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Dead Week and drowning ducks: An account of academic inspiration

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Why, exactly, do you care so much? You, reading this, perhaps as a distraction from the inevitability of forthcoming finals — do you truly feel inspired by your education in this moment?

The rigor of our curricula implies some degree of duress, of course, but big tests stress students out almost universally. In fact, we were selected to attend here because of our demonstrated capacity to cope with this level of academic intensity, all the while carrying the Stanford name with enduring alacrity. More to the point, we’re not at Cal, contending with severe grade deflation, and limits on the number of people allowed to major in high-demand fields. Each of us has already made it into one of the world’s most coveted institutions, and for many, the success (whatever that means) garnered from this place will derive most directly from the connections made here, not from how mercilessly you beat yourself up over the sheer possibility of not pulling off a magnificent GPA.

My intent is not to lecture y’all with needless cynicism amid an already mentally exhaustive time — surely, we experience enough of that from the occasional jaded professor. Rather, I feel compelled to speak on my experience because I encounter this spooky question whenever I realize that I’m weighing my existential value against the outcome of my education: Why do I care about this as if my life depended on it? At this point in my Stanford journey, I feel I have gained some insight into this insidious inquiry. I want to share it with you because I’m disconcerted by its implications, and would like to beckon your thoughts on the matter as well.

Silicon Valley has a serious problem involving self-destructive youths; that much is unequivocal. In response to two cluster suicides of Gunn High School students — the first around 2010, and the second in 2014 — the CDC came to Palo Alto to conduct research into why so many kids with “bright prospects,” as The Atlantic phrased it, were choosing to end their lives. After the initial instance, students and parents from the community spoke out regarding the toxic, Bay Area-specific culture that emphasizes academic over-performance. This pressure to succeed compels young pupils into harrowing instances of depression, anxiety and broad existential dread. Bearing in mind such adamant protest against this clearly destructive philosophy, why did the same thing happen again just four years later?

And why aren’t we talking about it more, besides how obviously sobering and distressing situations like this inherently are? From my perspective as someone who has dealt with suicidal ideation throughout my first three years here, the following seems obvious: Remaining oblivious, purposefully or not, to the crises amid neighboring zip codes not only fails to bring constructive discourse to the matter, but such deafening silence accentuates the atmospheric prevalence of the horrific mental health situation we face at our own school.

Stanford offered us a long email, a slightly better CAPS system, more ping pong tables and a new outside area to drink alcohol in reply to the (oddly subtle) outcry which followed the on-campus suicides of two students over just barely a month. As was the case after the Brock Turner incident and so many more, I can’t help but feel these efforts were made more for the end of mitigating PR backlash than as good faith attempts at systemic solutions to a problem that we can simply no longer choose to ignore. If we are to improve our proactive mental health measures at an institutional level, the responsibility begins with the student body becoming more honest with ourselves and one another about how we’re really feeling.

I think the duck syndrome is an apt metaphor for the particular brand of stress that permeates throughout this institution. However, it is not apt enough to embody the absolute severity of the pervasive issues faced by our University, the Bay, the United States, the world at large and, perhaps soon, even Mars. Surely it is disheartening to feel that you are the only one working so hard to stay afloat; however, we can no longer ignore those among us who are not just struggling, but drowning, observing the frantic, webbed feet of our peers as we sink ever further, weighed down by the immense burden of living.

So again, I ask: Why are you so stressed out? Is it fear of mediocrity, the ineluctable result of imposter syndrome? Is it the worry that your parents won’t be pleased with your choices? Are you concerned that you’ll never find your way into fame and wealth for the groundbreaking way your app changed the world? Do you feel that your efforts won’t be enough, not just to satisfy yourself, but to make your impact truly resonate?

Or is it simply the fear of death, disguising itself in these twisted, prestigious ways?

If you feel that you have, like me, spent much of your time here as a drowning, unseen duck, I encourage you to seek the help you deserve not only from the University, but from ears that are more automatically inclined to listen. I promise it gets better.

Best of luck to you all for finals. And as we move on from this haunted, beautiful place, may our best intentions be guided by the desire to solve those problems which align with our ambitions, and by the great care we take in determining which questions we choose to answer.

— Julian Rey Saenz ’20

Contact Julian Rey Saenz at reysaenz ‘at’ stanford.edu.