Reflection on My Summer at Stanford

Lucy Arnold, Editor in Chief

Last winter, I received word of a Stanford program called the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute (SHI). This is a three-week summer program for high school students, and it takes place on the Stanford campus. Offered courses include “The Age of Jefferson” and “Philosophy and Literature.”

I chose to apply to the philosophy program because I had never taken philosophy before and I was eager to get a taste of the college academic experience. In early spring, I learned that I had been admitted to the program. I also learned that I had received an almost complete scholarship to attend! Excited but completely uncertain of what to expect, I left for California on July 13.

Soon after I arrived and met the other students, I realized that the program would be a highly immersive and transformative experience. My 46 fellow students and I stayed in an upperclassmen dorm in a picturesque collegiate neighborhood. Meals at the dining hall, the campus main quad, the library, the bookstore, and classes at the Humanities Center were all less than a ten minute walk away, so everything that I could possibly need was well within reach.

Although the incredible beauty of the campus and the novelty of dorm life were wonderful elements of SHI, I think that the academic rigor and remarkable variety and diversity of students were the best parts of the program. A number of my classmates were from far away places around the world.

My roommate was from Bulgaria, and attending the program marked her first time in America. She told me lots of amazing stories about life in her country and her travels around Europe, and I loved learning about her culture. Another friend that I made lives in Singapore, where she goes to a French school. Since she is originally from the Boston area, she is bilingual, speaking both French and English as a native speaker would. Students from Turkey, Indonesia, Canada, England, and China were also present, all bringing fascinating depth and perspective to the experience.

The remainder of students were from all over the country. Many of them came from private schools or boarding schools, though I was among the handful of students who normally attend public school. At least one-fifth of the students were from California, but New York, Georgia, Texas, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois, Washington (I was one of two from the Evergreen State), and several other states were also represented.

Within our dorm (which is called Robert Moore South, or “BOB”), we had eight residential counselors to keep us in line. They were also from all over the country (and world!). The head counselor had just concluded her undergraduate years at University of Virginia, and she is now starting her PhD at Columbia University. Five of the other counselors were currently studying at Stanford, while the other two go to Yale and Berkeley, respectively.

Since the counselors all had unique backgrounds or courses of study in the humanities,  they were wonderful resources for us students. At a certain point in each day’s lecture, they broke us into groups and guided us in understanding and questioning the lesson. During free time, they took us on excursions and played games with us. Volleyball matches got particularly intense. One of the counselors was a certified yoga instructor, so she led yoga sessions every morning. It’s definitely safe to say that I left Stanford as a more flexible person.

On weekends, we enjoyed a mix of free time and organized activities. We had Saturdays to ourselves, though trips to the local mall and museum were available. Sundays were reserved for field trips to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Muir Redwood Forest. Also, one Thursday evening, we went to see a play at Cal Shakes, an outdoor Shakespearean theatre.

Fun aside, I think that the academics were my favorite part of the three weeks. Philosophy and Literature has two professors: Professors Lanier Anderson and Joshua Landy. Professor Anderson is the head of the philosophy department, and he is also one of the top Nietzsche scholars in the country (Friedrich Nietzsche is one of many philosophers that we studied). Professor Landy is a French and literature professor who is originally from England, still speaking with a slight accent.

The two professors took turns lecturing each morning. Almost every lecture was illuminating, even perspective-altering. Lectures dealt with whatever we were studying on the syllabus, which included Pride and Prejudice, several poems, films, and readings from the works of prominent philosophers such as Proust, Nietzsche, Walton, Nussbaum, and both professors. I can say with complete certainty that I will never look at art and literature in the same way again because the readings explored their importance and roles in ways that I had never imagined.

Every two-hour lecture period was followed by lunch and a 90 minute discussion period with a graduate teaching assistant. Each discussion group consisted of about 12 students and focused on breaking down the reading and lecture so that everyone could understand them as clearly and deeply as possible. When the third week came, the graduate teachers also helped us to develop original papers that offered fresh theories or perspectives on the course material.

