Opinion | Why is Stanford so… unfun?

Opinion by Izzy Meyerson
Nov. 29, 2022, 12:17 a.m.

In early June, there was a stir among the Stanford circles I tend to find myself in. Stanford alum Ginevra Davis ’22 had published an article in Palladium magazine titled “Stanford’s War on Social Life,” and everyone was talking about it, from current students and professors to alumni who graduated in the 90s. It was the coalescence of rumblings I’d heard from older students (those pre-covid ones) about Stanford’s languishing social life — something I was seeing for myself as a transfer student who had just finished my first year.

This was surprising to me; after all, I had transferred to Stanford in 2021 from the school whose unofficial motto was the place where “fun goes to die.” Yet, in my first quarter at Stanford, I found myself missing the unique community hubs that so easily brought people together at the University of Chicago: the student run coffee shops, each with its own personality (the one for indie kids, the one for econ bros and their adjacents, the one for more edgy, subversive “alt” students, etc…), the student center, even the silent Harper Library, which was a place for me to hang with friends and meet new people. The school where fun goes to die was somehow doing a better job at facilitating a flourishing social scene than the school which I was promised was so much fun that it basically felt like summer camp.

When I was at UChicago, there was an active effort underway to make the school more appealing to the general high achieving high school student; essentially, to transfigure itself into more of an ivy league-type school. This involved embracing looser restrictions (at orientation, each dorm was told by residence staff that alcohol use was permitted in one’s room, which is evidenced through Residential Life Policy’s emphasis that consumption is only banned explicitly in common areas) and a new community-driven student life strategy. It seems to me that Stanford is heading in the opposite direction, embracing the “where fun goes to die” mantra that UChicago is trying so hard to shed.

I decided to apply to transfer during my freshman fall at UChicago in 2019. I wanted to be at a school that was “more fun.” Now, that’s, of course, an extreme oversimplification of my reasoning to apply out. I had faced an emotionally draining fall quarter at UChicago with the sudden loss of one of my first and closest college friends, Matt. After that, nothing seemed quite the same. I felt stuck in time and space like a beetle trapped in amber. My once exciting future at UChicago was so quickly obscured from view, and my past happy memories there were filled with images of Matt. What was left for me was this troubled present. I couldn’t sleep at night and couldn’t stay awake in class. The oppressive gray skies of January and February were little help in uplifting me. So yes, what I needed was some levity and a little more sun. I sent out applications right before the pandemic sent us all home.

When I was accepted to some schools, I faced a tough decision. Though I had a difficult fall, I had weathered through it and formed close friendships with people from different corners of campus. I would miss the Thursday wine nights and the late nights in the library with friends (our library was actually open late, and we could talk with friends without being glared at from across the room). I would miss the gothic architecture, the beauty of spring in Chicago’s south side, venturing into the city, jumping into the lake, and hosting bonfires. But what I didn’t realize I would miss until I had left for Stanford was how easy it was to meet new people. Even though UChicago is an urban campus where most upperclassmen live off campus, I had no trouble making friends across class years. 

I expected an even more vibrant community at Stanford whose campus was much more contained than UChicago’s. I was excited to have an intensely fun social life at Stanford, as many alumni assured me they had experienced. It would be so unlike my many gray days at UChicago.

But, when I arrived at Stanford in the fall of 2021, I saw a dull and tired campus, one that had forgotten it was supposed to be the fun California school. Life here seemed sterile in a way, scrubbed of any imaginative inspiration. I spent much of my time working in my room, and I am someone that hates working in my room. But there were few social places to work on campus where you could meet new people. I felt awkward and unwelcome when I walked into the first floor of Green to absolute silence and stares from people as the squeak of my shoes seemed to fill the emptiness of the space.

The lack of central, social working spaces was just the tip of the iceberg. Stanford has been eroding away traditions (such as Full Moon on the Quad) and historical community hubs through the Neighborhood System. This was easy for them to do — there was an entire year of remote schooling in which traditions were not passed down to the incoming class, and so their demise was imminent. Though such traditions may seem frivolous, it is exactly these small, uniquely Stanford events that bring people together. Walking around campus, I felt that the cautious attitude of much of the administration had infected the student body, with few students trying to reclaim any sense of a normal college social life. Even the palm trees lining much of campus served as a taunting emblem of the broken promise of being the summer camp school.        

Some might say these opinions are trivial. After all, a school’s purpose is foremost the education of its students. Yet, I would argue that classes are one of the least important things about Stanford and college in general. Of course, the ways of thinking you encounter are incredibly valuable, but the facts and pure knowledge are a means to an end in learning. I know that in a few years, I might remember about 10% of everything I learned from my classes here, and that is a generous number. Rather, what makes college so valuable is the relationships you make with others across wide and varying backgrounds. Ultimately, these interactions will shape our values and outlooks and even our selfhood. But we must have access to abundant social interactions and involvements for such meaningful growth to take place. So, I implore you, Stanford, to embrace “fun” again, revitalize our unique campus culture, not simply for the enjoyment of the student body but to allow your students to build themselves into complex and diverse beings.

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