Stanford Undergrad

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18 Mar 2018

After finishing high school in my hometown of Bucharest, Romania, I received a BS in mathematics from Stanford in 2017. I am frequently asked what Stanford is like, and usually only provide unsatisfying answers, along the lines of it’s different, or it’s its own world. The reason for my evasiveness? I am usually disinclined to offer the 10-minute monologue that I feel would do justice to the question.

Since I do believe the best way to understand an institution is through its members’ stories, I decided to write this essay instead. I will say something from the start: this essay is not a research paper, nor University advertising. Its goal is not to offer a complete and accurate description of the Stanford undergraduate experience, nor is it to convince you of the program’s excellence. Rather, it is a collection of my observations and experiences, which by their nature, are biased and limited. So please, if you do go on reading, interpret it as such: a slightly more deliberate fireside reminiscence about my college days.

The essay is structured in sections, each treating one aspect of my undergraduate experience. I tried to have a consistent format throughout: the main body of text is comprised of my observations, and particular anecdotes are indented and in italics.

At a glance

Stanford is a university in the Bay Area, California. The campus is its own city, mostly car-inaccessible, and traversable in an hour by foot, although most people bike.

The University population consists primarily of undergraduate students (4-year liberal arts college), graduate students (masters or doctoral), faculty, and staff. The majority of students live on campus.

Undergrads are admitted through an application consisting of a CV, high school transcript, and a few personal essays. In order to graduate, students need to declare a major by the end of their second year, and take classes that satisfy the general university and major requirements. As a liberal arts college, Stanford’s general requirements aim to create breadth in undergraduate education; these requirements are Aesthetic and Interpretative Inquiry, Applied Quantitative Reasoning, Creative Expression, Engaging Diversity, Ethical Reasoning, Formal Reasoning, Scientific Method and Analysis, Social Inquiry, and there are at least 200 courses satisfying each one, covering a variety of topics. Stanford offers approximately 100 majors – the Bachelors’ degree a student receives (https://majors.stanford.edu/majors-alphabetical/a–z); students often change their major as they explore more areas of study. Additionally, students may create their own major, and design its requirements themselves, under guidance from the University.

Besides classwork, students have the opportunity to join student organizations, which are funded by the University. Organizations vary in terms of focus: athletic / recreational, careers / pre-professional, community service, ethnic / cultural, Greek life, health / counseling, media / publications, music / dance / creative arts, political / social awareness, religious / philosophical.

Something of a country club

Stanford is a small town, but effectively feels like a country club. When I first heard this description as a senior in high school, the comparison provided me with little help in picturing life on campus. Let me expand on what I, at least, mean by it.

The campus is organized as one single facility: all buildings are open during the day and after four years you end up knowing many by heart – where the classrooms are, bathrooms, random sofas, dedicated study spaces and lounges, etc.

In fact, people end up knowing some buildings maybe too well: “When you walk through the door to the Sloan basement men’s bathroom, you see… another door. That door (Door 2) leads you into a small metallic atrium containing a urinal. It actually makes sense, because without this door there would be a pretty clear line of sight between the hallway and the urinal. But of course, it doesn’t end there: the urinal atrium has yet another door (Door 3). Door 3 leads to a stall. […] “Why,” you now ask (as any reasonable person would), “is this a problem?” I posit that the issue is primarily combinatorial in nature: there are too many combinations of open/shut states for the door. Suppose, for example, that you walk through the outer door and see Door 2 shut. You do not, at this point, know whether or not Door 3 is shut. Are you willing to risk walking into the urinal atrium and having to wait there? Or do you retreat to the safety of the hallway? It’s a difficult choice, and, in this writer’s view, not one you want to make if the stakes are high.” (Retrieved from the Stanford Loo Review (yes, this exists) http://stanfordloo.review/).

Lounging in coffee places and restaurants is not only permitted but accepted as the norm. The different shops act as one: you can take your coffee from Starbucks, and food from Axe and Palm, to the CoHo Jazz show. This campus hospitality extends beyond those affiliated with the university – many young professionals from the Bay Area often take advantage of the great events and lounging spots at Stanford. If you do have a student ID, then you are getting premium access – pay at most shops with it, borrow any tech (charger, laptops, projector, etc.) for the day, use 2(or 3)-D printers, borrow any book, or use the gyms.

Stanford revolves around its community. On a practical note, the campus changes according to the undergraduate calendar. One could monitor quarter schedules extremely accurately by what the majority of people keep across the table: friends, laptops, or family on Skype. One of the best product design schools in the world, Stanford is amazingly skilled at making small changes around campus to make sure undergrads don’t miss important deadlines.

