Taking time off Stanford to work, volunteer: three students’ stories

Nov. 5, 2017, 11:51 p.m.

Studying abroad isn’t the only way for students to get outside the Stanford bubble. Some students take leaves of absences in order to step beyond their comfort zones and put their skills to work in a practical context.

Here, The Daily profiles three students who took time off from Stanford to pursue their professional and humanitarian goals. They took their education across the state, country and world to work and volunteer in fields as varied as engineering and education, local politics and refugee work. The students’ time away from campus taught them skills they couldn’t find in the classroom and proved to be rewarding and career-determining.

“We don’t learn empathy, we don’t learn how to listen to people’s stories in the classroom,” said Emma Mathers ’19, who took a year off. “There are so many important skills that there [is] no way to teach in the classroom.”

Product designing and teaching

James Wang ’20 is now one quarter into his leave of absence at Autodesk, a multinational software corporation in San Francisco, where he started working as an intern the summer after his freshman year.

“I got this job making 3D-printed prosthetic arms … and it was mind-blowingly fun for me,” Wang said. “I asked to keep working for Autodesk and they agreed.”

His desire to take a leave of absence started even before he arrived on campus. Having grown up in Palo Alto, he was keen to spend time outside of his home town and widen his horizons. Above all, he wanted to be able to define his own educational career rather than follow a predetermined path to make money. Initially, Wang didn’t plan to work in the tech industry at all.

“The original plan was to work on a fishing boat in Alaska,” Wang said.

While fishing in dangerous weather conditions might seem miles apart from building cutting-edge software, Wang sees his current work building rockets with Autodesk as feeding his appetite for hands-on work and risk-taking. The practical nature of his job allows him to put his learning into immediate practice, something he thinks the current education system neglects.

“One thing about project-based learning is that if you’re working on a project that is using what you learn, it becomes suddenly gratifying,” Wang said.

James also teaches on the side and will be teaching a biweekly product design class to high school students in East Palo Alto this winter and spring quarter. His classes teach technical skills like coding and aim to inspire creativity in students through independent design projects. His interest in combining engineering with education was sparked by his involvement in MakeX, a public “makerspace” for designing, building and tinkering in Palo Alto that equips teenagers with cutting-edge technology and peer mentors.

Wang admits that while working at Autodesk is fun and rewarding, teaching has not been an easy ride. Rather, he has found it mentally exhausting and, at times, “anxiety-inducing.” One worry he has is that philanthropic organizations like StreetCode Academy, where he teaches, might actually be counter-productive and hamper students’ self-esteem.

“I’ve read several [research] papers that have found social projects in education can hurt your students by people trying to force their value systems on students,” Wang said. “It’s hard to say whether you’re making a difference, and God forbid you’re hurting a student.”

Nevertheless, a desire to be part of education reform and “a sense of duty” keeps Wang coming back to the classroom. After having a negative experience in the high school education system, he feels it his responsibility to be a part of changing the system rather than perpetuating it.

“I did not like high school at all … and thought the education system had side-lined me,” Wang said, “which is why I got into [teaching] five or six years ago.”

Wang collaborates with the Stanford Design School and taught a workshop class with the Director of Community at the d.school, Charlotte Burgess-Auburn, at East Palo Alto Academy’s DreamLab on Oct. 14. Wang and Burgess-Auburn brought college students and local high school students together for an interactive introduction to peer-led education.

In the future, Wang will be working in the Stanford Project Realization Lab and spending his Saturdays blacksmithing. He also hopes to work with the K-12 Lab at the d.school, an educational group that seeks to implement design thinking in high schools. His plans for post-graduation are equally ambitious.

“My dream plan is to graduate from college, do some weird engineering stuff, become an astronaut and come back [to Palo Alto] and take a break by teaching at a high school,” Wang said, adding that he believes teaching will be an important part of his life.

“Teaching will certainly be in my future, as it will be in everyone’s future, in my opinion,” Wang said. “You teach people when you’re interacting with them.”

Taking time off Stanford to work, volunteer: three students' stories
Hattie Gawande took time off school to volunteer in local politics (Courtesy of Hattie Gawande).

Campaigning for affordable housing

Hattie Gawande ’18 took a leave of absence for her sophomore fall quarter in 2015 to work in local politics in her hometown of Newton, Massachusetts. She made a “spur-of-the-moment” decision to volunteer at her mother’s organization, Engine 6, when she realized that the group’s campaign for greater housing diversity and affordability in Newton was suffering due to a lack of funding and support.

“It wasn’t exactly planned,” Gawande said. “I didn’t know I would be taking a quarter off until after I had booked my plane tickets to go back to school.”

Most of Gawande’s experience with politics has been at the federal level. She campaigned for Senator Elizabeth Warren as a high-schooler and interned at Capitol Hill her freshman summer, but was relatively new to local politics. When she discovered that Engine 6 would lose momentum without an extra volunteer, she felt compelled to get involved.

“I realized that unless there was a pretty serious intervention … it was going to be really tough for things to be sustained,” Gawande said. “It looked like the city council was going to get stacked with folks who were opposed to affordable housing.”

Her daily schedule was comprised of building canvassing strategy, creating phone lists and designing campaign materials in the morning, and then knocking on doors in the afternoon to rally support for Newton’s pro-affordable housing candidates.

“My goal was to get four candidates – that I was coordinating the campaigns of – to win re-election,” Gawande said, including that three out of the four won their races.

That one loss was initially demoralising because it was her first campaign, but in December 2015 the council finally sanctioned the project to build several units of affordable and multi-family housing. After reflecting on Engine 6’s broader success, Gawande was pleased with the outcome.

