Widgets Magazine


I’m, Like, Totally Profound: I’m dropping out of Stanford.

I’m leaving for Marine Corps Boot Camp on March 20th, sans college degree.

Originally I wanted to write deeply and personally about that decision for this last column, and include my joke about how I always used to tell people that I’d drop out of Stanford after two years and go make a million dollars, and hey, it’s coming halfway true, ha ha.

But now I’m thinking that since there’s a chance that this dropping out is a huge, horrible mistake, and/or that I’ll fail out of boot camp, and since coming back to Stanford with my tail between my legs would feel bad enough without having left after some big, noble “road less traveled by” kind of speech.

I actually don’t want to write about that…

Although, I would like to mention that one of the most valuable and least-known things about Stanford is its policy on Leaves of Absence. Long story short, Stanford makes them mind-blowingly easy to do. I offer this as evidence that our school really does give a darn about us as human beings. Against all traditional business sense, Stanford lets its students take time off to figure out who they are, and welcomes them back whenever they’re ready. I mean, a few weeks ago I was having a beer in the GCC with a woman who was originally in Dean Julie’s Class of 1989 and is just now finishing her B.A.

Don’t think you’re ready to stop being an undergrad? Don’t think you’re ready to start being an undergrad? Guess what! Your life doesn’t have rules! You really don’t have to go straight from high school to college and graduate in four years and then go right into a job! It was all just a dream!

You wouldn’t believe how often, when I mention to Stanford grads the concept of time off, they say, “Oh, man, I wish I’d done that!”

You might as well have your mid-life crisis now, while your knees are still good and your parents are still around, instead of convincing yourself to do the “responsible” and predictable thing and work until you’re fifty-five only to suddenly quit your job, sell your house, divorce your spouse, and buy a red convertible.

Or so I figure. But I digress…

What I really want to write about is the Westboro Baptist Church.

I have a theory about them. Remember when they came to Stanford and the whole campus turned out with bagpipes and costumes and ironic signs in unity against them? Everywhere the WBC goes, people come together to stand up for everything the WBC stands against — gay marriage, fallen soldiers, love and tolerance, and so on.

Get this: what if the WBC actually supported those things all along?

It would be brilliant, really, and so simple: make such obscene and hateful statements against Thing X that everyone else feels compelled to defend Thing X. Using only a tiny handful of brave and self-sacrificing people, you could polarize an entire nation into siding with your hidden agenda.

Think about it: if tomorrow the Westboro Baptist Church started holding signs that said “GOD HATES JAMBA JUICE,” how many people would go out and get a Mango-a-go-go in counter-protest? Sales would probably skyrocket.

Almost as easily as I can picture Fred Phelps being a hateful, ignorant bigot, I can also picture him going home after a protest and saying to his gay boyfriend, “I can’t believe people actually take our ‘God hates fags’ crap seriously!” He’s arguably made bigger strides in getting people to support issues like gay rights than many of those who protest against his church.

Along this same line of thinking, I have a solution to all the wars and famines and human rights abuses going on today. I think the governments of the world should get together to secretly create a fake arch-nemesis for all humanity; something inhuman and preferably located off the planet — hostile aliens on Mars, maybe — so that people don’t individually go trying to hunt it down.

Nothing brings people together like a common enemy; common joys are unfortunately not nearly as effective. If every human could somehow be convinced of some concrete, massive, yet not-insurmountable threat to the planet, think how hard we’d work to get along and protect each other. Just look at how well it worked in those pinnacles of filmmaking “Independence Day” and “Armageddon.”

Okay, sure, it could all go south in 1984-esque fashion. But it’s a fun idea.

So that’s my parting shot. Anyway, Stanford, you’re great. You have brains and beauty. But I did you the discourtesy of expecting you to be the solution to all my problems, and you’re not. I can’t change who you are, though; I can only work on figuring out who I am.

See you in four years, maybe?


Robin won’t be able to access his e-mail for several months after March 20th. So if you’re going to say something to him, say it now via robthom@stanford.edu.

  • Senior

    Good luck! As someone who’s planning on the high school – degree – job track right now, I applaud your courage to try something different.

  • True about WBC

    I’ve more recently become thankful of WBC. To maintain a sense of composure (and not apoplectic anger) every time I saw/read about them, I convinced myself they were a world-class satirical comedy troupe. But after a while, I realized something: that by making homophobia their message, and then delivering that message so offensively, they’re helping out the LGBT cause! Success! Everyone knows they’re batshit insane, so hearing them rail against homosexuals makes people kind of think, “uhh, it’s the crazies that believe that? oh, my…” (any sane person would feel guilty for agreeing with any single idea from WBC). People’s hatred of the group means hatred for their message. And since their message is hate, people hate the hate. Success again!

    Also, your point about this (and your example of Jamba Juice) is timely. I recently read an article from GSB about negative publicity being good for the product itself. So if this product is homosexuality, and this principle actually works here, I hope the WBC keeps on giving it overtly negative publicity–it’s only helping out.

    Seriously, Harvey Milk or Fred Phelps? They’re both going down in the annals of LGBT rights history!

