The Intensely Lonely World of Stanford Students

You may have seen this story in the New York Times about the rising levels of stress and depression among college students.  My favorite quote:

“While first-year students’ assessments of their emotional health were declining, their ratings of their own drive to achieve, and academic ability, have been going up, and reached a record high in 2010, with about three-quarters saying they were above average. “

Stanford is exceptional, and this is an issue in which we take pride in being a national leader.  We are all academically gifted, and we are all stressed out all the time.  That stress leads us to ignore the most important part of Stanford: the people who inhabit it.

I want to relate a discussion I had with my primary care physician before I came to Stanford.  I was getting a physical before coming to Stanford, and as part of the session, he asked me how much Stanford was going to cost.  I quoted the tuition and room and board fees.  He then said, “You know how much a library card costs?  $15.  What are you learning at Stanford that you can’t learn at a library?”

I laughed a little awkwardly.  I mentioned new research, but he wasn’t having my unprepared response.  “That’s right.  Nothing.  You know why you are paying almost $200,000 more?  It’s the people.  You get to meet the most amazing people in the world, and they don’t go to the county library.  If you ever find yourself reading books more than talking to people, save yourself the thousands and get that library card.”

I have followed this advice as best as I could.  I talk with people all the time – hours a day if you add it up.  My longest conversation in the past few weeks was during finals week last quarter when I talked for eight hours straight with a friend about, well, pretty much everything.  Sure, I had a final the next day.  But it was such an interesting conversation.

I am not alone in enjoying human interaction, but for too many Stanford students, such conversations are but a fleeting activity in the whirlwind of academics and activities that consume our lives.  And yet, these conversations are perhaps the most meaningful parts of our education here.  And I think it is this disconnect that stresses so many of us out: we desire to have that enriching undergraduate experience, but we feel like we lack the tools to make it happen.

Robin Thomas, a hero on this campus if ever there was one, has attempted to improve this state of affairs over the past few years, most recently organizing a “let’s talk about anything” campaign that you might have seen around campus.  But let’s be real here.  It shouldn’t require a sign in White Plaza to prompt us to talk to one another.  Something has to change.

Stanford students are efficient time managers, and they are goal driven.  I know how difficult a conversation can be in this environment: there isn’t a goal, and they can last for hours.  But if you have read this far, then try this: throw abandon to the wind, and get out there and talk to someone – anyone.  Invite them for lunch or dinner or out for a walk.  Take off the watch, put the cell phone on silent, and forget about all the looming deadlines that surrounding you.

What is amazing is that I can remember all kinds of interesting conversations, and yet, I cannot recall even one of my problem sets here at Stanford.  It’s the simple pleasures of life that are so rewarding, and I am an excellent student largely because of these conversations.  Do yourself a favor: nourish your soul instead of your brain for a moment, and in the process, build that community that you desire.  And if not, that library card is always available.

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