Gawande, an Economics major, believes her time working at the heart of local politics — dealing with an issue like housing that has an immediate effect on people’s lives — enriched her education.

“In my Econ classes, we study a lot of policy that is primarily enacted at the state or federal level,” Gawande said. “There is this whole gap in my education on the things that actually impact people everyday.”

Ultimately, Gawande believes that her leave of absence shaped the way that she sees politics and her career plans. Upon returning to Stanford, she began working with an Economics professor on a housing policy research project.

However, Gawande says she didn’t fully appreciate the lessons from her time off until after the 2016 general election.

“Not long after this Trump won the presidency … and that felt super demoralising. A lot of people were responding by saying that they felt powerless in politics and that they didn’t know what to do,” Gawande said.“ “I knew that wasn’t true and that the place you could ultimately have the most impact was local politics.”

Taking time off Stanford to work, volunteer: three students' stories
Emma Mathers took a year away from Stanford to volunteer in refugee camps (Courtesy of Emma Mathers).

Volunteering in refugee camps

Emma Mathers ’19 took a year-long leave of absence in 2016 during winter and spring quarter of her sophomore year and fall quarter of her junior year to volunteer in refugee camps in Greece and Lebanon. Horrified by news of the Syrian refugee crisis and struck, in particular, by the now-well-known photo of young Alan Kurdi washed ashore on a beach in Turkey, she booked a one-way flight to the Greek island of Lesvos.

“I was really, really horrified at what was happening,” Mathers said. “I was following the news very closely and I felt powerless and disconnected.”

Mathers’s decision was a spontaneous one, so she relied on Facebook groups to direct her to volunteer organizations in Lesvos. She recalls being surprised that the humanitarian effort was largely volunteer-based.

“The crazy thing was that most of the efforts were coordinated by completely independent volunteers,” Mathers said.

During her first three months, she worked for a Greek NGO called The Starfish Project that aids the plight of refugees by addressing their most basic needs. When the refugee boats arrived from the Mediterranean Sea, Mathers and other volunteers supplied the refugees with food and clothing and provided them with transportation to the main refugee camp on the island, Moria.

Mather was overwhelmed by the numbers of refugees arriving in Greece, and she said she is still traumatized by the desperation and deaths she witnessed. She remembers one harrowing case of a mother and her baby.

“The mother ran up to me with her baby boy [who] must have been maybe a year old,” Mathers said. “And he was completely unresponsive … and ultimately died.”

After hearing that there was a growing crisis in the Greek village of Idomeni, Mathers left Lesvos and travelled north to the Macedonian border. Her time there would prove to be the hardest part of her year.

“One of the medical teams from Lesvos said we need to go there and help because there were 20,000 people sitting at the border with no medical services, no food, no anything,” she recalled.

At the camp in Idomeni, Mathers was frightened and shocked by the level of poor sanitation, high cases of hypothermia and prevalence of sexual assault. She set out to use her skills wherever necessary, working closely with Doctors Without Borders to prepare and distribute food for the camp.

“I just went to the camp and asked where they needed me,” Mathers said. “A lot of it was self-driven.”

In addition, she volunteered with a group to provide mothers with a sheltered space to nurse and care for their babies. As she became more and more invested in the lives of the refugees, she found the work rewarding as well as emotionally taxing.

“I got very close to a lot of the refugees and I am still in touch with the people I met in the camps,” Mathers said.

While Mathers had planned to just spend a quarter volunteering in the camps, she kept extending her leave of absence. By the summer, she and two other young volunteers she met in Greece travelled to Lebanon, where she helped set up Embedded Community Centers with an NGO called Salam; the Lebanese government does not allow organizations to build official camps.

Mathers taught English five days a week in the community centers. Because the Syrian children had been out of school for several years, Mathers and other volunteers had to help them catch up to their age groups so they could pass proficiency tests.

Her year of volunteering ended back in Greece, in the city of Thessaloniki, where she helped set up a kitchen in a refugee camp in Kalochori with a fellow volunteer.

Eventually, she passed on the kitchen to the refugees, who used the space and materials she provided to cook their meals. It was important to her that the refugees had more independence in directing relief efforts.

Feeling burned out and emotionally and physically exhausted, having volunteered all of her efforts, Mathers ended 2016 in Germany, where she was delighted to reconnect with the refugees she had met earlier in the year.

“It was amazing to see them in their new lives,” Mathers said. “They were learning German and doing really, really well.”

Reflecting on her leave of absence, Mathers confessed that it was hard to return to campus after witnessing first-hand a humanitarian crisis. She remembers meeting one woman who told her that during the war her husband’s head was blown off in front of her children.

“I was having to grapple with a lot of guilt coming back,” Mathers said. “I felt so guilty eating the nice food we have here and knowing that my friends were still in the camps.”

Nevertheless, Mathers doesn’t regret her decision to volunteer in the refugee camps, because the experience was life-changing and gave her academic career drive and purpose. She hopes to go to medical school and work for Doctors Without Borders.

“I will never ever forget any of it,” Mathers said.”I gained so much valuable knowledge and direction and motivation to do what I want to do inside of the classroom, so I can ultimately do what I want to do outside of it.”


Contact Yasmin Samrai at ysamrai ‘at’ stanford.edu.


Yasmin Samrai ’21 is a Desk Editor for Local. She hails from London, UK. She loves traveling, listening to 80s music and sipping Earl Grey tea. Feel free to ask her about her favourite James Bond or talk politics. Contact her at ysamrai ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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