  • Oohrah

    I dropped out of Stanford to join the Marine Corps too! I recommend it for everyone!

  • Rose

    Robin, I’d like to know what are the reasons you have decided to join the Marine Corps? And also, why at this time, one quarter away from graduating? I’m just interested in you as a person. You seem like a sound fellow. If you’re comfortable with sharing this information, would you comment back with more explanation on your choice? I wish you luck. With admiration, Rose.

  • Rose

    And to add to that, I want to take a leave of absence too but I haven’t made it official yet because I’m just scared. So it’s nice to hear about others’ off the beaten path stories.

  • daniel kim

    No don’t do it!

    You MUST get that degree, even if you have to take a correspondence course through online programs like the University of Texas at Austin. Bachelor’s degree holders had half the unemployment rate of high school degree holders in the recession. Having the degree will immeasurably change the trajectory of your life and will improve all markers of socio-economic status, from earning power, to life expectancy, mental well-being, personal confidence…. If you get that degree, chances are your future children will also pursue college.

    There are ways to finance your education, from student loans to work-study; Stanford has actually the best financial aid package in the country, you will not find a more opportune place to get help. Dropping out due to financial considerations is unthinkable!

  • Re: Daniel Kim

    He knows, and as he stated in the article he can return to Stanford at anytime and they will still give him financial aid. There’s no reason he can’t take time off as a Stanford undergrad.

  • Senior ’11

    Good luck Robin! I hope that you end up well, and I enjoyed reading your unconventional Stanford story.

    As a former hs student who believed that she knew everything about life in general and her career plan, I came to a rude awakening while attending Stanford. As of right now, I’m unsure as to what I’m going to do after June. While many of my peers are concentrating on moving onto grad/med/business school, I’m searching CL for a job, pretty certain that my BA is it for me. I don’t feel as if I represent your typical Stanford student, but I do love Stanford and all of the opportunities I’ve received here.

  • Robin Thomas

    I’m really gratified that people are interested! 🙂 I just wrote a big ol’ paper for Creative Nonfiction on this. Here’s the (not really) short version:

    I did a gap year before my freshman year at Stanford, working for an Americorps youth empowerment organization called City Year. It was an immensely challenging year that taught me a lot; hard as it was, looking back I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

    But working for the Americorps spoiled me, in a way. When I finally rolled into Stanford I was used to being out in the Real World with my sleeves rolled up, actually doing things. Sitting in lecture six hours a day felt really, really uncomfortable, and I got all antsy.

    This was especially rough because I came to Stanford with all these big expectations of it being a community where I’d finally fit in. Senior year of high school, the two things that convinced me to apply to Stanford were the Band and Fleet Street. I thought, “Wow, there’s a place where people can be smart and nerdy but also really confident and crazy and fun!” And yeah, turns out Stanford students are a lot like everyone else in that they have a long way to go when it comes to confidence, and the only one who can create community for me is me.

    On top of all that, I’d hoped to be learning all kinds of things at Stanford. Turns out the vast, vast majority of classes here are all strictly theoretical. I wanted actual skills, but Stanford doesn’t really do skills. So instead I found myself doing what I did all through high school: just writing papers and taking tests in order to get good grades without really learning anything.

    So I ran into a really tough Sophomore Slump. Reeeally tough. I wasn’t learning anything, didn’t have any kind of direction, and felt incredibly, oppressively lonely. I started thinking pretty seriously about taking time off from Stanford, but yeah, Rose, like you, I was scared. Yes, it seemed like I could be happier somewhere else, but it’s ***STANFORD***! And like so many others, I felt guilty and like an ungrateful prick for not having the Best Time Of My Life here.

    Stanford is an incredible place, but I don’t think I’m mature enough yet to really be able to make the most of the opportunities here. All the older undergrads, who have taken time off or have transferred, seem so much more motivated and as though they’re learning so much more. 99% of alumni with whom I speak say, “If only I’d known [blank] in college…!” I don’t want to sell Stanford short by spending a mediocre four years here, spending so many nights staying up till 3am on the Internet, just to put off ten minutes of homework. I spent last Spring in Cape Town and seeing the absurd poverty there helped me appreciate Stanford more, yeah, but not enough. I need to get out of academia for a bit to be able to appreciate it more, and maybe have a couple fewer regrets later in life.

    I did Navy ROTC my freshman year, which was a really educational experience, through which I got to meet a lot of Marines. I’m taking time off to learn about myself, and I think the best way for me to do that is to go through some real physical and mental challenges, and the best way to do THAT seems to be offered by the Marines. There’s a bit more to it than that, but that’s my thing with the Marines in a nutshell.

    And Rose, I’m only a Junior. That’s the nice thing about this deal: if I still want to, after four years in the military, I’ll be able to come back to Stanford with a truckload more perspective, and essentially start all over again this time knowing what to expect and how the system works.

    Gah. So there’s that big ramble. 🙂

  • Next

    “If every human could somehow be convinced of some concrete, massive, yet not-insurmountable threat to the planet, think how hard we’d work to get along and protect each other.”

    Uh, the government already tried that. It’s called “Report from Iron Mountain” (1967). More recent manifestations are global warming and Osama.