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How to make a difference


We all possess a finite number of years on this earth, and we all want them to be meaningful. We want our presence here to mean something. When our candle burns out, we want to know that someone noticed, that the aroma of our life was experienced and enjoyed, that it meant something to someone. We want the world to be different because we were here. We want to love and be loved. We want to care and be cared for. We want to be part of something bigger and greater than ourselves. We want to be part of a community, and we want that community to accept and celebrate us in turn.

In short, we want our lives to make a difference. But what does “difference” really mean? So much of our time is spent as students, workers, friends, sons and daughters. So much of our life is spent on ourselves and our own wants and needs and desires.

Here at Stanford, our lives are so incredibly fast-paced that our immediate obligations to our work and our relationships often consume us.  

We spend most, if not all, of our time trying to survive Math 51, keep our lunch appointments with friends or meet new people at any of the million events happening on campus at any given time. But this is understandable. We’re young. It stands to reason that our main focus at this point in our lives should be ourselves, that doing well in college will lead to larger gains and a larger capacity for impact in our future careers.

The problem is that our immediate obligations and our focus on our own lives often keep us from seeing the larger picture. If we truly want to make a difference, right now and right here, we must participate in our community here at Stanford and beyond.

Stanford is a home, a community. And as members of this community we have a responsibility to each other, because this is more than just a place in which we live. Focusing on classes and on the aspects of our own lives are not enough, because we have the capacity to make our community better right now. Now is the time to be involved. Now is the time to act. Inaction is still a choice, and choosing to not actively participate in our community has consequences for you and for those around you.  Choosing inaction doesn’t just negate the meaningfulness of your own life; it affects the lives of those you could have helped.

In my previous Op-Ed, I argued for the importance of political participation and for your own capacity to create change. I said it then and I will say it now – your voice matters. You have a capacity for impact. You can make a difference. The long arc of history may bend towards justice, but change comes from the people. Change comes from the choices that we make every day.

Our days may be crammed with work and stress and relationships, but if we really want to make a difference, if we really want our lives to matter, then we need to give back to our community.

I recognize the difficulty of translating that value into action. Prior to transferring to Stanford, my life and my identity were centered around public service and my community. Here, I’ve been so focused on doing well in class and forming strong relationships that most of the quarter has flashed by without getting involved outside of myself or around campus.

So let’s put our values into action. How do you tangibly make a difference as a Stanford student?

We can start by defining parameters. How do you define “impact”? Who do you want to impact? How?

Feel free to answer these questions however you like – the important part is committing and following through on your chosen answers. For me, I want to serve the poor and marginalized and help make measurable gains in the Palo Alto/Bay Area community for low-income and homeless people during my time here.

The last question, however, is often the most challenging – how do you realize the impact you want? How do you turn your answer into tangible action?

The answer lies in research. Not academic research, although that is an option. What I mean by “research” is that understanding what avenues you have available to help make a real difference in your community is a critical first step. Everyone here is capable and smart and has that Stanford drive (go Nerd Nation!). Most should already be familiar with key starting points: Haas, BEAM, OrgSync, the 10 million emails we get every day.

The next step, then, is on you. Register to vote, and then actually vote. Visit Haas. Type in “community service” on OrgSync. Make an appointment with BEAM with a social impact bent. Go on Google and type in “community service Palo Alto Bay Area.” Email your professor. Research issues you’re interested in. Talk to friends and friends of friends who you know are actively giving back to our community. Amass a list of options and narrow them down until you find an avenue that will let you make that difference right now, right here.

It’s there. You have a capacity for change right now. Your life is busy, but you can step up. Now is the time to choose to act and choose to get involved. You can put down the newspaper or close your laptop right now and choose to act. So act. The opportunity is here. All you have to do is reach out and take it. After all, what’s a little time, right now and right here, for a lifetime of meaning?


Contact Ryan Kang at ryankang ‘at’

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