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Leaving Stanford

Leaving Stanford
Published on Mar 7, 2024.

None of this was what I expected. Looking back, it seems naive to say it, but the truth is that I believed truly that I would find a group of peers at Stanford, who cared as much about the search for the truth, and the duty of the talented to make the world a better place for everyone.

I have to admit that like everyone else who ended up there, I had a deep-seated belief that I was special. I bought what they had been telling me for years – that I was gifted. But I did not think of the gift as a blessing. It wasn’t my ticket to go enjoy the spoils of the world. Because I couldn’t help ask the question – why me?

If there was such a thing as a gift, and I had it, as I believed back then, I felt it had to be for a reason. I didn’t believe in a sort of divinity yet – I was still too much a science geek back then - but I did believe in Spider-Man. “With great power comes great responsibility.” That just seemed self-evident to me. If the gift was a great power, then people who had it – people like me, and my peers at Stanford – had a great responsibility to learn to wield it for the greater good. In my imagination, we were the champions of humanity, scaling walls and barreling into problems that stood in our way.

Imagine that’s the story you’ve been told about this elite group of warriors. But when you go to join them, you find out that what they’re really doing is pillaging the easy marks, taking hold of important passes and charging tax, and generally using their powers to enrich themselves at the cost of everyone else. Would that make you disappointed? Would that make you sad? Would it make you mad?

It made me furious. I watched what was going on around me, and I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed by the juvenile summer-camp atmosphere. I was embarrassed by the desperate socialization. I was embarrassed by how easily all these people, who said all these amazing things about themselves and how unique they were, gave up any presence of personality, and conformed themselves to whatever new ideals this in-group they had just joined had. Without question, without reflection, without critique. They became mouthpieces and puppets of a culture that just a few months ago, they didn’t know existed.

I didn’t fit in. I self-consciously stood apart, uncomfortable at the juvenile milieu around me, strongly judging those who joined its ranks. As more and more people did, I was left alone, with no friends, few allies, and a growing sense of alienation.

I fell deep into depression, my freshman year at Stanford. I’d never been a social butterfly, I’d always only had a handful of friends, but I’d always imagined that I was part of a larger tribe, scattered around the world, each working on their own little corner of a puzzle we were trying to solve. I thought we would meet up finally in college, but I was clearly wrong about that. Maybe I was part of nothing. Maybe I had nobody. Maybe they were right to fit themselves to the group. At least they had friends, and people to eat with, people to spend time with. I was all alone.

By January, I stopped going to class. I’d stay up all night reading books or browsing the Internet, and sleep doing the day, to avoid really having to see anyone, I think. In the depths of it, I went a whole week where I didn’t see the sun. I’d roam the hallways of the deserted dorm, playing pool by myself, like a ghost come while people are asleep.

It was at the end of that week that I decided I had to leave. I couldn’t make it 4 years like this, surrounded by people I had hoped to be like me but who were not. I couldn’t spend 4 years hating the place I was at, and the people I was there with. It was taxing to be so lonely all the time.

So I decided to transfer out. I applied to the school with the most academically rigorous reputation I could find – the University of Chicago. Its unofficial motto was “the place where fun goes to die.” It sounded like paradise to me.

There were personal reasons too. I’d stayed in a long-distance relationship with my high school girlfriend, who was at UChicago. At Stanford, the further I fell into loneliness and depression, the more dependent on her I became. It would be good to be around her, my only friend, in a place that aligned more with my view of the way things should be.

I got into Chicago, and then the whole summer I agonized over the decision. I didn’t know what I would find there. I worried the world was littered by Stanfords – institutions that maintained an appearance of one thing, while harboring a starkly different reality. Chicago seemed to check more of my boxes, but I wondered if I was just jumping from the pot to the kettle.

In the end, I decided to go. Part of me had to find out. A bigger part just wanted to be happy again. As soon as I got there, I knew I would be. The whole place had a whole different feel than Stanford. The Gothic architecture and gloomy Chicago weather had none of the bubbly, sunny California optimism that I had come to despise. There was an air of downtroddeness among the students, like they were fighting a battle all the time, a war against their books and difficult workloads.

I liked it. I thought I had found what I had gone to Stanford looking for. And for the first few months, I thought it was perfect. There was no one there pretending that it all came easy. There was no one pretending they didn’t have to work. There wasn’t a palpable disdain of intellectuality – if anything there was a celebration of it. Where everyone at Stanford wanted to be Fred Savage and Chelsea Clinton, everyone at Chicago measured themselves against Milton Friedman. This was a place that believed - like I did – that smarts could save the world, if only we were dedicated enough to the cause.

But the appeal of UChicago had an unfortunate truth. The school modeled itself on the strictures of academia, the very thing I’d come to love from the movies I watched. But that ended up not being its blessing but its curse.

Part of a series on Stanford and elite universities