An Optimist’s Guide to Finding Meaning at Stanford

How to Find Purpose and Direction On Your Way Through

By Ibrahim Bharmal and Alina Utrata

№1 Regardless of your personal background and goals, Stanford is still an undergraduate experience

Although perhaps there are more NY Times articles written about them, undergraduate students at Stanford are still undergraduate students. Most of your classmates will be eighteen or nineteen, and it will show. For most of you, it will be your first time living away from home. You will make stupid mistakes. You will get sad and feel homesick (Alina went home almost every weekend during freshman year! Ibrahim cried every weekend of freshman fall while on the phone with his mom!). You will feel lonely, like you are the only one with no friends, and everyone is doing better than you. It’s OK! You’re growing up. You’re learning. It’s scary — but you’ll be alright.

№2 Stay humble and realize that there are things beyond simply your “accomplishments”.

№3 Stanford students, like many university students, struggle with mental health issues

It is really easy to compare yourself to others at Stanford. There is a culture where students brag about feeling really stressed, or not sleeping, or working too much at the expense of your personal life as a way to validate your worth. Don’t do this! We all have imposter syndrome, and it’s OK. You have value and you belong at Stanford outside of any of your accomplishments. You are not “failing” at Stanford if you aren’t doing everything and working 100% of the time — and one of the biggest things you need to learn is how to set your limits.

№4 So, first, drink this tea (or coffee) and think about systemic injustices that Stanford was founded on

We don’t actually drink that much boba, TBH

№5 Wear these shirts, because they have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on them

№6 Pick your major…or change it sophomore year…or junior year

The best advice I ever got about picking a major was: plan out all the classes you want to take, and then see what major lets you take those classes. YOU HAVE TONS OF TIME! Spend freshman and sophomore year taking all the classes you’re interested in and expanding your horizons — even classes that don’t seem “useful” to you.

  • If you worship…Rachel Maddow (MSNBC journalist): Public Policy
  • If you’re more into . . . Sally Ride (First woman in space, astronaut): English (!!) and Physics
  • If you wish you could be . . . Cory Booker and Julian Castro (US Presidential candidates): Political Science
  • If your political Goddess is . . . Sandra Day O’Connor (first female Supreme Court Justice): Economics
  • If you want to grow up to be . . . Micheal McFaul (US Ambassador to Russia): International Relations and Slavic Languages
  • If you’re in love with …. Reese Witherspoon: English Literature (she dropped out actually! See not only tech bros drop out!)

№7 Then meet (and get lifelong mentors who support and love you as a holistic person) with the faculty and staff

Penelope van Tuyl & Jessie Brunner

The staff of the Handa Center for Human Rights, in addition to being human rights super stars, are the people who have been there when both Ibrahim and Alina were in the midst of a crisis. We rushed into the Center — and they put down whatever they were working on and helped us talk through our problems. Walking into the Handa Center is like taking a deep breath. We joke that students always leave advising sessions saying “I feel so much better now about everything!”

Beth van Schaack

The former deputy ambassador for Global Justice at the US State Department and one of the most amazingly supportive humans on the planet. Sometimes we are genuinely confused if she is an internationally renowned human rights lawyer who has prosecuted war criminals or if she is a fashion icon, because BVS style is unreal. Also responds to emails with lightning speed despite constantly being involved in 1 million and 1 projects to save the world, because of course. She is one of her students’ biggest and best advocates, and can always find a human rights project you can get involved with. Once she complimented my friend’s shoes and my friend told me she would never take them off again.

Karen Biestman

“Karen Biestman wears many hats at Stanford, but most students will either meet her through one of her Native American Studies courses or at the Native American Cultural Center (NACC). Her classes and programs at NACC are innovative and support intercultural sharing/ learning. Her class on Federal Indian Law is a great way to learn about indigenous sovereignty and can help prep you for the work you will see in some law school classes. She will go out of her way to take care of students and always has an open door. She is everyone’s auntie and the person who really made Stanford a home for me. She introduced me to my first group of friends at the University through the Stanford Native Immersion Program (SNIP), supported my academic research, and always made sure I had access to the resources I needed. Staff at community centers are really the heart of Stanford. They are often amplifying student voices in conversations with the university and providing the advice needed to figure out day-to-day living at Stanford.” -Carson Smith, Political Science and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Class of 2019

