In my head, there’s a Stanford-Before-The-Election and a Stanford-After-The-Election. November 8, 2016 pretty neatly divided my college experience into two almost-equal halves.
Stanford-Before-The-Election was fun and exciting and all-consuming. I had been waiting years to come to a college like Stanford, and it proved to be one of those rare experiences in life that actually lived up to my dream. Everything at Stanford felt like an opportunity made just for me. It seemed like my freshman RAs just sat around in their rooms and waited for me and my friends to come by, take their candy and complain about classes, and that distinguished professors were here just to teach us tiny IntroSems and introductory Thinking Matters classes.
Sophomore year, without RAs and professors holding my hand, I still found myself deeply enmeshed in the world of Stanford — trapped in The Bubble, you could say. I spent hours agonizing over what major to declare — History or Political Science? — and almost as long planning the Instagram post I would use to announce my decision. I made a four-year plan in an Excel spreadsheet. I knew what I was doing and where I was going, and I finally felt confident enough on a bike to be able to get there. I thrived in The Bubble. When people from home asked how often I went to San Francisco, or even Palo Alto, I admitted that it was rare. But I liked it that way, I insisted. Life on campus was so amazing; why would I ever want to leave?
But then I did leave, for nine months, and by the time I came back, Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States. Stanford gave me the opportunity to live, work and study off-campus, which proved to a significant a turning point in my college career, and for that I am incredibly grateful. For the last six months of my off-campus life, I was in Washington, D.C., working first on Democratic campaigns for the U.S. Senate and then for a civil rights organization doing voting rights work. I lived and breathed the 2016 election. I couldn’t wait for all of my hard work to pay off. And then it didn’t.
I went to D.C. because I was fundamentally optimistic about America’s future. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself — first working on Senatorial campaigns, then protecting voting rights during the election. I wanted to help create a better, more progressive and inclusive future for the country. But the American electorate chose a vastly different direction, and the election forced me to come to terms with the fact that the future I had envisioned and worked for wasn’t inevitable. After the election, I wanted to actively help shape this country’s future, and I knew The Bubble wasn’t going to help me figure out how to do that.
Returning to campus for winter quarter of my junior year marked the start of Stanford-After-The-Election, and the start of popping The Bubble. In some ways, it was still the same place as before. It was easy to fall back into the version of campus life where Stanford constituted the whole world. But this time, I didn’t want to go to that version of Stanford anymore.
I still enjoyed all of the parts of college that I had before, but I tried to remind myself that they didn’t need to define my life. I started appreciating my history classes not just for intellectual enjoyment but for the way they actually helped me see the world. I stopped biking, partially because I lived at the top of a very steep hill (s/o to Narnia) and partially because walking allowed me time to just think and exist.
I’m still learning a lot, and I take much of my inspiration from so many of my friends and others on campus who are politically active and have been focusing for a long time on making Stanford, the U.S. and the world better places.
My grandmother, a longtime political activist and resident of Stanford campus, launched herself into the work of multiple local grassroots organizations that had sprung up after the election. One afternoon during spring quarter, I joined her and some of her friends in writing letters to Congress. Listening to the group of women talk about the work they were doing for the upcoming Virginia election, still six months away, I realized that how they spent their time was, in many ways, infinitely more worthwhile than how I spent so much of my Stanford-Before-The-Election.
I’m supposed to offer some advice as a “wise graduating senior” (still not sure how I got here), so I’ll just ask my fellow students to remember that while Stanford makes it easy to feel like it’s the whole world, it’s not. Study abroad, if you can. Read The Stanford Daily, of course, and read the Stanford Review to know what you’re up against, and also read The New York Times and The Washington Post and your local paper. I don’t know about your hometown papers, but The Times and The Post have special subscription rates for students; take advantage of them while you still can! Don’t read partially-screenshotted articles on Twitter. Vote in every election and volunteer for campaigns if you’re able. And because I know a lot of Stanford students are probably like me, who started as a freshman with a deep-seated need to be the best at everything I attempted, the last piece of advice I’ll offer in this column is the most important one I’ve learned over my time here: I will never be the smartest student in my class, or the most famous, or the most successful. But I want to do good things and help make the world a fairer place. And as long as I keep working on that, none of the rest of it matters.