“He’s right where he belongs,” the prosecutor said when asked about my thirty-year cannabis sentence.
These words haunted me as I sat in prison, serving multiple decades for selling a product that is now legal in many states across the country. I had to learn how to survive in a world where asking a prison-guard a question, because I could not hear what he had said, resulted in getting my head bashed into a wall and having my body dragged down a hall towards segregation, where I would sit for two weeks.
I lived in a world in which I was constantly reminded that I was not a person with a name, but an inmate with a number. I was constantly told that I didn’t belong anywhere but the lower echelons of society.
But now here I am at Stanford, basking in the gift that is this place. I get to be a part of an institution where I am not only allowed to question their authority, but am encouraged to do so respectfully.
During New Student Orientation, I remember listening to Dean Shaw unequivocally confirm, “We don’t make mistakes,” emphasizing everyone in attendance deserved to be here. When Dean Shaw personally told me, Jason, you belong here, it was one of the best moments in my life.
Then last week I read the Stanford Daily’s article “Stanford, stop telling us we belong here” by Malavika Kannan. Kannan’s premise relies heavily on the appearance of Ben Shapiro on our campus and the administration’s email encouraging students’ not to take down the fliers for the event. I have no defense or criticism of Shapiro, but as I read the article, filled with its cheeky quips (hey, some were kind of funny), all I read was a misunderstanding of context.
Then came the line that prompted my reply: “And then, Stanford still has the audacity to tell me I belong here.”
As I continued reading her article, I could not help but wonder what she meant when she tells Stanford to quit saying “we belong here?” Does that mean that she believes Stanford should hand out fewer acceptance letters to students like herself? Or is it only after we accept Stanford’s offer, and in my case, their financial aid, that Stanford should be quiet?
We live in a bubble where the struggles that many face in their daily lives are nothing but an intellectual exercise for most of the student body: try explaining the hardship of Ben Shapiro speaking on campus to those in the midwest struggling to pay their rent.
Yes, there are a bunch of upper-class, privileged kids here who do not share the experiences of the majority of society, let alone the struggles of being a minority or from a family that could not even afford Stanford’s application fee. And while I am not a minority, I definitely do not fit the mold of the typical privileged Stanford student.
However, Stanford puts its money where its mouth is when they say they want a diverse campus filled with opinionated, engaged students regardless of their ability to pay. They give out generous financial aid packages and do a large amount of outreach in order to attract the best and brightest applicants, as Kannan undoubtedly is — she would not be here if she wasn’t. When we accepted our admission, we agreed to what Stanford had already realized: we belong here.
However, there are many students I know personally who continue to struggle with imposter and duck syndrome, and they often find solace in the positive affirmations of our rightful acceptance here. When did someone saying a sincere positive affirmation become a bad thing?
I support the protesters of Shapiro’s appearance as much as I supported Shapiro being on campus. Both sides demonstrated what society so badly needs: engagement in our community. And Kannon, whether she has intellectually grasped it or not, has accepted Stanford as her community. If she had not, she would not be so angered by the events within it. More importantly, she has engaged in it, and spoken out against the administration, and has done so without the fear of retaliation.
I am grateful that Stanford allows students to protest their actions free from consequences. They embrace their students being tenacious. And it’s this tenacity that has enrichened our campus with spirited discourse, preventing us from the ills of overbearing mind-guards. But with tenacity should come thoughtfulness.
Society can only benefit from the best ideas when all ideas are allowed to be heard, be it Ben Shapiro’s or Malavika Kannan’s. Both of them add something to this campus by being on it, but only one was good enough to be admitted. Hopefully, as her time here increases, that will give her some context, and she will be okay with Stanford telling people like me that I belong here.