Six weeks into my second year here, and Stanford feels new. We have new dorms, new dining halls assigned to us, new routes to class as construction wraps up. We walk around and notice things we didn’t freshman year — the shortcut behind Green Library, the small burst of forest between Toyon and Arillaga.
Some things, however, feel very much the same. Procrastination is still an epidemic that affects millions of young people every year, and we need to stop it, but maybe tomorrow. Midterms are still too soon and too stressful, the day still too short to fit every work shift, section and phone call home in. There are more opportunities than I can count, and they all live in my inbox. Stanford is still Stanford.
Slowly, reluctantly, the aim of the school year is coming into focus. I, as well as the rest of the class of 2020, have to declare a major.
Left and right, people around me are realizing that they shouldn’t major in HumBio if they don’t like Hum or Bio and that they still have to fulfill WAYS and that it’s really, really hard to answer “What are you interested in?” with the single word of a major.
Thinking back to early conversations during NSO, I remember hearing how many of us chose Stanford for everything that “The Winds of Freedom Blow” meant — finally, after suffering through that physics class in high school, we could take that French cooking class that our schools never offered. We could try an animal behavior class, or social dance. We could learn how to write. And during convocation, President Mark Tessier-Lavigne encouraged us to take freshman year to do just that — explore.
But now, to myself, as well as to many of my peers who answer the question “What are you studying?” with “I’m not sure yet,” things feel less free, less about learning for the sake of learning and more about taking classes to fulfill major requirements. People are thinking about graduate school and jobs and salaries and make four-year plans without any breathing room. Our education does not feel as freeform as it was freshman year.
If someone likes writing but also like drawing cyclohexanes and teaching high schoolers how to write research papers but doesn’t really like anthropology, what should they major in? Or take the musician who loves amplifying DNA via polymerase chain reaction. What about them?
Exploring has given the scientist time to fall in love with coding — and choosing one or trying to stay afloat juggling both at the same time isn’t sustainable or healthy for most people. Logistically, I understand why we have requirements and a declaration deadline, and liking too many subject areas to count is the best of problems to have.
For me personally, all I know is that I like words. I like small ones that sound like what they mean (e.g. “tiny”); ones that, with consonant-made space between vowels, imply a wave, motion (e.g. “undulating”); ones that sound like white noise (e.g. “hushed”). I like words like “leathered” and words that cut.
In every class I’ve ever taken here, English or not, I’ve kept a journal open, ready to jot down well worded phrases from the lecturer or sometimes from a student asking a question. I’ve picked up and recycled “a self-erasing kind of devotion,” “moment-by-moment evocation,” “poverty of formalization” and many more. The journal’s almost full. It’s my most important thing.
When everyone else seems to have an idea of what they want to study, of what they want to do, it’s so easy to feel behind. But things usually fall into place, and sometimes it takes experiences that just wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t struggled for a bit. For now, at least for me, it’s a waiting game.
Contact Amanda Rizkalla at “amariz” at stanford.edu.