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The importance of not mattering

Greetings from Santiago! I will be writing weekly from abroad this quarter, hopefully bringing some neat stories to light and giving you a peek into my experiences away from Stanford as I go. I can promise to provide an unfiltered stream of consciousness; however, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me with thoughts/comments/suggestions.

When offered the chance to write on a weekly basis for the Daily, I jumped at it. Never again will I be forced to intentionally keep log of my experiences and bring them to life. If I have the opportunity to learn about more about myself in the process, I’ll be all the better for it. So now, in Week 2, I was left with the question:

Where Do I Begin?

The past few weeks have been mind-blowing, with the last days of winter quarter, Lessons From Lei-Feng, and a spring break that still leaves me thinking about who I am and what I want to do. But I figure I’ll start where I am right now, with what I’m feeling now. For the past week and a half, I’ve been in Chile, specifically Santiago, and it’s been a hell of a time, in all the best ways. In my little time here, I’ve found Chile and Santiago to be a land of extremes, in all ways. Geographically, Chile has glaciers and volcanoes, beaches and deserts, cities and rural areas. At the same time, Santiago has the same diversity, except among its people.  Each region of Santiago is almost like a different world, with different physical characteristics and differences in socioeconomic status and history. And, while it’s great to spend time with my friends at Stanford, I’ve found I’ve learned the most when I’ve gone out, broken the Stanford bubble, which still holds its presence abroad, and wandered, solo.

The first story I have to share occurred in my first hours in Chile. Having arrived in a plane from Canada to Chile, my first challenge was to use my broken Spanish to get myself over to the Stanford Center and to the hotel. While I was able to get a shared van, I was immediately very surprised by the speed and the way the Chileans speak Spanish. As we passed through so many different regions in Santiago, driving through whole communities and populations, I began to notice some key details in the Spanish and physical nature of Chile. By not taking a ride with other Stanford students, I had the opportunity to pass by several districts that to date I have not encountered again, filled with dilapidated housing and numerous people in poverty. I immediately felt uncomfortable. Was this the sort of environment I was going to live in for the next three months? This couldn’t be the Santiago that my friends had talked about in the past.

And it turns out it wasn’t. Stanford’s Santiago is cultured, educated, and upper-middle-class. So, while Stanford does not purposefully shield their students from these other communities and areas, without seeing these areas on the ride over, I would never have been hit with the same uncomfortable feelings that sit with me today, as I get ready to embark on my next day of classes, a mere few miles away from comunas where people were relocated based on their class. To me, these first feelings were so uncomfortable to me because they showed my selfishness, judgmental-ness, and elitism firsthand. Passing by the poorer comunas on the way from the airport, I couldn’t help but feel as if I deserved more as a Stanford student than to potentially live in a poorer comuna, or where I couldn’t help but think why Stanford would put a study abroad program in Santiago. And while these sentiments and feelings strike me as vulgar, that bus ride gave me the necessary conditioning to truly reflect and understand where I make foibles and misunderstandings.

The uncomfortable sensations continued as I dropped my bags off at the hotel. Upon putting my bags down, I realized it was Easter Sunday, and needed to make my way to mass. The next 30 minutes consisted of me wandering through an unknown city, trying and failing, trying and failing to ask locals where the nearest church was, only to be hopelessly stumped by the pace of the new language. Being twisted in different directions and struggling to meander through several communities, I was officially out of the Stanford bubble. For that day, I had no one to turn to, no English to rely on. Even after I found the mass and was making my way through the city, I felt alone.

At Stanford, we are cultivated from our very moments to believe that we matter, that we are special. With a 4.5% acceptance rate, friends who support and lift me up every day on campus, and an acceptance packet and letter stating loud and clear that “I deserve to be here” or that “I earned my acceptance,” many Stanford students (including myself) have been led to believe by our society that there’s something inherently special about who we are. I can’t tell you how many times a family dinner freshman year or a job offer or an ear has been perked by the fact that I’m a student at Stanford. And, whether it’s our friend circle, our sports team, or our knack for chemical engineering, Stanford is often an exercise in helping one find ways to reaffirm that we matter, to reaffirm our own personal significance. So, while being a student at Stanford is certainly something to be proud of and be privileged by, what I’ve found the most humbling and refreshing is to be in a place where I don’t initially matter, a place where you cannot take your status and positions in various clubs, organizations and groups with you.

When I first took the metro, met my host family, volunteered at a hospital or met up with Chileans for the first time, I initially encountered people with no knowledge of Stanford and, perhaps more importantly, no knowledge of myself. In Chile, I begin as a nobody, trying to fit in and become part of a community. Over the first few weeks in Santiago, I’ve been forced to converse with locals, identify myself in novel ways and build relationships from base level, all in Spanish. It is this ultimately the idea of not mattering that is most humbling and most important to me in these first few weeks. These humbling moments make me realize who I really am, what I want/need to feel fulfilled, as well as how I have carefully constructed my life at Stanford to matter in Stanford’s specific bubble. Whether it’s getting lost going to church or my difficulty with navigating complicated vocabulary, I constantly get reality checks, making me even hungrier to learn, to impact, and to explore and wander even more to vainly grab a foothold on the Santiago wall.

Entering into week 3, I have had an incredible time with a great homestay, great classes, a land of extremes in Chile, and am so blessed to be in Santiago. However, the biggest takeaway has been that growth can occur anywhere. All it has taken is the desire to wander a bit more each day.

 

Contact Kyle D’Souza at kvdsouza ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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