Abbas Milani

The head of Stanford’s Iranian Studies program. Take one of his seminars and you will spend two hours in open-mouthed academic awe as the man manages to explains how anything, anything (Iran, modernity, Islamic theology, nuclear reactors) relates back to Shakespeare. One of those academics who, despite being knowledgeable about everything, still listens to new intellectual discoveries with wonder — and has the type of brilliance that makes you feel that you too are brilliant, and have interesting and valuable intellectual passions. Catching sight of him biking around campus is guaranteed to make your day, every day.

Norman Naimark

One of the all-time best history professors, objectively the most hilarious lecturer in the history department, and the person Alina credits with her ability to write coherent essays. Professor Naimark’s students will know he is an absolute stickler about good-writing, but he somehow delivers his feedback so that you are laughing while also realizing that he is 100% correct about your tendency to use passive voice. His introsems are also always on point. He has high standards, but you’ll find you’ll work extra hard in his class because he genuinely cares so much about his students that you just can’t let him down!

Dereca Blackmon

The Associate Dean and Director of the Diversity and First-Gen Office (DGEN), Dereca is probably one of the most insightful, charismatic, and intelligent people amongst Stanford’s far reaching student affairs staff. Speaking to Dereca has the comforting effect of speaking to your mom but the sharp, cutting insight of all things related to race, class, and equity. She’s like Stanford’s very own Toni Morrison (RIP Queen). Dereca is a fantastic person to know for all students, but can particularly be a breath of fresh air to students who identify as First Generation and Low Income (FLI). Stop by the FLI office to meet her and her incredible team.

Sughra Ahmed

Sughra is the Muslim Chaplain and Associate Dean of Religious Life. Despite recently joining Stanford, Sughra has already made enormous strides in celebrating the great diversity of the Stanford community. She places the well-being of students above all and has expertly supported all communities of faith under a US presidency that has ushered in new waves of hate. On a personal note, Sughra helped Ibrahim reconcile what felt like two conflicting worlds. Ibrahim came from a very religious, Muslim background and as a result struggled with his faith coming to Stanford. It wasn’t until meeting Sughra when he truly felt that his Stanford life and religious life could be compatible. He was looking for her words for 3 years and returns to her advice well into post-grad life. Incredibly responsive to her email, too. Check out this fellowship on religious exchange that she and the other Associate Deans oversee.

№8 Maybe they’ll even let you TA, or do an alternative spring break trip with them, or do a directed reading

  • Do you know you can do student initiated courses at Stanford? That sounds really cool.
  • The Haas Center offers super cool “alternative spring break” and “Thanksgiving Back” courses where you get to go on a trip with a faculty member and learn about social issues in the community.
  • Bing Overseas Studies Programs has super amazing abroad programs, and you can even do a summer quarter! Did you know your financial aid transfers over to your time abroad?
  • Sophomore College and Intro Seminars are also a great way to get to know faculty (and the faculty that do choose to do these classes, in our experience, really care about their students and mentorship.)
  • There’s also Bechtel International Center, whose amazing, wonderful staff is the reason Alina got a scholarship at a master’s program she loved.
  • Or, you can always email professors and ask to do a directed reading with them. This is such an awesome way to get to know faculty, AND the chance to read books on niche topics you care about for unit credit. !!!

№9 These classes are practically training you to deal with real world problems

  • Hacking for Diplomacy: It’s literally a class where you get to go and do a project with the State Department. HOW. COOL. !!!
  • EARTHSYS 185: Feeding Nine Billion, literally one of the coolest and most thought-provoking classes Alina has ever taken; really gives you a helpful perspective and grounding in the global food system
  • Take English 90 or 91, two of the most popular creative writing classes at Stanford. They always fill up fast, but they’re honest one of the best classes at Stanford. Ibrahim started his arts thesis in this class and a 20 page final became a 200 page book.
  • History 47 History of South Africa with Jim Campbell is a must
  • ARTHIS 1A/1B with Alexander Nemerov is supposed to be I N C R E D I B L E. (Alina never took it and she is sad.)
  • Anything with Juliana Bidadanure (she has a class on Universal Basic Income!!)

