Before leaving campus, I met my friend and SPOTlet Paul Walter for greasy, inauthentic Orange Chicken and Fortune Cookies at Stanford’s Panda Express. Paul is a freshman, but upon meeting him, one can’t help but be amazed by his curious, questioning mind. On a Sunday, when MATH 51 psets and unpacking dorm supplies awaited him (it was Week 2 after all), Paul was instead engaged with the vulnerable and existential. Over the next four years, he will never stop questioning and seeking to hone his role, both at Stanford and the world.
In this cutthroat, hypercompetitive admissions world where we ask for so much from students, it is these whimsical, kind and contemplative qualities that will pave the way forward. Thus, if the freshman class is anything like Paul and the rest of my Stanford Pre-Orientation Trip (SPOT) group, I rest assured that Stanford accepted the right people.
This September, my SPOT co-Leader Adam Schorin ’16 and I served as the first of many leaders, mentors and friends that will help these 12 new freshmen start Stanford right. These individuals, nervous yet eager, arrived by plane, train or car and were immediately entrusted into our care as we began traveling the six hours to spend a week in the wilderness of Lassen Volcanic National Park. That week, reality and imagination blended together in a way I had never seen before. Perhaps it was the mystical 5 a.m. sunrise hikes along the lava-shaped landscape or the mutual trust of these newcomers, who left behind their watches and phones to blindly follow the direction of fellow students. However, that week, we all could agree that a spirit of unique magic was unleashed upon this SPOT group, creating memories that modeled all that Stanford and its community seeks to be.
Part of the magic rested in the sheer background of these students and their commitment to creating a new community. Each frosh had something special to offer, from a young Colombian lady from Georgia interested in immigrant rights conversing about the nature of political activism with an aspiring Aero/Astro engineer from the Bay Area who was obsessed with SpaceX, to a girl from New York City befriending a runner from Fresno and an aspiring engineer from Texas. If not Stanford students, these students with different goals, majors and friends from home would not ordinarily be placed together.
However, the true magic lied in finding that certain qualities were shared by all. For that week, my SPOTlets wanted to create a radically different community from their past high school culture — one shared in a common culture of care and compassion, a willingness to listen and to hear. These qualities, while simple, laid the roots for a magically different week. Through listening, we learned from others, rather than worrying about our own reputations, and when we chose to care for others before judging, we gave each other the liberty to truly understand and open up to each other. And when we all listened and cared, we created an environment of whimsical creativity, shared hilarity and exceptional feedback and growth. An environment where backgrounds were celebrated but did not define each individual. And an environment that led to some unique takeaways, some of which I’m still trying to analyze and replicate at Stanford and the outside world.
Whether it was Adam and me pulling watermelons out of our backpacks at the summit to the amazement of our freshmen, presiding over a pseudo-wedding in the woods or tricking our group into celebrating each one’s birthday during SPOT, the week at Lassen celebrated each one of our inherent quirkiness. For one week, no idea or theory, from controlled hyperventilation to the cult-like chants, was considered too crazy to be considered or attempted. This creativity, coupled with a brazen embrace of the unfamiliar, liberated our group of first-time hikers: physically, helping us to summit a volcano and perform an hour-long impromptu improv performance; and mentally, allowing us to find happiness in our quirks and oddities. Buying into the strange and unfamiliar is hugely essential if we are to reap the most out of our diversity at Stanford and grow.
Secondly, the SPOT experience embraced the contemplative. Conversations about the grand issues of religion, life and death interspersed conversations of the mundane. Spotlights, where each of us shared our life story and how we viewed the world, and the spiritual nature of being in the outdoors with the same people for an extended period of time allowed these relationships to flourish and thoughts to thrive. Dialoguing about the existential and the personal is often only possible when we are vulnerable, and through Spotlights, a group of people unafraid of feedback and dialogue was able to explore their issues of significance. Ultimately, the safest of spaces are not ones of censorship, as in our traditional sense of a safe space; instead, they are the ones where an open community has been built up to the point where we trust each other enough to freely dialogue about the most dangerous things.
Lastly, what made SPOT so uniquely significant to many was an honest embrace of feedback. Too often, we wish for feedback, we wish for honesty, but we don’t make the time in our day to day lives. On the night before NSO, our SPOT group silently hiked over to the center of the Quad. For the next hour and a half we “filled each other’s cup,” taking the time to go around and each shower appreciation on one person. Tears were shed, as the effect of being noticed by those around you can be life-changing, especially for those who have never been appreciated before.
No matter how far we go or the time that separates them, my SPOT group will always remember their first days at Stanford and those whimsical but all too real moments when reality and imagination blurred. Ultimately, it is the moments of shared vulnerability, care and appreciation that get to the core of what it means to be human, and focusing on that humanity may just be the best prescription for the success of Stanford to flourish. We need more Paul’s, Zoe’s and Noelle’s to be unafraid to learn, grow and continually seek out our best selves. I think we’re lucky enough to have found at least 12 more.
Contact Kyle D’Souza at kvdsouza ‘at’ stanford.edu