I am very grateful to my graduate guide because she gave me such great advice for my paper and was so helpful throughout the course. My understanding and comprehension were greatly enhanced by her questions and explanations, and she even allowed me to surpass the 10-page limit on paper length so that I could do my topic justice (I ended up writing 15 pages).

After discussion sections, we were required to study for another 90 minutes. Then we had a snack and participated in mandatory activities. Activities included sports at the athletic center, trips to the Contemplation Center (a meditation space), volleyball, yoga, and Capture the Flag. One of the best activities was when Professor Landy taught us to play cricket. He and Professor Anderson both played the game with us for several hours.

This and the fact that both instructors often joined us at lunch show that the professors wanted to do more than merely teach us the material; they wanted to get to know us outside of the classroom. Especially since there were so many students demanding attention, this commitment to interacting with students was highly appreciated. At one point, the two professors even had us sign up to visit them during their office hours, so that we could talk to them about whatever we pleased.

My favorite topic from the program is the idea of self-fashioning, which holds that an individual can use literature and poetry as guides in turning his or her life into one without regrets. This was the last big idea that we studied, but I chose to make it the topic of my paper, and I know that I will apply its lessons to the rest of my life.  

Overall, my experience at Stanford was a humbling one. This is partly due to the genius of my counselors and professors, the diversity on campus, and the lofty course material, but it is especially because the other students were such impressive individuals.

A number of students were proficient or fluent in multiple languages. Others were amazing athletes or involved themselves in numerous of extracurricular activities. One of my friends was even the president of nine school clubs! Many others were amazing musicians; when the dorm master secured a keyboard for the common room, the entire building was filled with beautiful music for hours each evening. The most incredible thing was that every person applied to a mixture of these descriptions. Everyone was remarkably talented, multifaceted, and diverse.

In such an environment, it was often easy to feel insecure about my own qualifications. I realized almost immediately that it is much easier to be a big fish in a small pond than to be a big fish in a large pond brimming with other big fish. So many people had read books that I have never read, taken classes that I have no access to, traveled places I have never been, asked  impossibly sophisticated questions in lecture, experienced things that I cannot even dream of experiencing. These were scary revelations, but they were also liberating.

I quickly understood that I was getting a foretaste of the diversity and incredible talent of a collegiate student body, so I decided to work on being confident in myself. By the end of the program, I was not as intimidated by the brilliance of my classmates as I had been before. Rather than allowing myself to be crippled by self-doubt, I embraced the fact that I was not the smartest or most impressive person at the program.

At the same time, I assured myself that I deserved to be at Stanford as much as everyone else did by reminding myself of my own talents and accomplishments and by keeping in mind that I was not the only one who sometimes felt intimidated or inadequate.

This shift in attitude allowed me to learn from and function among my peers without constantly worrying that they were more competent than I am. After all, when you go to college and transition into the adult life that looms beyond, you will be surrounded by people who seem smarter, more cultured, more talented, more knowledgeable, or more influential than you are.

The first key to coping with this transition is to accept the fact that many people simply will be more accomplished than you are. It is EXTREMELY unlikely that you will be the biggest fish in such a large pond. However, you can make yourself a bigger fish by following the examples of the other big fish.

Explore many different areas and disciplines. Allow yourself to flourish. Soak up knowledge and information like a sponge. Try things that you have never tried. If you do these things, you can find your niche in the world of big fish; you will be confident in yourself and able to admire everyone else without becoming jealous or insecure.

If I had not participated in SHI, I probably would not have learned these lessons until college. My experience was by no means perfect (snobbiness of certain classmates, repetitive meal offerings, and a VERY strict schedule all to be noted), but it was also extremely valuable because it gave me a chance to grow in a very new, rigorous, and competitive environment, and I met some truly fabulous people. I am much more prepared to take on the years after high school, and I will always thank the program for helping me in this regard.

Bottomline: if you find an opportunity that seems like a big reach, don’t give up. Always give yourself a chance. You will surprise yourself by how much you rise to the occasion, and you can count on learning valuable lessons along the way.