On the day after graduation the post office has two massive boxes right at the entrance: one is filled with PO box keys with a green sticker on (the same stickers you can see piled up near the box), and the other has change of address cards (both filled in and empty). I remember wondering a couple of times during my senior year where / when I had to return my key and what would happen to my mail. In my freshman year, and in any other city, I would have looked this up in advance, but at Stanford I was sure that simply going to the post office after graduation would suffice.

Everything on campus is shaped for and by the Stanford community. This effectively means that wherever you need a white board, you will either find it already there, or you will be able to bring one to the exact spot you desire, be it a classroom, co­­nference room, lounge, or under a tree.

Stanford is a bubble for many reasons, and communication and trust are two essential ones. As I mentioned a few times already, there are thousands of things going on around campus; the great thing is that everything is updated online and you can always access the details of events, organizations, contact person, logistics, requirements, etc. with minimal effort. Moreover, most of the people I know at Stanford answer their email within an hour – if the sender has an @stanford.edu address, of course.

Trust is an interesting phenomenon on campus. Even though it is not an isolated part of the world, and you don’t know all people personally, there is this tacit understanding that people on campus will not steal the laptop you left unattended for 20 minutes, will return the dishes they take to their room from the dining halls, and they will be absolutely fascinating to talk to. The extent to which people let down their guard is ridiculous and misplaced at times:

One email I received from the Stanford police read something along the lines of “Unfortunately, we started seeing more and more car robberies on campus, so please be vigilant. One measure you can take to prevent this is to lock your car when you leave it in the parking lot.”

Still, the atmosphere that results is unique – living on campus sometimes feels like having a 12.78 square mile living room with 14,000 extended acquaintances.

“Wind of Freedom Blows”

Stanford’s motto, “the wind of freedom blows”, is central to the culture on campus. In my experience, there are only a few things forced on students – being excited, and in accord with whatever social movement is fashionable at the time. However, in terms of an undergraduate’s career, academic and otherwise, close to nothing is prescribed. Students choose their major(s), their classes; they choose in how many years to graduate, or which quarters to take off; they choose whether to focus on coursework, research, or student projects.

To have hundreds of opportunities and almost no restrictions on what you can do … except for time, and cognitive power – if you ask me, that’s what makes Stanford exhilarating and daunting. Walking around campus in the middle of the night, I always felt so inspired to take down mountains, and do whatever I felt is cool at the moment. The harsh reality always hit in the mornings that the difficulty of discovering and creating these opportunities is second only to the difficulty of deciding which are worth pursuing in the first place.

Without denying the discomfort often inflicted by such freedom, especially paired with the ever-present pressure to do as many great things as is humanly possible, I must admit exploring so many options and mapping out a path for myself was the most rewarding part of my Stanford experience.

I started out as theoretical mathematics major, with a desire to eventually enter industry. During my time at Stanford, I experimented with also majoring or minoring in computer science, philosophy or philosophy of religious studies, management science and engineering; as a junior, I joined Stanford Marketing; I worked for a price optimization company and for a hedge fund. Before my senior year I realized that I am truly interested in Operations research, and that most of the classes I took based on interest at the time are, in fact, highly relevant to this field. For me, this was the strongest evidence that Stanford was effective.

What classes are you taking?

Between having fun in some, critiquing others, and losing nights of sleep for a few, I rarely took the time to acknowledge the remarkable machinery of Stanford classes. Every Stanford graduate receives a very different education, even within one major, and that is partly due to their selection of classes. Basically creating your own curriculum, choosing classes is an important part of an undergraduate career.

Students are entirely responsible for choosing classes such that they fulfill all university and major requirements. Although the University assigns advisors to answer questions regarding course planning, I found that fellow students are the best source of information.

Each quarter, the University offers approximately 4000 different courses; and students are encouraged to take classes from any department, even in fields not directly related to their major.

Information about these classes such as description, professor, schedule, requirements satisfied, and sometimes syllabus becomes available online a few weeks before the start of the quarter. Scrolling through the course catalogue https://explorecourses.stanford.edu/ (you can see the classes by department or as a list if you search ‘#’) is a glimpse into an otherwise small part of campus activity.

The definitive list of classes is due in the third week of the quarter, and so people often shop for more classes, and then narrow down what they take in the first couple of weeks. The beginning of a quarter can become quite hectic: in my experience, days are filled with too many lectures (which could, however, be quite enjoyable as they are introductory lectures on topics that interest you), extra assignments for classes you might want to take in case your schedule doesn’t work out the way you hope, searching for good classes, counting requirements and quarters left, and potentially having philosophical discussions about the interests you should pursue.

Although classes are so diverse, in my experience many share an attitude towards learning, which, depending on my mood, I have described as either superficial or conceptual. I’ve noticed this most strikingly by comparing a waltz class at Stanford and another at a dancing club in Boston.

