Advice for Stanford’s Class of 2021

In the name of procrastinating on my Summer Reflections blog post, and since I just went to the Taiwan frosh send-off yesterday, I decided to write up some of the thoughts I had on starting college at Stanford. If you were anything like me, you’re probably over-researching Stanford student life and scouring the web for clues on what your world is going to be like starting this September, and so hopefully this will be of some help. A few disclaimers before I begin:

  • This is meant to be advice for my freshman year self, as anxious and over-eager and hard on myself as I was at 18 years old. I’m sharing this because I think it’s relatable to some extent, but please remember that generalized advice can only ever go so far, and you should listen to as much or as little of what I’m saying as you want.
  • This is advice for the hard, sad, lonely, and confusing parts of college. If it sounds kind of serious or intense, that’s probably why. The vast majority of my freshman year was incredible, and I freaking love Stanford (that’s why I spend so much time talking about it). But I didn’t need advice when I was having the time of my life playing hamster ball soccer on Wilbur Field. I needed advice when I was crying in my room the weekend after NSO because I was terrified I wouldn’t make any friends in college. So this is for those moments.

1. Don’t have fun if you don’t want to

I remember during my freshman year, the one piece of advice everyone kept giving me, and the one piece of advice that caused me the most anxiety, was to have fun. I like to go to bed pretty early, and hearing all of these upperclassmen talk about the amazing, life-changing, best-friendship-forming, late night conversations they had just made me feel…nervous. What if I didn’t want to stay up late? What if I went to bed and missed out on all of the best parts of college??

Stanford is a place that prides itself on being as exciting and as irreverent as it is intellectual and prestigious. There’s fountain hopping, band run, sand volleyball courts, dorm trips to SF, ski trip, Full Moon on the Quad, tons and tons of all-campus parties, football games, Mausoleum, Gaieties, Special Ds, and so many other brand name “fun” things to keep you occupied. Even the weather tries to keep you playing hard during spring quarter, with all the endless sun and perfect tanning weather.

I appreciate that Stanford is so damn fun, I really do. But sometimes I would rather sit in my room and watch a movie, or do homework even, than go to Eurotrash. Sometimes I don’t want to go tan and study outside on the field, because the grass makes my butt itchy and I can’t see anything on my laptop with the sunlight in my eyes. There’s not much space in Stanford’s culture for things that are less than sticker-shiny fun, so be sure to make some of that for yourself, and to recognize it’s okay to not always do the exciting, picturesque thing.

Put yourself out there of course, but it doesn’t make you any less “Stanford” or less cool if you decide you never ever want to jump into a cold fountain that hundreds of other people’s feet have been soaking in. Do you, and do your own versions of fun, as much or as little as they align with Stanford’s.

2. Don’t be scared of the hype

There was one night during freshman fall quarter where a few of my friends and I sat around Googling people in our dorm. We realized that people we were sitting next to in the dining halls had started successful companies and nonprofit organizations, some had Wikipedia pages; we found out the guy my friend played Bananagrams with wrote crossword puzzles for the New York Times. I was impressed, and felt pretty excited to be going to the same school as these people, but part of me was also like: How am I ever going to keep up?

I’ll be the first to admit Stanford is a wonderful and magical place filled with some truly amazing people. But at the end of the day, it’s still just a school, and people are still just people. They do laundry, they watch Netflix, they get stressed. And honestly, everyone is kind of faking it until they make it. Don’t let the paper prestige of Stanford and its many inhabitants keep you from believing in yourself or thinking you belong here.

Plus, most of the people who are super intimidating on paper turn out to be pretty cool. My professor for my class on African American Vernacular, John Rickford is one of the most respected scholars in sociolinguistics today. Half of the pivotal papers we read on the subject were authored by the guy, or authored by someone he mentored, and when he taught me, he was also serving as the President of the Linguistics Society of America. Terrifying.

