It takes a village to raise a Tree: Sarah Young talks finding community, fighting stereotypes

Oct. 13, 2015, 12:18 a.m.

Sarah Young ’17 has never considered herself a particularly outgoing person.

In high school, she was always too shy to try acting. Instead, she worked on the technical side of theatrical productions, building sets.

She doesn’t like giving presentations in class — “I always feel like people are watching you,” she said.

And yet this past February, Young found herself wearing high heels, rhinestones and leotards to class for two weeks (a homage to Beyonce), organizing a Nerf gun fight in the Main Quad, being carried around on a surfboard and being approached by people wondering why she was sleeping outdoors every night in a see-through tent.

It wasn’t the best strategy for blending in. But when Young decided she wanted to try out for Tree, the wild Stanford mascot that appears at sporting events and other events with the band, she knew she would have to get crazy.

“It was one of those things where I knew I wanted the end and I had to really psych myself for the means when I was thinking about auditioning,” Young said. “Just having this internal monologue — ‘Sarah, you really want this. Don’t let your shyness prevent you from doing what you really want to do.’”

During the annual Tree Week auditions, an unstructured, “pretty grueling” two-week-long process in which Tree candidates are invited to demonstrate their personalities, creativity and uniqueness, Young carried out the various public stunts listed above. She chose “Treeyonce” as her theme — a tribute to one of her favorite singers.

And over the course of the auditions, Young said she not only got a lesson in confidence, but also learned about why she would, in fact, make a good Tree.

“You just put your all into these ridiculous things that you’ve kind of worked up in your mind to be the essence of who you are,” Young said. “And through the nature of mulling it over, it kind of does become the essence of who you are.”

While learning about herself during Tree Week, Young experienced an outpouring of support from friends and family. Band members (Young’s “family on campus”) helped out with various stunts. Some friends brought her hot chocolate in her tent when it got chilly. Others, from the Stanford Flipside, published a surprise article about Young’s Tree candidacy. And her roommate of three years was always there to support her.

Even Young’s mother helped out, by suggesting a stunt when Young was making Tree Week plans over winter break. How about setting up a table with random types of food, having people blend them together, and then drinking the resulting mix, she said.

“It was probably the grossest thing that I did, but knowing that my parents were supporting me, it made that feel like a really good stunt, and really important to me,” Young said.

The support didn’t stop when Tree Week ended and Young was named the 2015-16 Tree.

Tasked with coming up with her Tree costume for the year, Young turned to friends for help. One friend, Jeff Kastenbaum ’15, MS ’17, welded the metal frame for Young’s costume in the Mechanical Engineering Department’s Product Realization Lab. Another friend did the facial features for the costume within the 48 hours before Young’s first football game as Tree this fall.

In between, various friends and family members contributed by sending in fabric for the leaves of Young’s costume. Wanting a long-haired “feminine” look for the Tree, Young had settled on a weeping-willow design, but that would end up requiring over 600 hand-sewn leaves, each of which took about 30 minutes to make.

“I got on Facebook and sent emails and said, ‘I would really love to have fabric that’s representative of all the different communities that I’m in,’” Young said. “I had friends from back home mail me stuff, and family. People on campus that I’d never even met before found me and said, ‘This is a T-shirt from the festival in my hometown and it would mean a lot to me if you had a couple of leaves made from this.’

“Each leaf, I know who gave that fabric to me. Any of the 600 leaves, I can tell you where that came from.”

But the support Young had received from friends and family didn’t mean she wasn’t terrified at the prospect of dancing in front of thousands of strangers on Sprout Night, her first, pre-costume public appearance at Maples Pavilion last year.

Painted green and wearing a brown vest, a nervous Young made herself go out and dance in front of everyone — something she said she wouldn’t have been able to do if it hadn’t been for the confidence she gained during Tree Week. But she wasn’t alone: former trees Will Funk ’16 and Calvin Studebaker ’15 joined her on the court.

“I think Trees, for the most part, are very independent people, but it’s a really difficult year and a difficult process to become the tree, and the whole experience — you can’t do it alone,” Young said.

It takes a village, Funk told her.

Although Young’s year as Tree isn’t close to over, she said some “themes” have already emerged. For one thing, Young, who is half black and half Chinese, is the first person of color to be Tree as far as she knows.  She said it’s “fascinating” that it took so long to have a Tree of color, but believes that’s merely due to the fact that not many people of color tried out for Tree.

It’s an honor to be the first person of color to serve as the mascot, she said, and to help represent the diversity of the Stanford student body.

“When I first thought of doing this thing, of being Tree, it wasn’t something that occurred to me,” Young said. “I hadn’t really thought this could be important or this could be an overarching factor that is a theme of my year, but it has turned into that.”

Although Young isn’t the first woman to become the Tree — about 15 women have been Tree before her, she estimates — being female has also been a theme of her Tree experience thus far.

With big eyes, big red lips and long strands of leaves for “hair,” Young’s costume looks “feminine,” and she planned it that way. The Tree should reflect whatever the person inside the costume identifies as, she said, and she identifies as female.

Often, though, people assume the Tree must be male. T-shirt and flyer designs come in with more “masculine”-looking depictions of the Tree, and e-mails from student groups or off-campus organizations requesting an appearance by the Tree say things like, “If he’s available, we’d love to have him come.”

Young said most people don’t have a problem with the Tree being female, but she makes sure to correct people who misgender her costume.

Being this year’s Tree has been a learning experience, and Young said it’s been a great ride so far. Sitting in her home this year, the Humanities House in Manzanita, and wearing a custom-made “Fear the Me” shirt, she smiled.

“I still am shy about a lot of things,” she said. “I’m still not one to raise my hand in class, but somehow being in the Tree mindset and being in the Tree costume makes you just a little bit more outgoing.

“There’s an energy about it. It’s really hard to explain. When you have a game to go to and you roll up to the Band Shak with your tacky leggings on, and your colorful gym shoes, and you see people getting ready to put on a show, there’s just kind of this buzz. To feel like you are a part of that and a very physical manifestation of that energy — it gets you pumped.”


Contact Emma Johanningsmeier at ejmeier ‘at’

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