The course at Stanford taught in 10 meetings basic rotary waltz, something like 20-30 different configurations / tricks / combinations a pair can do, how to change pace / direction, and generally move on a dance floor. The Boston class spent 2 meetings on learning how to perfectly step on 3-count music, using only the box-step for waltz. While people coming out of the Stanford waltz class are far from having a proper technique, they have the big picture of what waltz may entail, and they have a basic competence of handling waltzing on a busy dance floor.

In my opinion, this example illustrates perfectly classes at Stanford. They are extremely fast-paced, focused on giving students the big picture and current developments, enabling them to engage with experts in the field, as well as introduce others to the subject. Of course, there are also classes that spend an entire quarter on a very narrow field, having students work through that in great detail – I remember shocking my high school math teacher by taking an entire class on Lebesgue integration, a topic which was presented to him in two lectures during university. Nevertheless, even such classes always emphasize the possible applications.

Some memorable classes at Stanford

  • ‘10 great ideas about chance’: a philosophy class on probability and its development from basically scam artistry to legitimate mathematics, taught by Persi Diaconis, a former professional magician and one of the leading mathematicians today.
  • ‘back of the envelope physics’: advanced course in physics, focused on order of magnitude estimates, derived through computationally light methods. The class also has an introductory equivalent, for students with no background in science.
  • ‘the Cardinal Fund’: one of the classes for which students need to apply, it lets students manage a real investment portfolio of $1 million for one to two years.
  • ‘rhetoric of revolution’: a writing seminar concerned with works such as the Futurism Manifesto by Filippo Marinetti or the Guernica by Pablo Picasso; this class gathered a particularly interesting crowd, one class mate having had designed cross-word puzzles for the New York Times since middle school.
  • ‘hyperbolic geometry’: the goal of Fields medalist Maryam Mirzakhani was to teach hyperbolic geometry without using any advanced mathematics; I doubt any of us learnt a great deal about the subject, but the display of her innovative solutions was breathtaking.

“A university of facilities but most of all a university of people”

The University offers countless resources to its students; to list just a few: housing and dinning, extended access to libraries including free software, journals, etc., sporting equipment and facilities, scientific equipment, on the order of $1 million funding for student organizations, classes / events / talks, alumni mentoring, and counseling (peer, academic, writing and speaking, psychological, and career). The availability of such resources is possible due, in large part, to Stanford’s enormous endowment ($22.4 billion); but a key role in enabling these opportunities is played by the Stanford community – students, staff, faculty, and alumni. While the commitment of staff and faculty is straight-forward, the University has noteworthy strategies for getting alumni and students involved.

Through the Stanford Alumni Network students are just one email away from people in the top of any field who are eager to share tricks to navigating towards a successful career, insights to their industry, position and / or company, and willing to introduce students to the right people in their field. I know many people who agree that the most valuable asset Stanford gives to its alumni is the connections they have, be it good friends from one’s college days or other alumni with their doors always open to Stanfordians.

As an undergrad, I found great support in my alumni advisor. A successful VC Partner in the Bay Area, he shared his diverging interests and non-linear path that lead him to his current dream job. I occasionally thought of joining the beaten track to spare myself the difficulty of finding meaningful work that spans my math, philosophy and business interests. Every time, a lengthy discussion with him reminded me that what I most admire in people I consider successful is not the job title they held, but rather their ability to tailor their career to fit their unique skills and interests. As an example of the dedication of such mentors, I still remember once telling him I was not sure what type of internships could be a good fit for me. In under 48 hours, I received an email with a list of some 20 companies with a paragraph containing remarkably well thought out reasons why the company / position could be right for me.

As an alum, I understood the drive to become a mentor for Stanford undergrads. For me, the desire to be a resource for students is fueled by a couple of things. In my experience, learning to negotiate the maze and tailor your career and life can be daunting, but extremely rewarding. Thus, I both want to share what I discovered so far, and I also believe that the task becomes easier when one can look at a diverse database of journeys and perspectives.

Whereas mentoring relies on a feeling of community, student facilitated learning usually relies on good alignment of incentives. In some cases, it could be a modest salary, or the chance to enrich one’s resume; but in the best scenarios, the students who instruct receive equal instruction out of the experience.

The best example I came across is the computer science introductory series. In these classes, students who never wrote code are taught the basics of programming. Staying truthful to its bubble, Stanford has proprietary libraries that enable students to code relatively complex programs with limited experience; moreover, the classes feature an army of teaching assistant who are responsible for debugging each piece of code (there are usually on the order of 1000 students enrolled across the three versions of this class). I remember expressing my dismay to a friend who was an assistant for this class for four consecutive quarters, but she was quite happy with the arrangement, pointing out that for someone who aims to become a professional software engineer, learning to efficiently debug code wrote by someone else is an invaluable skill.

