Why are we here?

April 29, 2019, 8:22 a.m.

I started this piece by aiming to write about “why we are here,” as in the largely categorical philosophizing of the purpose of college. I started this piece in January.

I chatted with one of my peers, Ashwin Ramaswami ‘21, who explained to me what it was he valued from learning alongside peers in a classroom. Why not complete coursework online? Ashwin asks a lot of questions in class. He believes “it’s easier to start a conversation outside of class” with peers who might share a curiosity in the topics he finds interesting.

With the majority of students residing on campus, Stanford has ample opportunity for students to engage in conversation. I sat down with Susie Brubaker-Cole, Vice Provost of Student Affairs who graciously shared her thoughts on the role of student residences. She hopes “the residences provide [as] much opportunity for learning and growth as the classroom” and thinks it is “a critical part for that transition from late adolescence into adulthood to have to experience different situations that stretch your understanding of who you are.”

This community we come to find through our classrooms and residences continue to gift us even as we leave the institution. Tonia Karr ‘92, a member of the Stanford Board of Trustees who I had the privilege of speaking to after initially meeting her at a frosh send-off she hosted, noted that the Stanford Alumni Association “promotes cross-generational interactions” and described Stanford as a community “that will be around.”

I completely agree with all of these takes. My Stanford experience has been deeply impacted by everyone here. I’ve walked into classrooms to be humbled by the genius (on individual account or popular consensus) of the student body. I’ve been deeply touched by my peers’ character and I am more than grateful for the times when I’ve leaned on them for support and advice. I’ve also had a lot of fun — these are the memories that I recall when I go through a difficult day that put a smile on my face. These academic, personal and professional experiences that the Stanford community provides is what makes this place special. These are perhaps the reasons “why we are here.”

Recently, I came across Lauren Berlant’s idea of “cruel optimism” which describes an attachment to possibility (aka optimism) as cruel because “whatever the content of the attachment, the continuity of the form of it provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world” even “though its presence threatens their well-being.” Perhaps this theory is meant to be applied for a larger cultural interpretation of our society’s affectations or political phenomenon, but I’ll apply it to my meager experience as a student on this campus.

Some of us do meet the ideal. We are alongside peers who are the best in their field or sport. We are alongside peers who have the leadership and character parallel to those who currently lead our world, because there is a very high chance that they might do just that.

But some of us don’t. Speaking for myself, sometimes I find myself saying something just for the sake of feeling like I have a place in the room, even if what I should have done is simply listen. I also have days when I feel horrible about not being able to suggest anything that sounded competent. Sometimes it’s really hard to understand my peers’ views and have to sit with myself for a while to look beyond my knee-jerk reaction, only to realise that my impatience and immaturity already translated into action that cannot be reversed. I continue to have nights when I regret a lot of my decisions I made for situations I had less experience with (to give an excuse), alongside days when I feel incredibly alone from the aftermath of my shortcomings.

Sure, these problems are arguably very myopic “first world problems,” but when we are living inside a bubble like Stanford, we can be prone to think that this is the world, and these problems are problems. Regardless of if it makes sense or even if it is the right thing to do in the grand scheme of things, I do want to give validity to how some of us can feel at times, because I think everyone, for the most part, has a narrative that can be understood.

At these moments where I regret my mistakes and struggle to find a sense of belonging I am certainly not fulfilling the reason why I am here, at least in the deeply philosophical sense of the question. When I am struggling, I am not achieving the”ideal” opportunities that attracted me to this school.

But this is perhaps why optimism is so cruel. Sometimes, we must let go of this ideal we are attached to and balance it with our reality.  

So for a moment, let’s just take the question at face-value: Why are we here?

We are here because Stanford accepted us. That is literally it.

And at the time Stanford accepted us, they asked us “what mattered to us and why.” They admitted us through a holistic evaluation of who we are as people (whether this process should be revisited in light of recent dialogue on systematic inequalities is a topic that begs a piece on its own). They took a chance on us in believing we would be able to endure the academic and personal challenges that we would face at this institution. So even when we do not meet the “ideal” of “why we are here” in college — let that be academic success, lifelong friendships or professional opportunities — we can still attempt to answer “why we are here” with an explanation as simple as the idea that we belong here because Stanford happened to let us in. Maybe we’re just lucky, and that’s something to be grateful for.

I do think that this alternative explanation to “why we are here” is often overlooked. Let it be Admit weekend or the fancy brochures, we will frequently answer “why we are here” with causes that society celebrates: the great academic accolades we collect and the jobs that we land.

I understand that Stanford is not a social vacuum and, of course, these reasons worth celebrating are perhaps what ought to be chased after as that is what makes Stanford the acclaimed institution it is.

But in this world of adults that I am slowly learning to enter, I wonder if the university, as a place of learning, can perhaps function as a rare space where the process is valued over outcome, intent empathized over impact and opportunities for growth seen beyond mistakes. Perhaps if we can try to see ourselves and the people around us not by what they do or did but who they are or are becoming, we can be okay with letting go of the “ideal.”

And perhaps that is the sense of optimism we must strive for, one that is not cruel to us when we no longer meet the ideal, whatever that may mean.

I’m learning that everything is a balance and a process. I’m learning to address both sides of the question of “why we are here.” And I have a lot more to learn. I cannot fully express the gratitude I have for everyone — my peers, faculty and staff on this campus (you know who you are) alongside my family and friends from home — who selflessly lend their understanding, care and support. We are here to excel and achieve. We are also here to struggle and grow. Or maybe there really isn’t a reason why we are here, at least one that is visible now. And that’s okay, too. We’re here.

P.S. I don’t know if any of this makes sense, but thank you for reading through my thoughts. I truly appreciate it.

Contact Inyoung Choi at ichoi ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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