Stanford: An idea that gets in the way of its own reality

Opinion by Winston Shi
Sept. 25, 2015, 1:00 a.m.

As I head into my final year at Stanford, I realize that this is the time when people start trying to figure out what college has meant to them and what it will mean in the years to come. We know our time is limited; we want the sense of fulfillment that comes with closure; we want our collegiate narratives to tie up neatly, with no loose ends and no regrets. But to do that, we first have to understand what Stanford means to us.  Even as a senior, I can’t help but feel that when it comes to Stanford, the best thing to do is to echo Gandhi’s famous quip about Western civilization: It would be a good idea.

Before you begin raising eyebrows, let me unpack that notion further. It seems, throughout our college years but particularly as underclassmen, that people at Stanford are expected to believe Stanford is special, not just in comparison to most schools but in ways that distinguish it from its famous peers. From day one we are taught, in words and deeds, that Stanford has a kind of “secret sauce,” a “defining experience,” an ethereal quality that makes it the sort of school that you could never imagine leaving. Stanford students frequently marry other Stanford students; Stanford students are expected to show massive school pride; Stanford students often end up talking up Stanford to anybody who will listen, and many people who won’t.

Yet part of being at Stanford is realizing that many Stanford students are unhappy, despite how special their experience is supposed to be, or is. Maybe this is inevitable. After all, when it comes to college, there’s typically a disconnect between our needs and our expectations. High schoolers almost invariably enter Stanford very well-informed about how to get in and very unaware of what exactly they will do once they begin their time here. The seeming inevitability of disappointment is the most disappointing thing of all.


With three years of hindsight, what does Stanford mean to me now? Has it been what I thought it would be? Let’s put it this way. I don’t canonize it — as most people might expect me to — but I love a lot about it, and I think that allegiance to the things that have made my time at Stanford so wonderful is what matters the most in the end. I care about my mentors, my friends, what I’ve learned and experienced and the ghosts of things done and left undone. I have found memories in this place that I will treasure forever, and that matters more to me than anything else.

But the inescapable fact is that, as a community and as members of a common institution, we are taught to believe that Stanford should automatically be an object of reverence, something special enough to take our breath away. Is Stanford special? Is it differentiated by more than its endowment or the prestige it affords its students in job interviews and family reunions?

I can absolutely say that there are some things that Stanford, relative to its peers, does particularly well. Its lack of hierarchy has likely allowed me to be more successful than I would have been elsewhere. Its relentless worship of action and movement and innovative change comes as close as any university can to realizing the quintessential vision of adolescence: that the world can be changed and that we can be the ones to do it.

But despite all the very real wonders of the University, I get the feeling that I am only scratching the surface of what Stanford can be. And that untapped potential must influence my memories of my time here. I did not achieve all I wanted to do: Therefore Stanford was not what I once thought it could have been. At the end of the day, each of us views success through a distinctly personal lens, and as Stanford’s admission rate falls and the implied stakes of getting into Stanford rise, the actual Stanford experience can’t keep up with our ever-rising expectations. And students will continue to be unhappy.

Stanford fails to be perfect because we are not perfect. Is moping about fair to Stanford, then? Is it even fair to ourselves? Stanford’s marketing tends to show a version of the University that we cannot reasonably expect. But the burden of justifying our faith in Stanford University falls on us, and it’s often a burden that we cannot truly handle. We fall short not because we are imperfect, or because we can never expect perfection of ourselves, but because perfection must always elude us and we haven’t realized that yet. If we insist on Stanford implicitly being a referendum on ourselves, Stanford can never be the perfect dream we always hoped for.


Last year, in my opening column, I likened time at Stanford to an hourglass: From day one we are trained, and from day one we realize that time is running out. Sand steadily trickles from one glass chamber to another, and we can see every grain fall. College is an unstoppable countdown, and that countdown only intensifies the expectations upon which we base our dreams.

Historians like to say that the way we memorialize history reveals as much about what we value as it does about our actions. The same can be said of the way we perceive time, and at Stanford, we mark time by things associated with Stanford: by years, by quarters, by weeks, even by football games. Our perspective shifts to accommodate our school. And our high expectations are reflected in the way we readily allow Stanford to become our center.

Why the big fuss about time in the first place? We always feel a need to make time fit into a narrative, a strict progression of cause to effect, because it is the narrative that gives us a sense of progress, of centrality and of importance. When the narrative of getting into college ends, the narrative of college inevitably begins, only to end when the narrative of adulthood commences. We fit our own goals and expectations into these neat but constricting blocks of days and weeks and years.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t tend to compile neatly into boxes. This segment doesn’t begin with classes and stop promptly when we drive away from Campus Drive for the last time. We can mark time in different ways that are actually more meaningful to us: the day you realized that you found your true calling, the day that girl in class looks at you for the first time. We can break the tyranny of the hourglass. Your personal narrative did not begin at Convocation and it will not end at Commencement. You do not need to be “completed” by Stanford, fully created and ready for the world by graduation day. This is not a countdown. Stanford is part of a far longer and productive journey.

None of us can tell what this coming year will mean to us in 20 years, or 30, or 50. But you can be very successful here with a more natural perspective on things. And you don’t have to be successful at Stanford in order to be a success in life. At the end of the day, the only thing any of us can know without the benefit of hindsight is that Stanford can help us in many ways. The rest is up to you.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.

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