By Kate Tan (15S03U)
Thinking about which university to apply to, or already a J2 beginning your early admission applications? Raffles Press brings you our Please Mind the Platform Gap (Universities Edition), a series of articles dedicated to providing information on Rafflesian alumni’s experiences at their respective universities. Read our previous interview with NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine undergraduate Wilnard Tan here, University of Cambridge undergraduate Samantha Chan here, MIT undergraduate Liu Aofei here, Harvard undergraduate Chew Chia Shao Wei here, and Tufts undergraduate Ashlynna Ng here.
Located on the sunny state of California, Stanford is one of the most prestigious and selective U.S. colleges. Its location boasts beautiful weather and proximity to Silicon Valley, making it especially appealing to hopeful tech entrepreneurs. Hence, it’s not surprising to find out that Stanford’s faculty and alumni include founders of Google, Yahoo!, and Hewlett-Packard, just to name a few. In this article, Press interviews Laura Lee (RJ alumna ’13), a first-year student at Stanford, to find out more about her experiences so far.
Press: What do you intend to major in?
Laura: I’m an undeclared Psychology major. Other important roles I play: I am also my dorm’s self-appointed soup maker, dining hall banana stealer, blatant dining hall milk expiry date checker, and fleshly incarnate reminder that all true Singaporeans should be continuously reporting to the Asian supermarket to refresh stocks of Asian food, or consuming boba (that’s what they call bubble tea here). I am a freshman, and I’ve been here almost 3 months now.
Press: Why did you choose to study at Stanford?
Laura: The fact that my big sister was studying here meant that I had very direct impressions of Stanford, rather than just having a vague idea of it from Google images and what was on the website, (fact: people here ACTUALLY study on the grass, it’s not just some elaborate admissions staging) and it seemed a little closer and more real than the other schools, because I had actual stories to refer to. Also it is a big and incredibly beautiful campus, and I’ve always really liked space and natural beauty because it makes me feel very alive.
Besides that I’m interested in solving problems creatively and kindly, and the innovation-real world slant that Stanford’s alumni are stereotypically associated with was very appealing (that being said, it’s also a fantastic research institution, so if you’re more into academia it’s also a wonderful place for that). Now that I’m actually here, a big reason for being here that I wasn’t previously aware of is having access to really cutting edge people who are at the forefront of academic developments. We have incredible CS professors whose names elude me because I, uh, am not taking CS and might not until I stop caring about my GPA, and incredible psychology professors who are huge names in their field (have you heard of the fixed VS growth mindset theory? Carol Dweck works here!). There is a sense that you’re really in the thick of the action and it is surreal and wonderful.
Press:What is the teaching style, and how does it compare to that in RJ?
Laura: It’s very similar, except you won’t have lecturers roaming the aisles confiscating things. You’re an adult and you’re treated with that kind of respect. You can online shop your way through the entire lecture (at your own peril, though Cyber Monday deals really only do come once). You can apply for jobs, search your next quarter’s courses, or Facebook message your friends while the lecture is going on, if you can multitask. No one’s going to call you out, but if you miss out on something important the lecturer said, that’s your loss.
There’s very little judgment, because there’s a lot of mutual respect among people that you are doing your own thing, and your own thing is what’s best for you. Good classroom behavior feels very self-regulated here though, because I think everyone’s very responsible and everyone wants naturally to be on top of his or her game, though we all have rough days. I like that there’s very little judgment here as result of the respect that people give each other – for instance, if there’s a girl who spends the entire lecture on Facebook without giving an upward glance at the ongoing PowerPoint or lecturer, I’m not going to think ‘oh, what an irresponsible girl wasting her exorbitant tuition fees’, I’m going to think ‘she’s probably having a really hard day. Yeah, life here moves really fast.’ So I would say that the teaching and learning is different here in that there is a lot of trust and respect that people are adults and know what they’re doing. I really like the idea that behavior can be curated by self-regulation rather than Orders From Above.
Besides that it’s quite similar, you can have large lectures where chances are you’ll never ever get to talk to the lecturer (because remember, there is zero confiscated-econs-notes-in-math-lecture interaction), and then you might have smaller sections (8-10 people generally in my experience) where you do need to participate actively (and you should want to), because a part of your end of quarter grade generally includes class participation.
Press: Do you get to meet non-local students in your course? Do people come from very diverse backgrounds?
Laura: Yeah. Most of Stanford is local, that is, US citizens, and maybe 10% of us are international. I meet cool, incredibly smart, incredibly hardworking, incredibly kind, incredibly motivated people on a daily basis, and to give any of them especial credit or attention would be very dangerous because I know they’re probably going to read this and wonder why they weren’t featured as prominently. They’re all very cool, and I’m not just saying that because I need to live amicably with a lot of them for the next year. You can ask me personally if you’d like to know more.
Press: What other extracurricular activities do the university offer, and do you take part in any?
