To Stanford, with love

A graduation treatise on love at Stanford University.

Actual footage of me creeping on people in the Engineering Quad at Stanford University, California.

I thought a lot about what I’d like to write about, now we’re at the end (yes, of course I’m writing another unsolicited treatise.) So I decided I would say something about the most important thing in the entire world, which has nothing to do with academics and achievements, but has to do with love.

(TL;DR: I wrote a lot of love letters, and I think you should too.)

When I began Stanford as a freshman, four years ago, one of my older friends told me to prepare myself: everyone at Stanford was either in a really serious relationship with someone they might marry, or they were just “hooking up”. (Hooking up, I discovered, was a rather ambiguous term, referring to a surprisingly large assortment of activities, but generally rested on a lack of feelings and/or commitment between two people.)

I think this observation has mostly born out to be true. And what it has meant in practice, I think, is that love has become synonymous with commitment and expectations, rather than care; it’s something you give to the person you just might marry, and that’s it.

There is such a sense of fear around giving and getting love from people we are definitely not going to marry. In a world where the commodity of the day is speed and disposability, love is too permanent, too heavy, too laden with expectations and commitments to be valuable. We cultivate this sense that love is a burden, that we must apologize for the real weight that it places on the other person’s shoulders. So the language of how we communicate love and care has become stunted and reductive and unpracticed.

To my mind, “hook-up culture” has not invaded our actions so much as our language. Despite the fact that we might spend repeated days and nights with someone, we routinely reject the implication that we might care about them in traditional terms. (I don’t like them, we we just “hooking up.”) Thus the inevitable popularity of the term “bae.”

Bae can mean best friend, or boyfriend, or anything in between; it can mean someone we love, or someone who loves us; someone we are hooking up with, someone we wish we were hooking up with; someone we are dating, or sort of dating, or are planning to one day date. But it is comfortable precisely because of its vagueness, because it communicates some level of love and feeling, but it is also ironic. We all ridicule the absurdity of the word “bae” as disgusting, and gross, and oh so millennial — but we use it because, if pressed, we can say it’s a joke. Do you love me? It’s a joke.

So love becomes something we try to avoid, something we do despite our best intentions, a reason for rejection rather than relationships. We work hard to prevent our relationships from becoming messy, to avoid conflict and appear cool at all times. We were hooking up, but then I started getting feelings — so I ended it. Why give love when you know that it will cause the other person distress, an anxiety attack of assumed expectations, and a reason to permanently terminate the relationship?

Which is not, to my mind, at all what love is about.

During my brief twenty-one years on this planet, I have written seven love letters. (Two were sent via the actual United States Postal Service, stamped envelopes and all; one via a reluctant friend-courier; three via Facebook messenger, and one more via email.) They were generally not very well received—but all very eloquent, I can assure you.

But giving love is not about what you can get from another person. It is not about whether they will date you, or hook up with you, or even love you back.

Love is about giving to someone, without asking for anything in return, the knowledge that you love them, and you care about them; that you find several of their peculiar characteristics quite endearing, despite yourself; that on Tuesday they made you laugh, and on Friday you saw something you thought might make them laugh; that you worry about them, that they are valuable, that it would make you happy if they were happy, and — at the very least — you would be rather displeased if they were to fall off a bridge and never be seen or heard from again.

Loving people is a gift. And sometimes, years later, you’ll even get a call from someone who says I still keep your letter in a file in my drawer because it reminds me that, once upon a time, you loved me, and you cared for me, and isn’t that the most beautiful thing humans can do for one another?

I’m not quite sure what my generation is going to be like, in love. But I hope, amidst these good-byes, you find the time to pick up a pen and paper and write down all the things you’ve left unsaid (or repeat what might have been said) to people these past four years. It may surprise you, as it did me, that those words may include the three most beautiful in the English language:

I love you.




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Alina Utrata

Alina Utrata

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