SLE combats stereotypes held by incoming frosh

Feb. 7, 2019, 12:51 a.m.

Stanford’s Structured Liberal Education (SLE) program houses “two to three times” the proportion of international students than does Stanford’s overall population, according to associate director Jeremy Sabol.

Sabol attributed the high numbers of international students to SLE’s stereotypes among incoming frosh, including that the residential program is an easy way to get rid of requirements.

SLE — a residential program for frosh that mimics the environment of a liberal arts college — is struggling to combat such perceptions and provide students with a more accurate understanding of what the SLE program is before they make their enrollment decisions, Sabol told The Daily.

“SLE is not a high school English class or a world cultures class where [the students] learn about Hinduism,” Sabol said. “[SLE] is not for everybody. Some students walk in with a certain idea about [SLE], and they are disappointed by what happens. We also worry about students [who] find out about SLE in their junior year and realize it would have been a perfect program for them.”

SLE reaches out to students before and after they apply for Stanford, sending out printed material and manning booths during Admit Weekend. However, because SLE only takes 90 students each year, the impressions incoming frosh have of the program are often “generated by people who are not or not yet in it,” according to Sabol.

“If you’re a senior in high school who is very worried about getting into Stanford, you reach out to people who are sophomores and juniors and you listen to them,” Sabol said. “Even though these stereotypes about SLE are kind of groundless, they’re really powerful.”

Stereotypes that SLE students fit a certain mold may discourage students to apply, which worries Sabol. In the past, Sabol said, some students have dropped SLE or considered dropping SLE due to concerns that they would not be able to complete an engineering major.

Despite popular perceptions, more than half of SLE students are prospective STEM majors, whereas only a small minority end up majoring in the humanities.

Sabol told The Daily that it was possible for a student to pursue SLE, a double major and a quarter abroad, adding that it “definitely takes more planning, but it isn’t impossible.”

Ignatio Varela ’20, a chemical engineering major from Costa Rica, told The Daily that he witnessed the “SLE stereotype” phenomenon himself.

“Even though years have passed and I am now pursuing an engineering major, when I tell people about my past [that I have participated in SLE] it doesn’t really align,” Varela said.

Without the chance to physically visit campus during Admit Weekend, Varela said he first heard about SLE through Approaching Stanford materials, which are sent to incoming freshmen via email, and also through another international student. While many peers around him chose SLE out of interest in the humanities, Varela said, he made the decision to join SLE out of a wish to improve his reading and writing skills.

Stone Yang ’22, a prospective CS+Philosophy joint major from China, said she was initially surprised at the diversity of academic interests and backgrounds of her peers. Many of Yang’s classmates are prospective STEM majors interested in the humanities.

Yang first heard about SLE during Approaching Stanford from a Chinese upperclassman SLE alumnus who highly recommended the program. After reviewing the SLE syllabus, Yang was fascinated by the course material and made the decision to enroll.

According to Sabol, SLE’s enrollment process has a “self-selecting” nature.

“SLE doesn’t have an application process,” he said. “We don’t select students; students select us.”

In the past, SLE had received more students than the program could accommodate, which necessitated selection from the program administration.

“We had to do a lot of sorting,” Sabol said. “It always puts us in an awkward situation to turn people away because there is no application.”

For the past two or three years, Sabol said, turning away students has no longer been an issue: the program has been able to take everyone who applied.

“It seems like we’re getting just the right amount, which is delightful,” he said.

Sabol said he is disappointed but not too concerned regarding lowering enrollment numbers. While he hopes for more students to be interested in the humanities, he said a smaller SLE cohort offers enrolled students a better experience.

“Our numbers may continue to go down; it’s unfortunate if it’s not part of [the students’] four years here to spend time thinking about the world of ideas and why the world looks the way it does,” Sabol said. “But as long as people who are here really want to do it [the program is meaningful.]”

Amid concerns over perceptions and stereotypes, a priority of the SLE program administration is to make the SLE experience as positive as possible for the students currently enrolled.

“In SLE, as with the rest of the humanities, some questions have no definite answers. That’s why we ask these questions.” Sabol remarked in response to a common sentiment of disorientation felt by SLE students when they first confront the program material. “A part of our mission statement is helping students cultivate a tolerance for ambiguity.”

Varela told The Daily that he remembers SLE as a very intellectually stimulating environment and appreciates SLE conversations that continued beyond the classroom due to the residential nature of the program. He said he was particularly thankful for the diversity of perspectives contributed by international students among the program participants.

In the first two weeks of this quarter, SLE students read translated texts by classical Chinese authors such as Zhuangzi, Confucius, and Du Fu, with whom Yang was already familiar.

“I felt like some of the understandings of Chinese texts have been adapted for a western audience, but I did take away new perspectives and insights from the discussions,” Yang said.

In 2016, SLE added new texts and speakers to diversity its curriculum, following demands from campus group Who’s Teaching Us and complaints from past participants.

Yang said she also enjoys the residential experience that SLE students share in the three houses of East Florence Moore Hall; she cited conversations and discussions shared with peers at the dinner table after SLE lectures.

Varela said more than half of his peers in the SLE program were prospective Humanities or English majors, though he also said many of his peers eventually declared STEM majors. Having personally committed to engineering before coming to Stanford, Varela said he believes the exposure to the humanities through the SLE program was an interdisciplinary experience invaluable to his learning at Stanford.  

“The experience definitely changed my freshman perspective of Stanford,” Varela said.


Contact Lyndsey Kong at lck1 ‘at’

Lyndsey Kong '22 is a writer for the University beat. Contact her at lck1 'at'

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