Approximately 4 percent of Stanford Ph.D. alumni currently work for the University, according to a 2013 study conducted by Institutional Research & Decision Support (IR&DS) in collaboration with the Office for the Vice Provost of Graduate Education (VPGE).
Factor in non-Ph.D. alumni working at the University, and the resulting group spans numerous departments including the Haas Center, the Diversity and First-Gen Office and the computer science (CS) department. Despite their vastly different positions and years of graduation, four Stanford alumni who now work within these departments at the University cited similar reasons for making their return.
Returning to Stanford
Amy Harris ’14, student outreach and engagement coordinator for the Haas Center, said that in her acceptance letter to Stanford, Nebraska’s admissions officer wrote that she thought Harris would find a home at the Haas Center. Harris said while she made little use of Haas as a student, she accepted a postgraduate job at the center shortly after a phone conversation with then-director of postgraduate public service Jim Murray.
“There are so many opportunities at Stanford, so I really valued the advisors that I had that helped me navigate this space,” Harris said. “I think that was part of my drive to come back in an outreach perspective.”
Dereca Blackmon ’94, associate dean and director of the Diversity and First-Gen Office, said she was visiting Stanford for a panel discussion on “Fruitvale Station,” a 2013 film based on the shooting of an unarmed black man by an Oakland police officer, when she was approached by mentor Sally Dixon.
When Blackmon was a student, Dixon worked in student affairs at the law school, and during the panel Dixon asked Blackmon to teach the course now known as Intergroup Communications. Blackmon said the course was “one of the most formative experiences” in her life when she took it in 1989.
“As an undergraduate I never thought that I’d be back at Stanford as a career professional, and so that I think is good for students to see as a potential pathway,” Blackmon said.
Chris Piech B.S.’10 M.A. ’11 Ph.D. ’16 said becoming a lecturer in the CS department upon graduation was not a foregone conclusion, but when it came to choosing to teach at either Stanford or MIT, he stuck with the former.
“The same reasons that made me choose here as an undergrad made me want to come back – great people to work with, great students to work with, a little warmer,” Piech said.
Jelani Munroe ’17, financial manager for the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) and a 2017 Rhodes Scholar, said students should not discount job opportunities at Stanford, although he himself was not expecting to work at the University until the month before his graduation.
“There are a lot of of subtle benefits to working at Stanford, and one of them is that you get opportunities to engage with staff and faculty in more open ways than you might as a student,” Munroe wrote, adding that he works to maintain personal relationships with his former professors although they no longer advise or assess his academic work.
Relating to current students
In addition to developing their relationships with fellow faculty and staff, the alumni described how their backgrounds as Stanford graduates augment their relationships with current students. According to Harris, her background as an alum has helped her in communicating with students because she has a firsthand understanding of the “different stressors and pressures” they face.
Piech concurred that he has a lot of empathy for students since he knows personally how much they may have going on outside of class, adding that he himself enjoys taking a break from the Farm each summer to teach in Istanbul.
Blackmon, meanwhile, described one scenario in which she responded to a student who expressed concern over the rigor of Blackmon’s work.
“I said, ‘Listen, the difference between me and you is that I’m actually getting paid to sit on this bench in the sun next to the fountain in front of Old Union to talk to you. And so you don’t need to worry about taking care of me. My job is to support and take care of you,’ and I think that’s really an important thing for me as a staff person to communicate to students,” Blackmon said.
Blackmon, Piech and Harris agreed that they continue to learn from people at Stanford who mentored them when they were undergraduates. Each of the alumni also described changes between their relationships with these mentors as students and now as colleagues.
“I was a student organizer, and I think the perspective is always that you’re organizing against the institution, so becoming a part of the institution was a huge adjustment for me,” Blackmon said.
According to Piech, his relationships with faculty in the CS department, including his former Ph.D. adviser and current professor and Associate Chair of Education in CS Mehran Sahami Ph.D. ’99, became more collegial when Piech began work as a lecturer.
Harris, meanwhile, said she is surprised by how many of her former classmates now work with or near her in the Bay Area, adding that she believes about a quarter of the Haas Center staff attended Stanford during their academic career. She emphasized the need to strike a balance between Stanford affiliates and people coming from other institutions.
“I think it’s healthy to have a mix of both [Stanford and non-Stanford graduates] and to exchange best practices, because in some ways [staying on campus] is a limitation,” Harris said. “I kind of only know Stanford from the undergrad experience, and in terms of higher ed I’ve only worked at Stanford as well, so it’s great when people are coming in with different ideas.”
Although he agreed that a disproportionate amount of Stanford CS faculty also studied at Stanford, Piech said hiring graduates could help Stanford assemble a more diverse faculty. As an example, he cited MIT’s CS department, whose faculty consisted of mostly white males until the university began to alter its faculty demographics by hiring its own graduates.
“There’s an opportunity in the future if this was to continue … what a great chance to make sure the faculty represents the students,” Piech said.
The home-growing process
Ali Malik ’19, a math major who is teaching a course titled “Standard C++ Programming” this quarter, said Stanford makes it especially convenient for CS students to land a teaching job at the University. He said this structure helps explain why Stanford graduates are so easy to find in the CS department, specifically.
“There’s a pipeline that guides you through it,” he explained.
According to Malik, undergraduate CS majors get practice as instructors by serving as section leaders and teaching mini-lectures for the introductory CS classes. He added that students can apply to create their own student-led classes, and that it is common for graduate students in the department to serve as teaching assistants during both the academic year and over the summer. Malik said these opportunities help prepare Stanford graduates to apply for teaching positions at the University.
“I think that the biggest thing about teaching that drew me to it is there’s a very real feeling that comes from a person when they understand you,” Malik said. “It’s incredible. You see their eyes light up in a way that no one could fake.”
He added that he admires CS faculty who selflessly teach because they care about their work on a personal level, even though they could earn more money in tech industry jobs. Malik also said he wishes other departments would allow as much undergraduate teaching as the CS department.
Although he expressed interest in teaching at Stanford, he said he isn’t “staunchly mired” in the idea. According to Malik, although it would be “noble” to stay and teach at a school that “has done so much” for him, there are potential downsides to Stanford graduates remaining at the University.
“In some sense you’re sort of selfishly saturating the ideas that are conceived at Stanford to Stanford, and maybe that’s not the greatest thing,” he said. “If I went back to Pakistan and taught, I think I would have more of a relative impact than if I stayed here.”
In his email to The Daily, Munroe wrote while there are benefits to pursuing a postgraduate job at the University, working at Stanford doesn’t preclude students from common challenges faced in the workforce.
“[Students should] be thoughtful about how staying at Stanford can at once be a continuation of positive experiences (building on current friendships, for example) yet necessarily a very new challenge (becoming truly competent, appreciating how you produce value for a team, for example),” Munroe wrote. “That will help avoid the main pitfall: feeling stuck.”
Contact Holden Foreman at hs4man21 ‘at’ stanford.edu.