With the specter of graduation looming, my family, friends, instructors, peers, random strangers at the bloody airport are all inquiring what I am doing next year. My future excites me, sure, but I’d rather ask, “What the hell have I done so far?” I’m peering into my Stanford undergraduate years like an empty bag of chips that I scarfed on a television binge while procrastinating for finals. It’s not that I’m baffled by their disappearance, no, I remember every salty flake, rather I want to admit why I consumed what I did.
The danger of retrospection is that it can be just as uncertain as projection. We think, “the past happened and I was there to witness it. Of course I remember clearly.” But our brains very literally deceive us into believing in memories that never occurred, distorting the past like a funhouse mirror because we don’t like what we actually see. Today, I am going to recall the honest image in the hopes that we, more specifically first-gen and low-income students, will cease to lie to ourselves.
Coming to Stanford constituted a profound culture shock for me. Here’s how little I knew: when I applied, I thought that Stanford was a safety school. No joke. I was not educated in private academies where the dream of this institution was placed, steaming, in front of me from Pedialyte to graduation dinner. I was desperate to go to college, sure, but I was looking for full scholarships to Arizona state schools until the summer before senior year when somebody told me that Stanford, Harvard and the like gave full need-based scholarships, not just loans. Ultimately, it was cheaper to come here than to stay at home, but I paid a non-monetary price for the privilege.
A young woman that I met at a party this year quipped, when I asked her how her immigrant family experienced America, “It meant eating SPAM and losing all semblance of culture.” First year at Stanford is cultural assimilation in much the same vein. If you did not attend schools whose lecture halls and syllabi look very much like those you sit down to on the first day of fall quarter, then you have to learn to play the rules of the game that you’re suddenly playing.
And Stanford makes it easy. Dorms are lively and staff strive to organize events to bring folks together. Student groups shout at you to get involved from behind collapsible polyurethane tables. I was swept up, too, and joined a tutoring service in East Palo Alto, a west African drum and dance ensemble much like one I’d been in at home and a host of other groups where my involvement was so fleeting that it’s not worth mentioning.
Yet I didn’t stick. I didn’t stick because I was painfully aware that I was trying too hard and that I wasn’t being true to the self that I knew from home. So I wrenched my Arizona pushpin out and by the summer after freshman year, I had dropped off the map.
Dean Julie and every other person with a smile on their face insisted, “Stanford admissions doesn’t make mistakes. You belong here.” It’s a warm platitude meant to welcome students, but I think that for first-generation or low-income students it misses the mark. In fact it’s shooting at the completely wrong target: us, instead of who we’re concerned about: others. I did feel that I had strived for and deserved the opportunities afforded me here, but I wondered why my friends back home were coked out in a shack by the University of Arizona, or worse, instead of sitting in the seat next to me.
Second and third years at Stanford are where you sink or swim, so we are told. You get Chappell-Lougee, or you don’t. You get on the Rhodes track, or you don’t. You get into the McGehee lab, or you rage-quit and stop sending three emails a week. But which drowns you faster: the gravity or the flush?
In hindsight, of course, I know that I flushed much of those two years down the toilet myself, but at the time, in self-pity and self-loathing, I determined that it was my fate to be dragged under water.
Sophomore and junior year, I indulged primarily in two things: books and drugs. Those years still hold fond memories and yielded me good friends, but overwhelmingly I had the wrong approach. Instead of seeking aid from the professors who eagerly throw it at you or finding solace in the many communities built around the very issues depressing me, I sunk into myself and read voraciously on topics like ecological degradation over which I had little control. That’s enough to turn anybody into a misanthrope. Instead of celebrating, in a healthy way, achievements and good scores on finals, I went to them phased out or returned from them to chemical escapism. I did it because I wanted to know, viscerally, what was running through the blood and the minds of the people I’d left behind.
I don’t know what rehab is like, but I imagine that the first thing that you have to overcome is self-pity. While I never went as far down the rabbit hole as some of my peers, I think that we all had one thing in common: a victim complex. Comparatively, I am a whining, overprivileged snot. Truly.
In conversations with one young woman in my dorm this year, I am humbled and reminded of how much more structural inequality, or racism, or sexism, or poverty that I could have had to overcome. My parents are fantastic, supportive, hard-working people who imparted to me lessons that I was too stupid to learn. When I spoke to this young woman Saturday, the only thing of substance that I had to say was (paraphrased), “I don’t understand exactly where you come from, but I can tell you that you need to stop telling yourself that you’re not good enough.”
Look for part two in next week’s paper. In the meantime, email Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.