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Wagner: Stanford and its crushing freedom

“Everyone’s so talented at Stanford.”

In my five quarters on campus, it seems like we are continually talking about our own endless achievements and abilities. In order to get into Stanford, everyone had to do Something at their high school, aspire to some natural talent that they would develop. Collecting bones, base jumping, cultivating coffee beans — just talk with people from your freshman dorm, you’ll begin to realize all of the weird and interesting passions that we all have. And receiving a Stanford acceptance means that the University institutionally recognizes that you have a worthwhile talent and that you’re kinda really good at it.

We’re all winners here.

Yet, when we arrive on campus, this pressure to continue doing things, to start projects, never fully fades. Even though we’re thousands of miles away from our parents, we can feel their pressure to take advantage of every opportunity at Stanford — become president of the pre-law society, intern at Palantir, join the dragon boat team and so on. But, you soon realize that, really, there’s no one watching you at Stanford.

You can pretty much do anything (or nothing!).

Sure, you have friends and RAs and UAR Directors to support you, but there’s no one telling you “a path” that you have to be on. And it’s scary. In order to get into a place like Stanford, you have to specialize and care about a few things. Yet, once you actually arrive, your options are virtually endless (650 registered student groups and counting!) to the point where you don’t even know what options exist. The clubs, sports and after school activities that got you here are not the same kinds of things that you’re “supposed” to do while here.

There’s nothing you’re supposed to do.

I think that it’s this kind of external pressure to perform that makes us overcommit to so many different opportunities — “they all sound so cool!” Just like there’s no one “Stanford kid,” there is no one Stanford thing that everyone should do — a totally freeing and crushing thought. In an effort to leave as many pathways open by doing everything at the same time, we’re essentially saying no to everything we take a part in. Membership is no substitute for effort.

Running around from meeting to meeting, TSF funding event to tabling in White Plaza, it’s hard to devote any substantial amount of time to any one thing, to stop and say “I am a juggler” and do just that. Without this kind of narrow focus and vision, it’s nearly impossible to navigate the endless possibilities of Stanford — what do you want?

In order to make sense of it all, you need to have a project, an understanding of how all of the diverse things you do coalesce into a coherent you. At the same time, I’m not reducible to just the things that I do and they don’t all neatly fit into my English major, nor do they have to.

Part of the allure and pressure of Stanford is to accomplish a goal you have, build your resumé, above all look good to the outside world. But, there is also nobody immediate to impress, no way to know who’s going to be poring over your transcript, if at all. That’s part of what it means to go to college and to be a Stanford student. Do what you want to; there’s nobody to stop you.

Contact Josh Wagner at jwagner4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

This piece is part of the Vol. 253 Editorial Board’s Admit Weekend series. Read the rest of the editorials here.

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