“A spirit of equality must be maintained within the University,” declared Jane Stanford in 1902. The University, she argued, ought to “resist a tendency to the stratification of society.” These quotations attest to the fact that the Stanfords did not bring the established education model westward when the family founded the school in 1885. Rather, they incorporated the pioneering ideal of equality, absent in the cultures of old-money, Ivy League institutions, into Stanford’s mission.
This founding principle is why it is difficult to tell, by clothing at least, which students are inheriting fortunes and which are the first in their family to attend college. It explains our lack of fancy eating clubs, secret societies, and a Dean’s List — measures that divide students instead of uniting them.
But is our school ethos really that different from our ivy-clad peers? Participating in rush this year has given me second thoughts about Stanford’s claim to an inclusive student culture.
As someone who, in high school, envisioned Stanford as the reward for years of hard work, I never imagined I would have to go through a college admissions-like process less than one year removed from that incredibly stressful event. When I arrived at Stanford, given its West Coast, reportedly non-elitist character, I assumed I would not need to worry about which organizations accepted me or where I was housed. I would be a Stanford student. And that’s what counts.
But eleven months later, I found myself mingling around Wilbur Field one Thursday evening, surrounded by classmates mostly sporting Vineyard Vines shirts, Rainbow flip-flops or Sperry shoes. As an east-coaster, I was surprised. These subtle displays of wealth not only contradicted the supposed inclusiveness of Stanford, but also my lived experience as a freshman for the two previous quarters.
The preppiness and air of inter-student competition I felt during rush was simply not present in the fall. During our first quarter here, together we experienced Bryce Love's 50-yard touchdown sprints, freshman-only intro-sems, and freshman-dorm ‘pre-games’ before all-campuses Friday and Saturday nights. It was an environment that induced engaging conversations with people whom I had met for the first time. In talks with my friends back east, I remember attributing to Stanford’s unique West Coast aura my ability to bond quickly with my peers.
That inclusivity starts to wither away come winter, creating the space for the divisions that define the spring. Remembering we are also here to get jobs and an education, students fight through required classes and 20-unit quarters. A divide emerges among the sizable group tackling the difficult, STEM-oriented pre-reqs and those who are not.
When Spring Quarter finally rolls around, with 70-degree days, lighter workloads, and defined friend groups, both that fall awkwardness and winter pressure wane. But one-day in, literally, the first Monday back from break, there’s a new selection process in place. Right as Stanford begins to feel like home, another set of unsettling admissions begins: rush.
The vision the University presents to freshmen during fall quarter, of universal togetherness and open doors, closes with a bang at the outset of spring. After rush, those in Greek life go through what is akin to a second freshman fall, meeting new people constantly, engaging deeply with a smaller subset of new friends, and living sophomore year with their peers. The original freshman fall was founded on the principle that uniformly shared experiences forge mutual bonds. This time around, though, the revitalized ‘freshman’ experience is limited to a smaller, select group.
Even those who choose not to rush feel the adverse effects. Many of my friends in Greek Life, for example, are too busy pledging for the club meetings we used to attend together. And when there is time to rekindle a fall friendship, conversations that earlier seemed easy become difficult, as the number of interactions and shared experiences between freshman Greek and non-Greek students diminishes each day.
The process is equally divisive for girls. Just head to Tressider on bid day at 3:00 PM to observe the plethora of crying freshmen for yourself. Revealingly, a large group of freshman women, who failed to receive offers from their preferred sororities, have named themselves, “The Independents,” created a large group chat, and plan to draw together in a desperate attempt not to be left out.
I admit that some version of this problem seems inevitable, especially since Stanford only supports seven housed fraternities and fewer sororities. 180 freshman and sophomores attended Sigma Nu’s first open rush event, as one example of the process’ competitiveness, but the organization only had space for fewer than 30 new members. Demand outweighs supply.
Stanford’s Greek scene is much more inclusive than most of the country, as well. At fraternal organizations at USC and Finals Clubs at Harvard, for instance, it is nearly impossible to get into parties as a male outsider. And if you are not interested in the fraternity scene, Stanford provides many alternative housing options, from academically-driven places like Humanities House, to the more traditional French House, to vegetarian abodes like Columbae.
However, the multiplicity of housing options may cause separate problems for Stanford’s ostensible culture of equality. The culture these houses propagate is far from that created by freshman programming which, through random roommates, specially-designed hall configurations, and unifying events, forces us to directly engage with Stanford’s diverse student body.
But after rush, we are largely left to make those diverse connections on our own, which first becomes apparent when half those hallmates, who Stanford purposefully placed near you to kickstart thought-provoking friendships, vacate the dorm to attend pledge events.
Through the pre-assign housing process, whether in sophomore year or later, students take advantage of a system that encourages them to live with those with whom they share more similarities than differences. Fraternities and sororities, whose rush begins before the draw, are the first to incentivize living among your niche group. But through places like Outdoor House, Slav, and HumHo, most of the campus eventually buy in. And without administrators onlooking to ensure cross-group bonding as they do for freshmen, campus segregates into factions.
Who is to blame for this violation of the spirit of equality to which Jane Stanford alluded in 1902? Is it the University, for making promises it holds for only two quarters? Or is it students, like myself, who attempt to live with more homogenous populations immediately after the administration releases them from the controlled experience of freshman year?
At the very least, the massive participation in rush and the failure to sustain a collaborative, welcoming culture past freshman winter signals one thing: Stanford and its students are not as West Coast and inclusive as we think we are.