Widgets Magazine


Marks My Words: The S-Word – Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I described my annoyance with the Stanford response — when people hear that you’re from Stanford, they are sometimes quick to peg you as one of those elitist brats. Oh, you go to Stanford? Well you’re probably really smart, rich and obnoxious. Once they decide this, the person in question may either stop talking to you or make fun of you.

But there is, of course, an opposite dimension, the other reaction. Flying home last Thanksgiving, I overheard a conversation two rows ahead of where I sat perusing the gadgets in the Sky Mall magazine. An elderly woman struck up a conversation with the young woman sitting next to her.

“So are you flying home for the holiday? Oh that’s nice. Are you flying from college? Lovely! Where do you go to college?”

I could not make out the responses, only the questions. So I didn’t actually hear the girl say “Stanford.” What I heard instead was “OH WOW, STANFORD?! HOW WONDERFUL!” I could imagine the girl squirming in her seat as the exclamation lured inquiring glances from those sitting around her. I double-checked to make sure I wasn’t wearing any Stanford paraphernalia and, clad in unmarked clothes, relaxed.

“What an incredible place to be in college! What a good school! So what do you study?” By this time, the elderly woman had remembered to speak at a lower decibel. I couldn’t hear the rest of the conversation, but I mentally thanked the powers that be that no one had unearthed my identity and shouted it to the rest of the airplane as well.

This is the other response, the all too positive, enthusiastic reaction when we say “Stanford.” And perhaps this is justifiable, for it is an impressive word to drop.

Sometimes it can be fantastic. During winter break of my freshman year at Stanford, I had Christmas dinner with my friend and her extended (very extended) family. My friend attends a technical school that is not Stanford, but her family knew nothing about me when we sat down at the long dining table. As their curiosity turned to the newcomer, I was asked where I went to college. When I said Stanford, I saw two pairs of jaws drop and the rest of the table beaming.

Did that make me feel good? Of course it did! Well, at first. The next thing I realized was that I was receiving a huge benefit of the doubt.

When some people hear that you’re a Stanford student, they tend to assume that you will automatically do great things. If you’re a biology major, you will probably find the cure to cancer. Are you an engineer? You’ll invent a car that can run on garbage. Studying computer science? You’ll find a way for people to teleport through their iPods.

Me? I’m a Public Policy major. The career projections thrown my way are that I will either be President of the United States or maybe Secretary of Defense, if things don’t go well.

What I suspect people don’t always stop and think about is, first of all, that if every graduating senior in either Political Science or Public Policy wanted to run for President of the United States, that alone would mean several hundred contenders from the Stanford University Class of 2011. And that doesn’t happen.

With the word Stanford, people assume that we have lofty goals, huge aspirations and, often, some level of genius that will enable us to enact mind-blowing changes. The reality is that not all of us have the interest, capability or set of fortuitous circumstances that will make it possible for us to fix the U.S. educational system, invent a more efficient fuel cell or win a Nobel Peace Prize.

And some students here already don’t feel completely at home. Lately there have been a number of student campaigns, initiatives, and other efforts to combat feelings of loneliness and not belonging at Stanford. I recall my freshman year, when I found out through a dorm-wide exercise that one-third of my peers in the second-largest freshman dorm on campus did not feel like they deserved to be at Stanford.

As one of these students, how do you feel when you encounter the “OH, Stanford!” response? Yes, Stanford is a wonderful institution in the eyes of many others. But when you feel like you already don’t belong, how does it feel to be confronted by someone else’s assumption that you’re among the imaginary elite of the future?

To lump everyone at Stanford into the category of future famous leaders, inventors and entrepreneurs is, in my opinion, a dangerous generalization to make to any Stanford student. When this is done with a smirk and a grimace, as my friends encountered on our weekend in Vegas, it is blatantly disrespectful. When it is done with an exclamation and a beaming smile, as I overheard on an airplane, it is not an entirely positive response by default. While such a response may bear a genuine feeling of admiration, it also may not be what the Stanford student sitting next to you wants to hear.


Miriam is currently developing a cure for cancer, working on her presidential campaign and designing the iPhone 7G, but she can probably spare some time to check her email at melloram@stanford.edu.

  • Another thing

    While I’m not ashamed to mention Stanford, there is one other downside of telling people that: they will assume that you are amazing and flawless. Therefore, if you make even a tiny mistake, they’ll make the asinine comment, “I THOUGHT YOU GO TO STANFORD?!??” I think this is a phenomenon that we all experience at some time or another. Seriously even my mom says that a lot, and she’s the one who brags to the cashier at the grocery store about where her son goes to college. I’ve even had someone start calling me “Stan” after they found out. Total face-palm.

  • John Casper Branner

    Branner was the “second-largest freshman dorm on campus”?

    I think not.