I made the decision to come to Stanford at 11:59 p.m. on National College Decision Day last year, and as I committed, tears streamed down my face. Stanford had been a dream of mine for years, but I had also been admitted to other programs, which were also dreams — although different dreams.
In the days, hours and minutes leading up to decision deadline, I flipped coins and asked countless people for their advice, which, admittedly, must have been annoying for them. But the answers I got were: “pick the place where you’ll be happiest,” “you can’t go wrong” and, more commonly, “stop bragging about the colleges you got into.”
Initially, I viewed my college decision as a list of pros and cons concerning school culture, research opportunities, class size, location, etc. But ultimately, my indecisiveness wasn’t attributed to which school had more pros than the others or even which one made me happier. Instead, it boiled down to something more fundamental.
Unlike the many daily decisions I had made in the past, there was no right or wrong answer. For the first time, I was dealing with life itself where there were only options, albeit very good ones, to choose from. In the case of choosing a college, I knew that I would graduate as a very different person potentially pursuing a very different life and career depending on which one I chose. I felt overwhelmed by the fact that choosing a college ultimately meant making a decision on who I wanted to be.
To this day, I still don’t know why I chose Stanford over the other schools. I didn’t have a particularly strong gut instinct, and at the time I actually preferred the location and vibe of the other schools. I didn’t feel confident at all in the decision I made, and in retrospect, I cried because I felt an overwhelming sense of loss for a life that I could’ve lived.
In the days after I committed to Stanford I thought about changing my mind, and I wanted the days to go by faster since I knew the longer I waited the more permanent and real my decision would become.
I came into Stanford with the wrong mindset of “the grass is always greener on the other side.” During my first quarter, whenever anything went wrong — socially, emotionally, academically — I thought about how in my hypothetical, parallel life at another college, everything would have been going well.
It was only after I made a conscious effort to breathe, live and embrace life and the mess that comes with it that I was able to be happy with my decision. Sometimes I still think about my life if I had picked another school — maybe I’d have had less difficulty making friends, or would have had an easier time getting to know my professors or would have been more adventurous and explored the city more often. But that’s a different world, and I can’t do anything about that.
Before I left for college, my parents told me that I would learn a lot about life my freshman year. And I feel, or at least hope, that I have matured emotionally and become less naïve. But here’s the error in judgement I made when I was making my college decision. I knew that whatever choice I made, I would end up a different person and be influenced by different people. But I thought that meant I would become a writer instead of a scientist or move to New York City instead of San Francisco after graduation. The truth is, though, that I couldn’t and still don’t know how I would be different, just that I would be. The tricky part is that our futures are created as we are simultaneously living in the present.
Before I came to Stanford, I viewed the concept of college one-dimensionally and completely career-oriented, where I would take classes only related to my major, which is physics, and strive to get ahead in the major. But after finishing my first quarter, in which I took only math and science classes, I was miserable. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy what I was learning; it was that all along I knew I loved writing and the humanities just as much as I loved the sciences. Instead of viewing college as a stepping stone to a career, I realized viewing college as a place for personal growth that would give me the freedom to explore ambitious questions was more fulfilling for me.
Just like all the other students here who made the decision to come to Stanford, I turned out fine. To be honest, the doubts I had about Stanford were a result of too quickly buying into the exaggerated narrative and stereotypes non-Stanford people created. Certainly computer science is the most popular major here, but I, now being a physics and philosophy double major, have never felt that I’ve received less attention for not being a computer science major. And although many students here are interested in careers in the industry or corporate world, I haven’t felt that my Stanford education has been industry-focused, rather than academia-focused. That’s not to say you can’t get an industry-focused education. My point is that you can get whatever you want out of your time at Stanford — for me, that meant academically dedicating myself to the humanities and arts just as much as I did to science, joining various writing and music groups and escaping the suburbia that is Palo Alto to explore the San Francisco streets whenever I can.
I like the version of myself that I’m becoming, and even though Stanford, this uniquely quirky place, is instrumental to what that version is, the daily decisions I make here at Stanford are perhaps even more important. You can be any version of yourself anywhere — it just takes the vision to find out what version you want to be.
Contact Amber Yang at yanga ‘at’ stanford.edu.