The slow demystification of Stanford

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Oct. 13, 2016, 12:10 a.m.

It’s Fall 2013 and the U-lock takes its sweet time opening before I can lock my bike to the rack. I rush into a room in the Geology corner, tuck my helmet under an arm and try my best to look nonchalant in front of my peers. Today our intro seminar is discussing Durkheim, the father of sociology, and I am intimidated. One hour and 50 minutes later, we wrap up our side conversation on Sweden and welfare (I had nothing to contribute other than knowing Sweden has something to do with welfare) and spill out into the throng of bikes and chatter crowding Escondido Mall. Keys in hand and books nestled safely in my backpack, I breathe in Stanford and the now-familiar magic of finally being a student here, of spending each and every day learning more about myself and the world. It feels good.

In my sophomore year, I tell a professor that their lecture slides use harmful stereotypes of transgender people as crossdressers and see their face fold in confusion as they fumble for a response. I tell another professor that the decades-old framework of gender and sexuality they teach in class is inadequate — they tell me that if I worded things more politely, they might consider what I say. Black Lives Matter and divestment movements turn campus into a firestorm of anger, tension and fear, and every week a new crisis sweeps the world, Stanford, or both. We harden ourselves to critique, split ourselves into camps and fight ferociously over our ideologies, swapping verbal abuse and threats of violence. The mustard gas of our trench warfare collects in our classrooms, student groups and events. No one leaves that year unscathed.

Junior year feels weary. Student activists, especially those arrested for blocking the San Mateo Bridge on MLK Jr. Day weekend, lay low and prioritize recovering from burnout. I start skipping lectures regularly, especially when the professors are racist and the lecture slides are posted online. There are better uses of my time, and the classroom is no longer my focus. I join a social psychology lab. A friend and I offer teach-ins on social justice topics from the back porch of a co-op. When the student movement Who’s Teaching Us draws a new wave of activists, I help out when I can, and thankfully it feels healthier that way.

In retrospect, I wish I could’ve held onto my frosh experience for a little longer.

As frosh, so many of us see Stanford as the paradise we want it to be. We go into our classes ready to learn, make new friends in our residences and student groups and revel in the social and academic opportunities that seem delivered into our waiting hands. We don’t need to think about the vast Stanford bureaucratic machine because all the cogs are turning quietly in our favor (Stanford really does value its frosh), and if they aren’t, our gratitude for being on this campus threatens to overwhelm any feeling of unease or discomfort here. Stanford starts out as a black box: Through some magic we cannot see, the time and energy we put into campus life comes back out as thrill, excitement, satisfaction and achievement.

At some point over the next few years, that begins to change. Graduation requirements start to feel more oppressive and less easy to fulfill; we fall behind on our ambitious four-year plans; the professor who we want as an advisor is too busy or isn’t interested in helping. We feel less surprised when we get bad professors or take bad classes; circumstances force us into gap years, or maybe we choose to leave of our own accord. In our inevitable hunt for resources, we learn quickly that some are more reliable than others and that faculty and staff are no exception to this rule.

Over time we realize that Stanford is not magic — it is an institution, governed by the same complexities and nuances that all institutions are. Some of the truths that come with that realization:

  • Stanford is as much a business as it is a place of higher learning, and brand management is a real priority.
  • Many departments are world-renowned for their research, not their teaching ability.
  • “Changing Stanford as an institution” means changing each and every one of the many and decentralized organizations, offices and departments that constitute it.
  • The people working to make Stanford better are swallowed up within a sprawling bureaucracy, juggling their survival at Stanford, desire to support students and their personal beliefs of what Stanford should be.

I used to describe these truths as painful or depressing — they challenge the ideas we hold about what universities should be, and the assumptions we make about our own ability to change them. But learning how our campus truly works is fundamentally empowering, because it lets us open the black box. What we lose in giving up Stanford’s magic we gain in finding tools to make this campus better.


Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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