By Helena Zhang
I miss meeting people from all walks of life. Although Stanford’s student body is composed of people from all across the country and around the world with unique backgrounds, passions and dreams, in certain ways everyone is very similar. We’re all on a path directed by higher education. The different worlds we come from all seem to merge into one as we all embark on this journey of self-discovery and academic exploration.
I can’t begin to describe how much I love contemplating moral dilemmas on dormitory couches, dancing on tables and stargazing with fascinating people who seem to share the same curiosities, values and desire for adventure in this microcosm that is Stanford. But at this time last year, the people I spent time with or briefly crossed paths with were quite different, and I find myself missing that.
For instance, I spent my Sunday evenings with Bill. Bill is 86 and afflicted by aphasia. However, he saved everyone from the piled-up dishes and the coffee rings like paint on a cup to the half-chewed-dinner rejection stuck to a plate.
It wasn’t like the Sunday dinner team couldn’t see how high the dishes were piled when we balanced silverware between the plates. We just didn’t want to clean the mess, so we would play a game of Jenga instead.
After watching Bill bend over the dishes night after night, his old knuckles turning red from wringing a bleached rag, I rolled up my sleeves and became his dishwashing partner. Every Sunday evening, we sent soap and water flying as the dinner team made meals for the homeless at my local church.
From Bill, I learned that being a leader involves more than the accomplishment of big things. It means doing the little things no one else wanted to do. The aggravation Bill felt when his thoughts were stranded in translation didn’t stop him from telling the team of volunteers, “Look after each other, for people deserve to be nurtured, sheltered and loved.” Nor did his aphasia put out the burning passion Bill had to alleviate the degrading experience of dehumanization of the homeless. If Bill can be so determined and loving, I realized that I’ve got no reason to not follow suit.
I remember how on my way back from school one day I watched people avoid eye contact and look out the windows of a streetcar as a young man, who called the street his home, boarded the 505 and excitedly exclaimed to the driver, “I hope I win the lottery tomorrow morning.”
He continued, “The first thing I will do is build a shelter for the homeless.” I was astonished yet completely warmed to the heart. In the 21st century, we often find ourselves in a rat race, racing for the highest status, greatest grades and flashiest possessions. And yet a man who has every reason to feel sorry for himself wasn’t even thinking of himself. If he can carry the weight of urban cruelties and dream to help those around him, I realized that I too must do my part to help those around me.
The wisdom imparted by these people who are on different life paths have and will stay with me wherever I go. On campus I too easily forget that there is a world outside the one that pulls all-nighters over p-sets, questions what to major in on a daily basis and discusses how choice is just an illusion. Perhaps I’m not stepping outside of the microcosm of society that is Stanford quite enough.
Contact Helena Zhang at helenaz ‘at’ stanford.edu.