And yet, despite all of this, despite how absolutely scared I was to talk to him (What if I say something so dumb he decides to tell Stanford to not let me major in Linguistics? He’s so important in the field he probably could…What if it’s SO DUMB HE TELLS THEM TO KICK ME OUT??), Professor Rickford was happy to chat about his field of expertise with a complete beginner, and even talk to me about my interests. We found out we both edited literary magazines called Expression at our high schools, albeit on different continents and roughly five decades apart.

At the end of the day, hype is just hype. You are not out of your league. The guy who lives down the hall that owns a million dollar business might turn out to be super friendly, or he might be a jerk. Either way, he’s still just a person.

3. Stealing fire

I spent an hour trying to write this section, but there’s nothing I have to say that Junot Diaz doesn’t say better. The webcast isn’t online anyone, but here’s a few choice quotes. Also here. And here. I really wish the video was still up.

In short, it’s an amazing privilege to go to school at Stanford. But at the same time, it’s important to recognize the ways in which institutions like this one, and the people who attend it, continue to perpetuate systems of inequality in the world. As Junot Diaz puts it, “We must steal fire because we must transform this world that conserves and hoards fire for only an elite few.” Recognize the ways hegemonic systems of power make themselves invisible through belief systems like meritocracy or neoliberalism. Be critical of your own position in this university and this society, and make sure that you can leave this university with the skills needed to better the world in some way.

I am by no means the expert on this topic, but if you’re looking to educate yourself more, these are some of the resources I personally learned from (I’m studying critical race theory and sociolinguistics, so all of these tend to come at the topic from that perspective):

  • Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It by Richard Reeves
  • Racial Formation in the United States by Michael Omi and Howard Winant
  • Citizen, Student, Soldier: Latina/o Youth, JROTC, and the American Dream by Gina Perez
  • Race, Empire, and English Language Teaching: Creating Responsible and Ethical Anti-Racist Practice by Suhanthie Motha
  • Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys by Victor Rios
  • The Color of Fear documentary

4. You’re allowed to be sad

I remember feeling immense pressure to be happy, fulfilled, successful, healthy, social, and completely put together during my freshman year. I would get stressed and cry, and then get upset with myself for crying and being stressed, and then cry harder as a result, and rinse and repeat.

My line of reasoning was that if my parents and I were going to take out ridiculous loans to send me here, if I was going to attend this stupidly-hard-to-get-into-school in the place of someone else who wanted to be here just as much as I did, then I needed to love it here, and I needed to be happy. There was no room for any negativity, because if I wasn’t happy, then I was wasting my parents’ money, I was wasting my time, and I was being an undeserving little brat. I spent SO MUCH TIME trying to repress any feelings of sadness during fall quarter, and so much time trying to program happiness into my own life that I really got in the way of my own living.

You’re not here to be the smiling kid with the Jansport backpack on the cover of all the brochures. You’re here to be a student, and grow up in as many ways as possible, and that process is inevitably going to involve struggling one way or another. So do that, and do all the emotional responses that arise as a result.

If nothing else, remember that you deserve to feel stressed or tired or lonely just as much as you deserve to feel happy. You aren’t betraying anyone, you aren’t a disgrace, and we want you regardless. Come to Stanford and be an entire human, you know?

Last thoughts, on less existentially crisis-y topics

  1. It’s okay to not talk to people online over the summer, and you’re not falling behind if you haven’t already made 15 friends. lol
  2. Invest in a good bike.
  3. If your parents are like mine, teach them how to use Facetime before leaving for college.
  4. I would say most clubs or organizations have pretty outdated websites/FB pages, so don’t be worried if you can’t find anything about clubs or orgs online. That’s what the Club Fair is for!

If you have any questions or just want to talk more, you can find me on Facebook as Juliana Chang. Hope this was helpful, but if not…I’ve really only been alive for like a year and a half more than you all, so what do I actually know?

Sending lots of love to you, Class of 2021, and see you soon!

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