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Connection beyond networking


During Admit Weekend, I spoke with many ProFros who shared a common concern: In a place as big as Stanford, with such renowned faculty, how difficult would it be to form connections with professors?

I remember asking the same question throughout my college decision process, but every panelist, tour guide and RoHo’s generic response was persuasive enough to counterbalance my concerns. Between the small class setting of IntroSems, the availability of office hours, the advising programs and the quarterly faculty dinners, I would have abundant avenues for establishing close connections with professors, if I sought them. In fact, I would be missing out on one of Stanford’s key offerings if I failed to pursue these opportunities. I gave the same response to this year’s ProFros, rattling off facts about IntroSems as a form of reassurance.

I believe, like every admissions office pamphlet tells you, that an integral part of the Stanford experience is the ability to learn from the brilliant, world-famous intellectuals whose offices are only a bike ride away. Yet, I regret that I simply regurgitated this claim to my ProFros, while neglecting to pass on a less conventional form of advice. Over the course of the year, I have come to realize something that I cannot recall seeing in any admissions material: Some of the minds that will teach us the most do not reside in ivory towers.

This may not seem like a particularly noteworthy realization. Anyone besides the most snobbish of elitists would agree that wisdom does not come from advanced degrees, published books or tenured professorships alone. While it is common sense that we can learn from everyone, that principle can be difficult to put into practice.

It seems that at Stanford, our advisors, parents and peers often encourage us to get to know our professors because of their prestige. It’s certainly possible to have genuine, meaningful relationships with renowned faculty members, but these acquaintances tend to have transactional undertones. Every interaction entails the possibility of a research position or a recommendation letter. With the constant pressure to “network” and form connections that have tangible payoffs, it’s easy to miss the wisdom that traditionally overlooked members of our community can offer, especially when Stanford does little to foster or encourage such relationships.

I first began to reflect on this theme when I volunteered at the Heart + Home Women’s Shelter last quarter. Eating and talking with the women there, I realized that it had been a long time since I had an in-depth, in-person conversation with an adult who was not employed at Stanford.

The women talked about the environment of Palo Alto High School in the 1970s and the daily experiences of homelessness in the Bay Area. Although I had come to serve them, they shared such a wealth of stories that I felt I had gained more than I had given. I feel similarly about my experiences as a tutor for Habla, a program where students volunteer as ESL tutors for members of the custodial staff, and in my Cardinal Course, where we help elderly Spanish-speaking immigrants in Redwood City prepare for their citizenship tests.

In both of these experiences, I signed up to tutor others, but consistently felt that I took away more insight than I brought. Few classes could convey the diverse, powerful experiences that the Habla participants and aspiring citizens of Redwood City so bravely and generously share with me: stories of leaving home behind, supporting a family, finding and losing friends, pursuing education and embarking on adventures. As much as I am grateful for the many accomplished professors available to me, I feel equally fortunate to have met so many resilient, courageous and dedicated individuals on this campus and in its surrounding communities.

I ended up without any classes on Fridays this quarter, leaving me more time to act on that ubiquitous Stanford advice: Take advantage of every opportunity for connection. On Friday, April 21, I fulfilled my personal vision for what learning from others at Stanford should entail.

In the morning, I attended a Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research forum on crime and criminal justice. The panels were overflowing with expertise; I left feeling well-informed. Later that afternoon, I biked over to the Humanities Center and met with Blake Francis, a Ph.D. candidate in the philosophy department. A few weeks ago, I had read a profile on Blake in The Daily, describing his work on climate change ethics. Intrigued, I sent him an email on a whim and ended up scheduling a meeting.

He explained what climate change ethics looks like as a field, the current work being done and some of the career paths that environmental ethicists pursue. As a freshman with a nebulous interest in environmentalism and political philosophy, I enjoyed seeing how some of the ideas I have encountered come to fruition in academia and public policy. I left with a list of book recommendations, courses to consider and increased confidence in the prospects that a humanities degree can offer.

But my last meeting of the day is the one that will stick with me most. Neither my Habla student, Jorge, nor I had time in our schedules for the program this quarter, so we agreed to stay in touch and catch up a few times throughout the spring. I was surprised by how seamlessly we switched from English to Spanish; I had a few questions to ask for a Spanish essay and figured it would be easier than translating back and forth (and it would be a nice change of pace to speak my second language, rather than his). We ended up talking for the next 40 minutes about school, future ambitions, American politics, free time, friendships and the way that his workplace (the Clark Center) feels like an entirely different universe from the campus hubs of undergraduate life.

While many of my classes have discussed education and the immigrant experience in an abstract sense, we rarely have exposure to individual narratives that elaborate on the complex realities underlying our assumptions.

Our conversation was more than a series of excerpts that I could use for a Spanish paper; I spent a long time talking about the workings of Stanford freshman life and sharing some of my favorite ideas from my classes. I biked away feeling grateful for the opportunity to learn about vastly different life experiences, lucky to have found a friendship where most students don’t necessarily think to look.   

If I were to go back to Admit Weekend, or my own college process, I would recount the events of this Friday to the ProFros and my past self. Within one day, I learned just as much from a panel of economists and a Ph.D. student as I did from a friend on the custodial staff.

IntroSems, faculty dinners and office hours are compelling features of Stanford life to those who are concerned about the loss of connection with their educators, and relationships with professors are achievable enough for those who seek them. But when we single-mindedly cultivate such relationships and hold them in the highest esteem, we are all too likely to disregard other sources of knowledge, depriving ourselves of the meaningful campus connections that can be found beyond the ivory tower.


Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’

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