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Existential Fortune Cookies: State-funded paradise

The other day I was considering what Stanford could do to help incoming freshmen. My own academic transition to Stanford came much easier than it would have if I hadn’t gotten the education that I did get. The preparation that I am talking about was my high school in downtown Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics. The acronym OSSM is pronounced “awesome,” and can readily be punned. OSSM fact: About 70 percent of the faculty hold doctorates. The high school is best described though as “thirty-two acres of state-funded paradise.”

 

What made the rigorous two-year state-funded public boarding school paradise was the commitment to the academic success of the students lucky enough and smart enough to be admitted to the school. At OSSM, there was a very straightforward list of classes that every student had to take, with little-to-no room for electives. If one did have room for electives, the only options were more science and mathematics, or an internship if you had the time. You could only go out on the weekend in the school vans that would take you to Wal-Mart, the mall or the downtown area. You weren’t allowed to have cell phones, there was mandatory study time for several hours every night and after 11 p.m. the lights shut off and you had to go to bed. So why do I still insist that this seeming prison was paradise?

 

While at OSSM, I had no obligations to my family or the world. My only purpose in life was to learn. Without going there I would not have been able to get into Stanford, nor would I possess the conviction that I have now that I should pursue knowledge simply for the sake of it, without worrying about the economic returns.

 

My financial transition to Stanford came much harder than the academic one. Without any economic training whatsoever, Stanford threw me into class and said “good luck.” My summer before Stanford did not allow me to save the money that they expected me to have for books, and so I had to ask for a loan from a professor at OSSM and get a credit card. Jobs that undeclared, inexperienced freshmen could qualify for were really hard to find at Stanford too, and it took me several months to get one. Once I did find employment, it was hard to keep up with my credit card because I was always skipping lunch to work more.

 

This all matters because we were taught at OSSM that being a student is a full-time job. We were not students Monday through Friday, or Monday through Thursday as it is at Stanford; we were students always. That is why they forbid us from working; the only way you can work and still not do poorly in your courses is if the academic program isn’t rigorous enough or if you are deliberately taking classes that are below your level. I understand that having to work and learn at the same time teaches you life skills and encourages maturity. I learned that because I started working when I was 15; poverty taught me the importance of money. What I can’t understand is why Stanford expects students to earn money to contribute to their academics.

 

The logic I’ve heard uses desire to overcome difficulty as justification for this. If students really want to learn, then they should be willing to work for it. No argument there — I completely agree that one should ensure that students actually care about their education. What I can’t understand is how forcing someone to work when they go to school proves that they actually value education. Are they worried that students who don’t work will be lazy? Then simply put strict requirements on those students’ performances. Stanford expects students with a full ride to save around $3,000 from their summer earnings to use during the school year for expenses. If you get summer federal work-study money to help a professor do research at Stanford, the maximum amount you can earn is around $5,500. That means you have to live for over three months on $2,500. For students who can’t go home to live with their families, or don’t have families to go home to, that amount is a paltry figure when you look at how much rent and living expenses are in the Bay Area.

 

I loved my experience at OSSM because all I was asked to do was learn for the sake of learning. At least from the way financial aid is structured, it doesn’t seem that Stanford holds that same belief. If Stanford wants to help incoming freshmen transition, perhaps it could help them transition financially, at least during their first quarter, by providing a book stipend and offering a class on how to manage their money in the future.

 

Wish you had nothing to do but read books all day? Send Sebastain a list of your prospective reading materials at sjgould “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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