Design Summer: The New Approach to Stanford Success

Design Summer: The New Approach to Stanford Success

Straight A student in high school. 2350 on SAT. 5 APs. Was a varsity athlete and star debater. Did community service and wrote for the newspaper. Was on student council and MUN. Such is the portrait of a stereotypical Stanford student. Back then, it made so much sense to do everything and to excel at it. Indeed, doing so paid off: it got us here.

Now, on the farm, has much changed? It’s week 5. We worry about midterms. Problem sets and papers are piling up. Deadlines stare us in the face. We have to juggle finishing research for a professor, locking in leadership positions in student organizations, and applying to internships or full-time jobs. In the back of our minds, we contemplate writing theses or pursuing co-terms. There’s so much to do at Stanford, we rush, and endeavor, to do it all.

Stanford is a rat race. We often embody hamsters on a wheel: running at our own peril without an end in sight. The quarter system only exacerbates this fact. The moment you settle into new classes, a deadline arrives in your inbox. The pace of our quarter system, as well as the inherent intensity and competition of the student body, does not allow room and time for introspection, reflection, or purposefulness. Rather, it encourages conformity and results in many following the paths paved by those before them.

In the words of Bill Deresiewicz, “many kids go sleepwalking off to college with no idea what they’re doing there.” Indeed, when do we stop to think: Why am I studying this? For what reason am I enrolled in these classes? How will I use and apply their teachings at internships and thereafter? We all have surface-level, packaged answers to these questions. How else would we explain to adults and recruiters why we chose our majors? But have we seriously reflected on them? If we ask ourselves what the purpose behind all that we do is, do we know?

David Kelley, Bill Burnett, and Victor Saad, of Stanford’s Design School, are determined to provoke such contemplation. This fall, they launched the inaugural program of Design Summer. David Kelley and Bill Burnett have long been proponents of reimagining and restructuring the undergraduate experience at Stanford. When interviewed on the subject of summer work, Burnett remarked that he and Kelley are unhappy with the average internships people get: “they tend to be low level, not engaged, and not project based.” Furthermore, Burnett and Kelley firmly believe that much can be taught through experience that cannot be taught in the classroom. Design Summer was conceived in such a context: it was founded in a desire to deepen the understanding that undergraduate students gain from summer projects as well as to promote the value of experiential learning.

Saad, the director of the program, enumerated the four tenets of Design Summer: Community Building, Storytelling, Self-Awareness, and Career Navigation. In Design Summer, students will contemplate what they wish to achieve during their junior summer and then identify experiences — be they projects in the form of formal internships or otherwise — that realize such learnings. Furthermore, the program structures the experience in four stages: Self-Discovery — asking ‘what are the problems I want to solve?,’ Preparation — compiling a portfolio, searching for companies, conceiving projects, Act — capturing your learning through blogs and weekly check-ins, and Share Out — packaging what you’ve done over the summer to thoughtfully share with your peers in the fall. The program has admitted approximately 30 members of the Class of 2020 enrolled in ME 115A: Introduction to Human Values in Design.

Sigalit Perelson ‘20 expressed that she was drawn to Design Summer because “it sounded like exactly what I was looking for in a summer… and I didn’t think it existed — a summer composed of multiple projects in multiple locations... that would maximize my learning, exposure, and growth.” Upon reflecting on her application, Paola Martinez ‘20 expressed that “when you get to Stanford, a community of so many high achieving people, it’s easy to get carried away and want to go for THE internship, get into THE program, take THE class. So I applied because I feel like it would be a good opportunity to ground me and make me reflect on what it is that I truly want to get out of my educational experience.” Finally, Will Johnson ‘20 laid out his blueprint: “I plan on having a full-time internship, but I think there’s a lot of room for personal growth in the summer beyond just the standard internship. Design Summer will help me maximize (that). The projects I have in mind... include writing a 3 song album, making a short documentary, building a bicycle..., (and) drafting a proposal to redesign the college experience… If nothing else, Design Summer will give me the kick in the ass do some projects that really matter to me and that I’m really proud of. It would be awesome to leave this summer with something to show for it — other than a company name on my resume.”

Burnett and Saad view the 2019 cohort as a pilot and a template for reimagining summer experiences across Stanford. They believe the aim of Design Summer — to help students articulate a purpose and meaning around which to shape their summer experience — would benefit undergraduates across the university. We could, therefore, soon see something of the form of Design Summer offered to Stanford students in all majors.

When asked whether Design Summer’s intertwinement of the PD major with the act of finding internships implied that the purpose of education is vocation, Burnett and Saad drew interesting distinctions. Saad expressed that “a lot of students are going to need to better understand how to apply what they're learning towards problems in society, but that isn't the purpose of learning.” Burnett furthered that “The world of work is where we express ourselves.” The program doesn’t dictate what sort of design the designers do. Rather, it seeks to alter the way jobs are approached: “I want to make sure you know how to get there and when you get there, how you can be effective. It's not about vocational training, it's about finding meaning in your work, which is not a given. Jobs are not organized around meaning, they’re just organized around tasks. You've got to show up and make it meaningful.”

Design Summer guides participants to tailor their studies, work, and lives around their desires, needs, and passions. Such a program thus requires students to first determine what those desires, needs, and passions in fact are. Rather than doing something simply because others on the Farm do it, the program compels students to thoughtfully identify what they, independently, wish to pursue.

Such contemplation goes against the grain of recruiting season’s plethoric ‘why-not’ resume drops and back-to-back ‘what do I have to lose’ interviews. It challenges the act of applying to generalist positions instead of pursuing interests and passions without a clear job title. The core of Design Summer’s mandate is to be active, not reactive: to identify what meaning and purpose drive you and to shape your projects around them. It tells students, don’t just choose experiences that present themselves to you on “a shelf,” instead, invent ones based on your own intrigue. Burnett and Saad are onto something key. This problem of passivity, of pursuing an experience and retroactively assigning it meaning, permeates not only job hunting but also undergraduate Stanford life at large.

Given the unprecedented nature of Design Summer, its success is uncertain. Nevertheless, its principles are laudable and the issue it seeks to address is pertinent. In contemplating their summer aims, Design Summer students will act with intention, reserve room for introspection, and, hopefully, escape the overwhelming pressure to ‘do it all’. They will break from the busy bee Stanford student caricature I portrayed prior and establish a model for others to do the same. Just as Burnett and Saad will lead 30 Product Design students to design their summers around a purpose, we must each design our Stanford around a meaning. Otherwise, our time here will have been in vain. Beyond studying our disciplines, Stanford should encourage us to study ourselves.

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