An Optimist’s Guide to Finding Meaning at Stanford

How to Find Purpose and Direction On Your Way Through

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

№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

№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

  • If you’re emulating: Susan Rice (Obama National Security Advisor), Stephen Breyer (Supreme Court Justice): History
  • 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

Beth van Schaack

Karen Biestman

Abbas Milani

Norman Naimark

Dereca Blackmon

Sughra Ahmed

№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

  • SPANLANG 108SL/HUMRTS 108: Spanish Immersion and Asylum Law: This is a super awesome class where it’s literally taught entirely in Spanish, and then students spend a week during Spring Break using their Spanish language skills as volunteers with the Dilley Bro Bono Project in Dilley, Texas working directly with detained Spanish-speaking families seeking asylum. Amazing.
  • 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. Community Centers: 1a.The Women’s Community Center; 1b. Black Community Services Center AKA the Black House; 1c. El Centro Chicano y Latino; 1d. Queer Student Resources AKA QSpot; 1e. Muslim Student Resource Center AKA The Markaz; 1f. Asian American Activities Center AKA A3C; 1g. Native American Cultural Center AKA NACC; 1h. Ziff Center for Jewish Life & Hillel House
  2. 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?)
  3. 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)
  4. Memorial Church aka MemChu (it’s actually a non-denominational religious center!)
  5. Cantor Arts Center & the Anderson Collection (these museums are FREE! Awesome date idea…. )
  6. 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

№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)

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

  • Parks and Recreation (in fact, Ibrahim finagled this as “research” and wrote a paper on how Leslie Knope fulfills the Aristolteian model of good governance. Yes it was awesome. Thank you Luci Herman’s PWR Class: The Rhetoric of Public Leadership!)
  • 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



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

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Alina Utrata

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