Stanford is the only school I ever wanted to go to–before I knew it was hard to get in to, before I knew it was even a good school. I just thought it was cute. Like most things in life, I was attracted to the packaging. Call me shallow but it worked out, amirite?
I have this theory that unless you’re in a market, it’s really hard to gauge the pragmatic dynamics within it. For me one of these foreign markets is alcohol. You see, I don’t drink, and I’ve realized only in recent months I may never fully understand the brand value of most alcoholic beverages. I thought Smirnoff was good but apparently it’s the Pontiac of vodka. I was fooled by all the “Mad Men” integrations. This isn’t terribly sad, save for the reality that when my friend Paco says Delta Dude* is the Popov of fraternities, I have to phone a friend or Google it to decipher any meaning.
But markets don’t exclusively refer to products. Take, for example, the popularity matrix of a grade above or below you in school. You can try to use heuristics like friend groups and attractiveness to determine the relationships and/or hierarchy, but it doesn’t always work. In high school that phenomenon helped out a kid in my year named Tom, who, though awkward and dweebish to most of my grade, was empirically fit and so was desired by many a younger lady and even the occasional lad.
And yet the most pressing example of this phenomenon, the faulty advertising, is what occurs when I try to understand schools other than Stanford.
Because I never wanted to go anywhere else, I never really considered what it would be like to go there, the one exception being that when I pictured myself at Yale, I was always wearing a constricting blue V-neck with accent-white stripe and giant Y, sometimes in reverse colors, seated Indian-style in a crowded college at the feet of Ludacris and an anonymous white male moderator while we all threw our heads back in laughter and sipped tea from fine china. This fantasy/expectation is the direct result of a Yale tour group in which the guide described a recent visit from Luda to a “tea party” which he concluded by saying, and I quote, “Ludacris loves Yale.” This savory admissions nugget would go on to be my mother’s key ammunition to try to convince me to go to Yale. If nothing else, let that seemingly tangential anecdote illustrate how easily distorted are the workings of university marketing. Aha! Aristotelian I am!
Now, being away from Stanford and in the thick of things at UCLA’s unofficial campus, Westwood, combined with the fact that I’m an Alabama native and know only Alabama (good) and Auburn (evil), I’m confronted with the difficulty of understanding anything about other universities. Not just the prestige, but actually how good the schools are, how smart their students are, how much respect they command from employers and whether or not their students are known for depression-tier stress levels during finals (MIT) or their parents’ George-W.-tier religious beliefs and contracted maids (Pepperdine).
Applying my conceptions of brands in other markets often helps, because a blacked-out M6 is so the Batman of cars, right? But the obvious ones for this scholastic conundrum–Hogwarts houses–only go so far. I used to think Ravenclaw, the house of smart, sharp-tongued students, would be Yale; the amiable dorks of Hufflepuff would be Brown (dork equals indie in these, our modern times) and Dartmouth, with Slytherin being the Princetons and Columbias of the world. But if that leaves Harvard as Gryffindor–good alumni and PR–what does that make Stanford? Obviously different than all of those, and by most standards better. It’s not really fitting.
I suppose that’s the other side of the coin of the blessing it is to go to Stanford: that, for at least the four to five years I’m here, it’s the only thing I’ll know. Which is fine by me, because if Stanford is the “Harry Potter” of young-adult-targeted, adult-adopted book series, then Cal is so “Twilight.”
*Fraternity names have been changed.