Laura: A thousand different things – clubs pop up from everywhere and there’s no limit to what can be. It’s not like RJ where you have to go through significant paperwork to get an SIG or a CCA up, here if there’s an interest shared by a few people that’s enough for something to happen. There’s a very vibrant acapella scene, a very vibrant consulting/business scene, a very vibrant social activism scene, a very vibrant cultural scene – basically you get the idea: something’s always happening. I’m on the ballroom dance team. My partner described his first experience dancing with me as dragging a refrigerator across the floor. (A light, mostly empty refrigerator, he quickly clarified.) He’s really nice, and really knows his stuff, and I’m slowly getting less bad at it.
Press: What is your accommodation like? Do you live on-campus or off-campus, and what is the experience like?
Laura: I think almost everyone stays on campus, mainly because campus is huge and staying off campus means longer travel durations to school, and also because this entire area is pretty much the silicon valley, and therefore incredibly expensive, and since tuition fees are already extremely unfunny, paying exorbitant rent isn’t really a consideration most of the time. The on-campus experience is very nice, though it takes a while to get used to the idea that when you’re tired of school, you don’t get to physically get out of it – you just go into a tiny space of it that you get to squat on for a year, and close the door, and hate people passionately from the inside.
I don’t participate in parties or noisy social events very much, not because I haven’t got round to it but because I genuinely know that’s not my kind of fun and I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. It’s nice being able to just walk down the hallway and find people at night, and to have random spontaneous outings out for food or to monitor how fast the non-existent, drought-induced crater-that-was-once-a-lake is filling with the recent spat of rainfall.
Press: Does the school have a strong school spirit?
Laura: I think so, though a lot of our school spirit might be based on our rivalry with UC Berkeley (Cal). Every year there’s a penultimate football game between Stanford and Cal, and people take it very seriously. Apparently at Cal, they take random logs and hack them up in public to signal how determined they are to beat Stanford, and at Stanford in White Plaza (which is kind of in central campus, where people pass through all the time – a bit like the parade square) there’s this igloo set up through the duration of the week preceding the Big Game where people actually volunteer to huddle in it and sound the horn every single hour. It’s like Mousehunt on steroids. I don’t understand the people who are motivated to do that at the expense of their sleep, but the point is, yes, we have school spirit.
Ok, I’ve fulfilled my Cal-slamming obligation enough now. I think besides that we really do have a great sense of pride for the campus, for our heritage, and for the kinds of people that walk these hallways, build incredible things, and live very whole lives. We have a lot of school events that no one totally comprehends, like Full Moon on the Quad and Screw your Roommate (Google them and marvel at the extent of our debauchery), but a lot of nice ones too, like roll-outs (if you successfully join a club, the entire club takes it upon themselves to visit you at 4am, startle you out of your sleep by almost ramming down your door, and then make you follow them around campus while they do the same to all the other poor people who got into said club), fountain hopping (which didn’t happen for my class, because of the drought), and snow trips!
Press: In your opinion, is there any particular type of student that would thrive in Stanford?
Laura: Many different types of students, honestly. I don’t know if that’s comforting or not comforting. But going through the other Singaporeans that I know here, there are people who know exactly what they want to do, people who don’t really know what they want to do, people who are academically brilliant, people who are less academically inclined, people who are allergic to fun, people who are pretty involved in the party scene…
I guess some sort of generalization would be people who care enormously and immoderately about something, whether it’s academia and research (Alan), or women and policy (Nicole and Zhiping), entrepreneurship (Qin En), coding programmes that make things happen (Lin Sen, Jeremy), wellness and relationship (myself), chemistry (Pan Chuen), whatever Bryan Cheong’s interested in (Bryan Cheong). I am not yet well acquainted with the more specific interests of the other people in my cohort- Arjun, Anty, Jie Jun, or the many other Singaporean seniors, but these are examples. If you care enormously and immoderately about something for the simple reason that that something fills you up from the inside, you can probably thr- well I don’t know about thriving, because all of us probably feel like we’re nowhere there yet, but you can probably make the most out of a Stanford education.
Press: Any advice for juniors who will be studying at or applying to Stanford in the future?
Laura: If you’re a humanities student bad at math, spend less time worrying about it. I spent literally my entire two years worrying about it, and it wasn’t an issue in the end. If you make it here, you will be instantly hit by an onslaught of imposter syndrome that may last several months, and return to visit you on nights when you have lots of things due and are convinced you can’t do it. I think we’ve all gone through that. But in between episodes of self doubt – from which you’ll be able to construct a more robust, more resilient self-concept – you will feel like your world and your mind are growing and growing, which isn’t always comfortable but is always quite amazing.
I remember Jian Yang, who’s currently a sophomore and the head of the Singaporeans at Stanford association this year, telling me at the sendoff in August that my first quarter would be incredible and I would grow so much, and I always kind of knew he was right, but now that I’m on the other side of that first quarter and it’s actually happened, I find myself tentatively eager for what’s up next. Beneath all the other emotions that I’ve walked through this quarter, I know I am extremely grateful to be a Stanford student, and I hope never to take for granted my status as an undergraduate student here.