of my junior year, with nothing to glue the residents together into a cohesive unit, I felt that I never really belonged to one of the many cliques that emerged in the second and third week. It didn’t help that when I returned to campus, I was assigned to live in Oak Creek, two miles away from the heart of campus. It wasn’t until my senior year, when I made the commitment to live in a co-op as a resident in Chi Theta Chi, that I felt like I truly belonged and mattered. If I didn’t do my weekly chore, everyone cared. And if I didn’t show up to my cook crew, my housemates worried.

As much as Stanford emphasizes community in its academic and entrepreneurial pursuits, I didn’t find community until my final year. Stanford also struggles to provide students with an adequate mental health support system, as has been covered extensively in the pages of this paper. If loneliness is a feeling more prevalent on this campus than we may acknowledge, then what should residential life at Stanford look like? How can Stanford build true, genuine communities that teach students compassion and accountability while encouraging independence and creativity?

We are a generation that spends more time on the computer than doing just about anything else. We ask each other out on dates via email and via text, if we ask each other out on a proper date at all. So I question the motive behind some of Stanford’s recent actions. Is threatening to paint over the murals at the “Social Action through Non-violence” co-operative, Columbae, going to teach students about building community? Does revoking the Chi Theta Chi lease show students how effective open communication and negotiation can be? Does building a graduate residence like Munger, that looks and feels more like a hotel, make students feel at home?

One new massive dining hall, like Arrillaga Commons, may be a more cost-effective and efficient way to feed students, but making a student feel like just another kid in the buffet line doesn’t spark my creative appetite. Andreas Weigend, former chief of technology at Amazon.com, director of the Social Data Lab at Stanford, and former Chi Theta Chi eating associate writes, “Sharing is central to humans. We eat together, learn together, play together.” Our students, the leaders of tomorrow, need to know what it feels like to sit at a dinner table and break bread with their peers in a close-knit, intimate environment. Students need to feel like they own a stake, otherwise they might just pass through their Stanford experience, like I did for my first three years, without feeling anything. If community is what cultivates innovation, then this is where Stanford’s focus should be. Because chances are, one day after they’ve founded and sold a company to Facebook and made a few millions more after investing in another, they’ll be invited to a private dinner to share a toast with the president.

Natalie Goodis ’11

 

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