I used to think Stanford was my dream school. And if you’re reading this, it probably was yours, too, at some point in time.
What does that mean, “dream school?” Before I received my acceptance, the idea of Stanford felt mystical and intangible, as if I had created in my head the most perfect place for myself. It had palm trees and fountains, prestige and promise and none of the parts of high school I’d hated. At Stanford, I thought, I would be happy.
Today, as I prepare to leave this dream for the next, I have a different definition, one that’s a little more cynical but also, I think, a little more hopeful.
The night before the first day of NSO, I barely slept. I could hardly believe the dream I had held for years was about to become a reality. The first quarter was so chaotic — in the best way possible — that I had little time to stop and think about my experiences. I made fast friends (spoiler alert: these were not the friendships that lasted) and joined an a cappella group. I got my first B ever and barely cared because this was Stanford.
But that freshman excitement faded. During the next few quarters, the insecurities I thought I had left behind in high school resurfaced. My friendships shifted and I didn’t feel like I had a solid group or a best friend. I felt isolated in the groups I had begun to consider like family. I felt like I wasn’t working as hard as my peers in my classes, which felt like a betrayal of the ambitious version of me who had gotten into Stanford in the first place.
Only when I literally left the country to study in Florence did I feel like I had the freedom and distance to let myself acknowledge that Stanford would never be the dream school I had envisioned. I felt like there might be something wrong with me, that I was incapable of the happiness I thought I’d find here. Worst of all, I was afraid that if I was unhappy at Stanford, my dream school, I could never be happy anywhere.
At some point during my nine months away (three in Italy and six in Washington, D.C.), I realized that it wasn’t Stanford that was making me unhappy — it was my own vision of what life should be like there. Being physically away from campus reminded me that satisfaction and inspiration come from lived experiences.
I’m writing this column not to lower anyone’s expectations about Stanford or college in general, but to reflect on how my change in mindset helped make my last five quarters at Stanford the best almost-two years of my life. They weren’t perfect, and many of the things that left me disappointed before going abroad were still present. But this time I allowed myself to feel without consequences and with an understanding that disappointment and insecurity do not damage dreams unless I let them. It may not be exactly what I expected four years ago, but now I have incredible, supportive friends, knowledge I hadn’t even known existed and a future that was only made possible by opportunities I seized on (and off) campus.
There are sides of Stanford I had never envisioned four years ago. This is a place where people suffer from mental illness, minority communities still feel voiceless and sexual assault is not taken seriously enough. These are ongoing struggles we are far from overcoming, and I wish I had done more to push us further along in the right direction. Still, with all its flaws and disappointments, Stanford remains my biggest and most beautiful dream. I am inspired by the people around me devoting their lives to making this world a fairer and more equal place, and I credit my own public service aspirations, in part, to the students and professors I’ve met here.
The fantasy I created for my 18-year-old self is now dead, but it’s for the best. The Stanford I now have to leave is the best dream I could have asked for, not despite its imperfections but because of them. Stanford taught me the importance of living in the moment, appreciating support from the people around me and embracing any opportunity that comes my way.
When I used to say Stanford was my dream school, before I even could conceptualize what college was like, I thought that my four dream years would be the best of my life. If I could make it into Stanford, what came after could only come in second. After four years of self-reflection, it’s clear to me now that my next chapter can and will be as meaningful as my time at Stanford, as long as I approach it with a clear mind and open arms.
“Dream school” no longer represents an idealized fantasy where mistakes don’t exist and people aren’t human; instead, I now firmly believe a positive outlook and receptiveness to change can make any place feel like a home.
I could never regret choosing to attend Stanford, because it gave me incredible experiences and friendships I know will last a lifetime (not just a cliché, but the truth). But I am confident I could have had a great four years with other great people at one of many other universities if things had turned out a little differently. My dream is not Stanford, the school, but Stanford, the place.
I could have had a hundred dream schools, and I happened to end up here. For that, I am forever grateful.
Contact Sarah Ortlip-Sommers at sortlip ‘at’ stanford.edu.