When we first arrive at Stanford, we’re encouraged to explore. Everyone from Hennessy on down tells freshmen the same thing: take random classes that interest you, check out new subjects, go for breadth of experience. Some frosh, of course, never have this luxury: engineers and aspiring hard-science majors are pretty much obliged to start slogging through their prerequisites as soon as NSO ends if they want to have any chance of graduating in four years. But even the techiest freshman can afford to take the occasional Shakespeare seminar, and back in 2007, most of my class took that advice right to the bank (my roommate, for example, had enthusiastically embraced about eight majors by the time spring rolled around). It was time- finally!- to study things that were interesting.
Sophomore year came, and although it brought me Bio core, it was still a time of exploration and experimentation for many. But at the end of winter quarter, my suitemates- who were going abroad in the fall- began scrambling to declare their majors. And then it was junior year, and the University had a message for the class of 2011: you’d better have a major now, or else. Exploration time was over. I was quite happy with my Stanford Biology shirt (“Know Thy Cell”), but several of my classmates seemed more inclined to imitate my freshman-year RA, who eventually declared a “fake” English major to avoid dealing with the drawn-out process required by HumBio. Eventually, though, we all declared something. And then it was senior year, and suddenly it was all about jobs and grad school applications, plans for the future and “what are you going to do with that?” We had been ignoring the real world for years, and it was suddenly at our door. People started talking vaguely of law school, of co-terms. Every weekend someone was gone for an interview, and someone else was sitting in their room wishing desperately that they could be gone for an interview too.
Now, I must admit, this is not and was never my personal narrative. I’ve been pre-med since the beginning of sophomore year, and a bio major (at least in spirit) since seventh grade. There was never much space for me to explore, or much doubt about where I would (hopefully) end up after graduation. But I’ve seen it play out all around me, over and over again. One day, you’re a freshmen eagerly taking Dean Julie’s advice to explore everything; the next, you’re holding your diploma with no idea where your next paycheck- perhaps your first paycheck- is coming from.
Exploration and discovery are incredibly important. Not everyone comes to college with a major in mind, and academic breadth is an incredible thing. But all good things must end, and exploration must eventually give way to focus, breadth to depth, the innocent discovery of freshman fall to the goal-driven focus of senior spring. The University tries to make us understand, most obviously with its intense prodding about major declarations. But I have a feeling that many of us were surprised to see it coming, and a bit more realism on Stanford’s part during the early years might be useful. “Explore,” they should say, “go out and discover what you’re passionate about. But remember that you will eventually have to make a choice, remember that commitment and focus are virtues, and remember most of all that you are going to have to leave here someday.”
Stanford’s advising system gets a lot of grief, and rightly so. I’d like to add one more complaint: the University doesn’t seem to put much effort into helping us figure out how our academic passions and interests can be transformed into practical choices and plans. The CDC is great, but we rarely hear from them, and by the time we do, it’s usually senior year and too late. The University prides itself on producing “useful citizens,” and it could be doing much more to further that goal. I see too many people who spend senior year either directionless or panicking, and neither option seems particularly fun or healthy.
Of course, I’m aware of the value of spontaneity, aware that not every path goes straight from college to a steady career. I know about the startups and dropouts, the years abroad and the temporary jobs followed by epiphanies. But I also know that we increasingly face a hostile world when it comes to making a steady paycheck, and that many of us can’t afford to continue finding ourselves post-graduation. I’m not secretly promoting techies over fuzzies: it’s very possible to study the humanities to your heart’s content and still have a solid idea of what you’d like to be doing when this four-year dream ends, and it’s equally possible to study theoretical physics and have no clue where you’re going next. I’m not just a shill for pre-professional fields: it’s quite valid to have a plan about how you’re going to create the next great startup or NGO. All I ask, all I hope, is that Stanford students devote a little time to thinking about what they’d like to do with their lives, that they spend some hours coming up with a plan (preferably before senior year), and that the University encourage them in that endeavor.
So Class of 2014, if this grizzled old senior might presume to offer you some unsolicited advice: go ahead and take that seminar, change your major, explore to your hearts’ content. But remember that someday- sooner than you think- you’ll be heading out of here, bound for the real world (or at least for grad school). And please, plan accordingly.