№10 Learn this map to find community centers, support groups, and FRIENDS

By the way, everyone gets lost on campus. We still get lost on campus.
  1. Health Centers: 2a. Stanford Sexual Health Peer Resource Center AKA SHPRC /pronounced “shipwreck. (PSA: You can get up to 30 free condoms a quarter, free and subsidized pregnancy tests, and lots of other helpful goodies at the SHPRC store); 2b. 24 Hour Plan B Vending Machine (it happens.); 2c. The Bridge Peer Counseling Center; 2d. Vaden Health Center and CAPS (fair warning: ladies, even if you just want a band-aid, Vaden will give you a pregnancy test “just in case.” We guess that’s nice?)
  2. Academic Centers: 3a. Haas Center for Public Service; 3b. The Handa Center for Human Rights; 3c. Stanford Humanities Center; 3d. Hume Center for Writing and Speaking (you can sign up to see a tutor who will give you feedback on essays or oral presentations anytime!!! Alina went here often.); 3e. Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (and the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL)
  3. Memorial Church aka MemChu (it’s actually a non-denominational religious center!)
  4. Cantor Arts Center & the Anderson Collection (these museums are FREE! Awesome date idea…. )
  5. Theme Houses: 6a. Muwekhma, Native Theme House; 6b. Ujamaa, Black Theme House; 6c. Okada, Asian American Theme House; 6d. Casa Zapata, Latinx/Chicanx Theme house; 6e. Crothers Global Citizenship Theme dorm

№11 And if you can’t find them, here are some ways to make community and friendships

They are professors, peer advisers, community center staff, peer advisors, and most of all FRIENDS who love and support you. One thing we can unequivocally say about Stanford is that there is no lack of people willing to help. Please do not think you have to brunt the burden of figuring out this place in four years alone. From the academic to the personal, there are people at Stanford who are rooting for you.

№12 Try to land one of these very accessible and flexible summer fellowships (Or just go home! Go work at your old summer high school job. Or do nothing all summer. It’s literally okay.)

№13 And if you want a meaningful and supportive community, don’t sleep on non- tech extracurriculars (or, actually, just sleep, we’re exhausted)

Did you know Stanford has over 650 student groups? And did you know if none of those tickle your fancy you can apply to make your own EVERY QUARTER? Here’s a full list, and here are some that we think are worth looking into. Drop by the activities fair in White Plaza if you want to check them all out:

No 14. Or if this isn’t the right time for you, take time off!

Stanford makes it so easy to take a quarter off — you literally just fill out one form, and you can take the quarter off, no questions asked. You don’t even have to do anything! One of my friends took Winter quarter off just to catch up on sleep. If it’s right for you, do it!

  • The Great British Bake Off (why are they just so nice to each other?!)
  • Vampire Diaries (Alina will not be taking any judgment at this time)
  • Galavant (it’s now on Netflix!!)
  • The United States of Tara
  • Superstore
  • Masterchef
  • Honestly any Tasty video series or video of Kids Trying Weird Foods For the First Time
  • Golden Buzzer videos on America’s / Britain’s Got Talent (Ibrahim watches these regularly for catharsis)

“There’s so much pressure to do Stanford “right.” Different people take that to mean spending time with “influential” professors who don’t value you or your growth, inventing the next big startup, devoting time to a club you don’t care actually care about, or forming transactional relationships to build your “network.” Doing that leaves you with no time to build lifelong friendships with authentic people, to foster a mentor relationships with professors who truly care about your personal growth, to savor the fun times at Stanford, to take some classes that serve no apparent purpose to you other than happiness or intellectual interest, and to give yourself the time to deal with the painful, hard ones. There is no guide to Stanford: try your best to survive and hopefully you thrive.” -Jayaram Ravi, Political Science, Class of 2019

Alina Utrata received her BA in History with a minor in Human Rights at Stanford University in 2017, and MA in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University Belfast in 2018. You can follow her on Twitter @alinautrata.

PhD’ing in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge via Queen's University Belfast via Stanford.

PhD’ing in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge via Queen's University Belfast via Stanford.