Here’s my standard response nowadays when people ask me what I’m studying:
“English, but I’m seeing what else I can cram in.”
As senior year approaches, I’m feeling an urgency to fit everything in — to use my remaining units to the max. I think this is pretty natural for students facing down their last few quarters at Stanford. But I’m also trying to make up for time I wish I’d spent a bit differently: I regret not leaving my academic comfort zone earlier and more frequently.
To be sure, there are plenty of ways to challenge yourself at Stanford without striking out into fields unfamiliar to you. As an English major here, I’m thinking of the short story drafts that got ripped apart by an unusually honest and unfailingly helpful workshop teacher; I’m thinking of the critical readings that I’ve annotated with more question marks than comments, knowing I’ve only digested a fraction of a complex argument.
But I think that pursuing this kind of challenge — challenge in our academic home territory — comes easily to us. We’re eager to push ourselves in the areas we already have aptitude in. We want to build on our strengths — and that’s great.
It’s harder, in our four short years at Stanford, to prioritize challenges outside our areas of strength.
Freshman and sophomore years in particular, I hewed largely to the subjects I was more comfortable with (my riskiest academic move sophomore year consisted of signing up for CS 106A). What held me back was, for the most part, nervousness. I was nervous about studying something that I thought I’d be mediocre at; most of all, I was nervous about doing that at a place like Stanford, where each major is filled with people who have been achieving incredible things in their fields, often for a long time. I enrolled in 106A with a real fear that I just wouldn’t be cut out for coding in Silicon Valley’s feeder school. I was ready to take the course credit/no-credit before I’d even looked at the syllabus.
Being just average at something — or decidedly below average — is underrated, particularly here. Being toward the middle or the bottom of the bell curve keeps you on your toes. It means you have to work extra hard. It means that, whatever happens, you’re going to learn. The fact that Stanford’s swarming with people at the top of what they do is an amazing gift, but it also presents a special danger because it’s easy to convince ourselves to give up on something before we’ve even tried.
In high school, we had to take every subject, even the ones we weren’t as great at. Not so at Stanford, where WAYS general ed requirements are well-intended but minimal and tempting to treat as just another hurdle to jump over, a space to fill with easy units. I love the freedom of college as much as anyone else, but I also see how this freedom gave me permission to pull back on subjects out of apprehension about my skills or my workload or both.
If I could go back in my academic career, I’d think less about what I’m capable of and more about what I want to be capable of.
How lucky that I’m here for another year.
Contact Hannah Knowles hknowles ‘at’ stanford.edu.
This piece is part of the Vol. 253 Editorial Board’s Admit Weekend series. Read the rest of the editorials here.