I interview Stanford applicants, but I can’t overlook the ways the University has failed its students

Dec. 4, 2019, 5:46 p.m.

I truly didn’t think that I was going to have anything to do with Stanford after I graduated. Due to a mix of personal burnout and disillusionment with the place I’d called home for years, I was more than happy never to set foot on the campus ever again once I’d left it for good. Still, when I was asked to consider joining Stanford’s Outreach Volunteer Alumni Link, I accepted the invitation.

The Outreach Volunteer Alumni Link (OVAL) is a program that allows Stanford alumni to share their experiences with applicants, and they can do this in several ways. For those who want to help congratulate the lucky students who get in, they can attend or host celebratory receptions. For those who want to answer questions from prospective applicants and their families, they can attend college fairs and information sessions. And for those who want to sit down with an applicant for a brief interview, they can do just that, getting an impression of the student beyond their application while talking about their own Stanford experience.

The alumni interview is the activity that I find the most rewarding, though it’d be wrong to think that me sitting down and talking with these students is helping them get into Stanford. The report that I write after our conversation makes very little difference over whether or not one is accepted; in fact, none of the people I’ve interviewed were successful in their applications. OVAL’s own Alumni Interview Handbook makes note of this, helpfully reminding interviewers that they “return year after year […] because they find meaning in serving Stanford and helping to shape Stanford’s future.” The Handbook, it’s worth mentioning, is confidential, and the University has gone to great lengths to protect it, even removing the ability to download or print the PDF. It’s kind of absurd to think that I’d be violating the University Code of Conduct if I were to share such a mundane document.

Before you ask, no — I am not going to share the document. However, I am choosing to keep my identity concealed, lest the University decide to remove from my voluntary position. I will disclose that I graduated Stanford and joined OVAL within the last five years. I’ll also say that, should my identity be uncovered, those who know me will probably be less surprised at my decision to air my grievances with the University in an op-ed than my decision to become an ambassador for it.

I don’t even like the way that sounds: “ambassador for Stanford University.” It makes me think of the term “brand ambassador”—someone who’s supposed to sell you on an experience, a product. Yeah, I went to Stanford. I was a part of the red sea of students at every home football game, and I’ll never forget that one where we won just as the clock was about to run out. I spent so many nights at Arrillaga, chowing down breakfast burritos and chicken strips with friends in between p-sets that took us from dusk until dawn to finish. I discovered who I am there. I met the love of my life there. I’d do it all again, faster than you can say “Go Card!” But that wasn’t my Stanford experience.

Frankly, I don’t know how I’d talk about my Stanford experience without mentioning the ways that the University has failed its students, in my time there and in the time since. The state of mental health on campus, exacerbated by years of underfunding and understaffing services such as Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and a downright draconian policy that enforced mandatory leaves of absence on students with mental health crises. The hateful incidents that happen on campus with increasing frequency, some of which remain unsolved, others which are tacitly condoned by the University. And the unignorable, unforgivable epidemic of sexual assault on campus, which Stanford is loath to commit to responding to with even the most symbolic of actions.

As long as I’m being held to the University Code of Conduct, I might as well express myself freely and honestly: I’ll never forget the last time I went to CAPS, when the counselor I spoke to that day possessed all the empathy of a brick wall. I’ll never forget the time a friend told me across the table at Coupa Café that she had been raped just weeks before, and how she later had to involve a lawyer to ensure that the man responsible would not be allowed to live on campus the following year. I’ll never forget the time another, older friend told me during my junior year that the University didn’t care about its students — how he told me this as casually as he might have told me that the sky was blue — and it was only a matter of months afterward that I had come to believe this myself. If I had a daughter, and she one day told me that she wanted to go to Stanford, I don’t know if my first reaction would be one of pride. It might be one of terror.

So why did I decide to become an ambassador for Stanford?

The way I see it, I’m not doing this for Stanford. I’m doing this for the students who hope that one day, they can call Stanford home, just as I did. It truly is inspirational to meet people who see the world as full of possibility as you once did — people who are going to shape not just Stanford’s future, but the future that we all share. I’d love to think that someone I get to talk to, whether they go on to Stanford or not, might one day win a Pulitzer Prize, or discover the cure for Alzheimer’s.

If they get into Stanford, it’s because of their own hard work, but perhaps in our brief conversation I’m able to give them some advice that they can use regardless of where they go to college. Step outside your comfort zone a bit: take a class you wouldn’t normally take, or join a club that you’re interested in. It’s okay to step back from things and prioritize your mental health if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Don’t get down on yourself if you don’t have everything figured out. You’re going to fail, and you’re going to be fine. In telling them these things, I don’t feel like I’m being a mouthpiece for the University. I’m just a former student, trying to tell them the things I learned when I was in the phase of my life that they are now entering, that I left not too long ago. I just want to be supportive.

An alumni interview is no place to talk about my issues with the University. If a student wants to talk to me about Stanford, it would be cruel to give them the sense that they were wrong in wanting to go there and that they would be would be better off applying to another school. That’s not the way that I feel — and truth be told, any college that they end up going to is going to have issues with mental health and sexual assault. But the way that I do feel is that any passion and enthusiasm I have for Stanford has been dampened by the things that I and people I care about experienced while we were there. Things that the University wouldn’t dare tell the students who apply to become a part of it. Things that the ones who get in find out for themselves sooner or later. Things that we continue to deal with long after we leave the University.

I had a very nice conversation with an early action applicant earlier this month, and they quickly overcame their initial nervousness as they told me excitedly about the subjects they was most passionate about in school, the activities they were involved in and the leadership roles they had assumed. When they were finished telling me about them, they asked me about my time as a student. I told them about what I studied, where I lived on campus, what I did when I wasn’t occupied with classwork. They did not ask me about Chanel Miller or Kelly Catlin. I told them what they wanted to hear, but I’m not sure I told them everything they needed to know.

The writer of this op-ed has been granted anonymity to protect their participation in OVAL.

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