 “So excited!”

As I hinted at earlier, I felt a mild obsession with being excited on campus, to which I had a hard time adapting. Besides not being a particularly exuberant person, I always found it difficult to discern actual extraordinary interest from a cultural tic.

On the one hand, every conversation I had or overheard, no matter the topic – be it the news of a new career move, failure in a class, romantic relationships, athletic life, etc. – inevitably reached the point of “it’s so exciting!”. In my opinion, this expression can mean a myriad of things when uttered by Stanford students: from the intended meaning of the phrase, to a quick apology for complaining too much (in this scenario it morphs into a not-so-convincing “but yeah, it’s exciting”), to something I often interpreted as a self-motivational attempt, or to downright nothing at all – I believe every single talk I attended started with “we are so excited to …”.

Although a harsh critic on, what is in my opinion, an unrealistic portrayal of enthusiasm, I did relate to this more superficial feeling of excitement in one way. I always likened being on campus with a summer holiday trip in which I don’t mind sleeping just four hours a day for a week, try to fit in as many cool events to take advantage of the time I have there, meet new people every day, and have a very strong feeling that this place is mine for limited time.

On the other hand, the interests of people are remarkably versatile and intense, and the most evident benefit of this fact is the abundance of events and resources on campus. The quantity itself is not what is truly impressive to me – you could probably achieve this simply by setting the right incentives rather than relying on the personal motivation of the organizers. The events, however, are ever-changing and ever-in-tune with current events. Professors constantly do research and give out surveys to retire / change old classes or introduce new ones: for a short time, for example, Stanford had a class on the 2048 game. Student groups bring in companies that are most influential in their field of interest. Students establish new groups and events they dream of attending – the Stanford Viennese Ball for instance, was founded in 1978 by students who returned from a quarter abroad program in Austria, and it has been one of the most vibrant events of the Stanford community, bringing together affiliates of all ages.

FOMO

Stanford is a huge fan of funky abbreviations for the things that most people encounter on campus. So is the case with the proprietary MemChu – Stanford’s memorial church – or FoHo – the underground news publication on campus, named The Fountain Hopper after the Stanford tradition of jumping in fountains; and so it is the case with the globally established FOMO, or fear of missing out.

Between the thousands of amazing opportunities, the pressure of choosing everything for themselves, and all the excitement, students often find themselves experiencing a constant fear that the one event they missed is going to bring down their undergraduate career. The fast pace of the campus is driven by the hunger of its members, and since Silicon Valley evolved around Stanford, it mirrors this perfectly.

I am an avid rock climber, and going to the Bay Area and San Francisco locations of my climbing gym, I always notice the difference in pace between the two regions. At the gym in Silicon Valley, people are relentlessly trying to send as many problems of the highest grade, they are always on their feet, trying to get in front of all the others waiting to get on the wall. In San Francisco on the other hand, people climb problems that they find enjoyable independent of their grade, and take long breaks in between climbs, relaxing with their friends.

To me, a healthy dose of FOMO can help you develop the habit of an active life style, the skills needed to effectively search and process information, and expose you to ideas outside your immediate fields of interest. At the same time, too much can leave you sleep deprived, depressed or unable to dedicate enough time to more meaningful work.

One of the more ironic consequences of FOMO is that I would spend some meetings, classes, or events frantically searching my email for future opportunities, instead of engaging with the activity that was going on at the time.

In lieu of a conclusion…

… I will leave you with a poem I found scribbled on a piece of paper and hung on the walls of CoHo, Stanford’s coffee house (the author did not sign this, so I’m afraid it’s impossible to give full credit).

Reflection on Going Places and Leaving Places

the halls lie silent as I collect myself
and the pieces of sleep I didn’t get
a small suitcase, overpacked a bit
I don’t know when I’ll be back
hints of nausea tease at my empty stomach
a gastric mixture of excitement and melancholy
I’m ready a little too soon
so I roam
searching for someone to bid my farewells
let the world know that I’m here
let them know that I’m not here for long
empty couches, rooms, halls,
sleeping friends, oblivious
trees speed past
mosaics of life
broken up by the hairline cracks in
the taxi window
life
split up by all these cracks
head angled up to keep the tears from flooding over
the hurricane walls, I don’t think we built them
tall enough
terrains, split by humans, it’s amazing how we manipulate
the land, amazing how we manipulate each other,
manipulate ourselves into believing we have to do this
alone
honestly never really alone, carrying these fragmental pieces of
our realities, placed haphazardly in our little suitcases,
overpacked a bit, still small enough to be a carry on
with us always.

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