“The Stanford bubble.” The Unofficial Stanford Blog reminds students to “pop it every once in a while.” Comments, tips and articles by former students all over the internet all seem to define that phenomenon as the “disconnect” faced by many Stanford students living on what is often depicted as an isolated bubble of a campus. Writing in 2009, Joel Jean describes this same “physical insularity” but also mentions a “psychological disconnect that grows with every passing day… [that] comes down to a loss of perspective.”
The argument seems to be that Stanford students are not in touch with the “real world” – and this belief is often echoed in casual sentiments all over campus. “The real world” doesn’t let students hop between events for free food; “the real world” doesn’t react kindly to streaking naked down the streets; “the real world” doesn’t pay students in units for work that’s probably worth much more. Most students implicitly know that life after Stanford will, in many ways, be drastically different.
But even before students leave Stanford for good, there is often the suggestion to “take a break from work,” or “get some fresh air.” Joel Jean mentions that it is only when she is off campus that she can “take a step back” and “recover perspective.” Leaving campus, many say, is good for students’ well-being.
However, I always feel apprehensive when I hear that advice.
Stanford University was named as the No. 1 LGBT-friendly college in the country by the Princeton Review earlier this academic year. Despite being far from perfect, our campus has a well-staffed LGBT center, numerous Queer Voluntary Student Organizations (QVSOs) and generally a culture of respect surrounding queer identities and experiences. Stanford has an impressive number of safe spaces for queer students and is committed to providing as many as it can. Not all the letters of the queer alphabet soup are treated equally in society – especially as the experiences of transgender and bisexual people show – and while Stanford is by no means a perfect campus for queer students, it’s safer than many other places. As a queer, transgender woman of color, I am always mindful of this characteristic of our campus.
“Leaving campus” has different connotations in my head than “a breath of fresh air.” For many students here and me, leaving campus means unsafe families, toxic environments, catcalls on streets or invalidation of our identities. We move from an environment that celebrates our differences (or at least makes a conscious attempt to do so) to environments that range from mildly uncomfortable to potentially life-threatening. There are students on this campus who stay during breaks because the alternative is too dangerous. There are students on this campus who call Stanford “home” and only reluctantly leave it.
I find myself wishing that the respect and safety I can find at Stanford would stay with me when I leave campus. It’s frustrating to see that “the real world” is homophobic, transphobic, racist and sexist, and that life outside of and after Stanford is difficult for so many people who thrive while on campus. However, by continuing to celebrate and advocate for our campus towards an ideal safe space, we can influence other institutions to do the same. By pushing for more resources for marginalized communities, queer or not, we can strive for a future in which the words “safe space” are the norm, not the exception.
The Stanford bubble as an idea calls to mind a myriad of our campus’s complex qualities: frat parties and ethnic dorms, late-night coding and hookup culture, the ivory tower and startups. Sometimes, like many of the guides recommend, taking a step back from the hectic frenzy of our campus culture is important for our mental health, and good for recognizing that we came to college to better ourselves and to better the world around us.
At the same time, we need to appreciate and nurture those parts of campus that make students feel safe. We need to make all of our campus welcoming for all of our students – and when we get there, we need to look outwards. We can find those parts of the Stanford bubble that help us do these things and, rather than pop them, we can help them grow.
Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.