When we first applied to Stanford, we were asked to demonstrate intellectual vitality — a genuine interest in expanding our horizons, whether it be as part of a research lab, through a community organization, a performance group, or an athletic team. An acceptance letter gave the Cardinal seal of approval that we, indeed, were intellectually curious and would continue on diverging paths to a convergent norm for unequivocal success. Yet, our arrival on campus struck us with the sudden realization that we were no longer the big fish in the pond, just more sheep in the herd of excellence.
What often follows for many Stanford freshmen is a flurry of rejections — from clubs, from classes, from the fields we once believed to be our passions. Incredibly talented musicians, aspiring astronauts, and fashion designers give up what makes them unique and special, as they transform into what has been termed “Excellent Sheep,” or highly intelligent students who abandon curiosity, intellectual rebellion, moral courage, and passionate weirdness.
Slowly, these rejections beat the dreams out of us until we discard our high school plans to change the world for shelter from the 8.5 percent unemployment rate fresh graduates face. As young adults, we have no idea what to do after graduation, and in an effort to pacify our fears of inadequacy, we exchange hobbies that can’t be listed on a résumé for a business suit and a copy of Case in Point.
That is when we begin on the path to conformity.
In the top ten liberal arts colleges, economics is the most popular major; in Stanford’s 2014 class, the second and third greatest distribution of jobs were in consulting and financial services, respectively, preceded only by computer science. Wall Street’s new two-and-out program, which allows graduates to work in consulting for two years right after graduation, seems like an extension of college. If you’re an economics major —and even if you’re not— finance can buy you more time until you actually have to figure out what you want to do with your life. Many corporations will allow you to commit to their firms during the autumn of your senior year, ensuring that you’ll graduate with a prestigious offer in store.
That isn’t to say that every Stanford student goes into consulting and investment banking, or that all of the people who go into finance lack passion. If you enjoy the risk and high stakes of trading, that is a legitimate reason to enter the field. But if it’s just that finance is the safe, esteemed thing to do, you will not be happy working 120-hour weeks for the first two years out of school. This notion extends beyond economics to a number of other conventional careers. It’s easy to fall into programming, engineering, and medicine simply because they seem like the clearest paths to success. It’s equally as easy to give up dreams to create a startup to pursue a “safe” job at an established tech company, such as Google, Microsoft, or Facebook.
Just because you went to Stanford doesn’t mean you must graduate with a degree in computer science. The fact that your parents have always wanted you to become a doctor doesn’t commit you to medical school. Law may seem like a glamorous choice, but if you don’t enjoy reading philosophical literature, don’t feel the pressure to continue.
College is the time to focus on self-reflection, and Stanford provides us with unlimited opportunities to explore ourselves. A liberal arts education is designed to develop intellectual and social competencies in a broad arena of disciplines. Instead of feeling the need to immediately commit to a major and start searching for internships, explore your prospects. Take advantage of the campus-wide initiatives designed to make us well-rounded scholars, from ESF courses to study abroad programs to a vibrant and well-funded extracurricular life. Don’t take them for granted.
Though it may be difficult to take advantage of a certain opportunity, be persistent. You don’t have to be accepted into an IntroSem the first time that you apply; even if you’re rejected from a club you’re interested in, you can try again next year. Take rejection with a grain of salt. Perhaps that opportunity isn’t your true calling, or it’s just not the right time yet. Dabble in different arenas, and you’re sure to find passion with time.
We should pay homage to the intellectually rebellious, morally courageous, and passionately weird 17-year-olds that brought us to the haven of intellectual vitality. Stanford prizes those risky, unstable, and scary hopes of changing the world, and as graduates of this institution that prides itself on innovation, we should know better than to settle for money and stability and prestige. Instead of allowing our fears to guide us toward anything less than our dream, we must let our dreams write themselves.
Contact Tashrima Hossain at thossain ‘at’ stanford.edu.