By Lily Zheng
Admit Weekend 2017! I’m excited as always for the flood of prospective frosh (hereafter, profros) tentatively trying to navigate the morning swarm of bikers and conversing seriously about their many very impressive other college acceptances.
Dining hall food gets a major upgrade, student groups step up their game for Activities Fair and other event programming and Stanford puts on its Sunday best to wow and woo over what could be its Class of 2021. At no other time is Stanford ever as manicured, sleek and picture-perfect as when it creates a utopia once a year for prospective students, just as I am sure all universities do.
I still remember the exhilaration I felt as a profro sitting on the grass of Wilbur Field and looking toward a Hoover Tower silhouetted against a cloudless blue sky, my thoughts a blur as I processed the reality that I was here. I was at Stanford.
As profros, we grow giddy from the sheer magnitude of the place and the promise that, yes, (for 12 easy installments of $15,777!) this can be home someday.
We imagine ourselves sitting in Bing Concert Hall, meandering through the Cantor Arts Center or cheering from the stands of Stanford Stadium. Full Moon on the Quad, fountain hopping, Band Run and Primal Scream join the ranks of mythical traditions that make Stanford the academically vibrant, fiercely individualistic and irreverently bizarre place that created such figures as Elon Musk, John F. Kennedy, Sally Ride and Larry Page.
But this is, at best, a distorted image of what Stanford really is.
There are other sides to this university that go unadvertised during Admit Weekend, perhaps because many realities about this campus are unsavory. On the academic level, only 22 percent of tenured faculty at Stanford are women, and a meager 7 percent are Black, Latinx and/or Native. Inequities in the classroom and lab, maintained by cultural insensitivity, prejudice, political apathy and discrimination, further restrict the academic experience for marginalized students.
On the activism level, separate movements calling for divestment from fossil fuels, the private prison industry and the occupation of Palestine, as well as the adoption of Sanctuary City status have all resulted in impasses between activists and University representatives. Activist movements themselves struggle with movement-building, coalition-building, institutional memory and sustainability.
Lastly, the student experience at Stanford is in many ways negatively impacted by the high level of decentralization and siloization, the lack of transparency around resources, mentors and information and the lack of effective channels of communication beyond email lists, student groups and small dorm communities.
This is far from positive news. That said, arguing that “Stanford shows only good things, and hides the bad things” seems at this point to be a drastic oversimplification of how this university works.
What other things go unadvertised?
The Admit Weekend brochure doesn’t show the 4 a.m. conversations with RAs that change the way we think about the world, or the feeling of triumph as that take-home final is finished at sunrise. It doesn’t show the tireless work of staff behind the scenes to empower and enable students to survive and thrive, or the efforts of TAs, lecturers and professors who go above and beyond to maintain or rekindle students’ love of learning. The messy breakups that teach us about ourselves, the experiences of failure that help us learn why we keep going, and the friendships that hurt, help and heal us are all parts of the Stanford experience that can never be conveyed through a brochure.
It almost goes without saying that the Stanford that exists during Admit Weekend is somewhat of a fever dream, a Mirror of Erised sort of experience seen through cardinal red-tinted goggles. Upon actually coming to campus, frosh discover a different-but-not-different Stanford waiting for them, one that’s at times as shiny as the paradise advertised, and at times as grim as the apocalypse many students depict.
At the risk of ruining the illusion, I’ll go ahead and say that most of our peer institutions are the same: complex places with complex histories and complex students, staff and faculty that act as enablers, challengers and mediators all at once.
I think it’s crucial to keep in mind that when we think about Stanford (and by “we,” I mean everyone, not just profros), there is always a side we cannot see. Maybe it’s for the best that Admit Weekend continues to portray paradise and activists continue to portray apocalypse, because the reality of this campus is both and neither and something in the middle, too.
Regardless of the “truth” of the matter, there is and will always be a Stanford that profros do not and cannot see.
I guess you’ll just have to accept your admission offer if you ever want to find out.
Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.