When I showed up at Stanford for my freshmen year, I was terrified. Somewhere down the hall, I was certain, lived a girl who had patented technology and sold it to Lockheed Martin. I’d heard about her at the welcoming speech at my local alumni center, where they listed the glistening achievements of the 2014 entering class, none of which seemed to describe, well, me.
I hadn’t started a major feminist newspaper or testified before congress. I’d never had an internship doing important biomedical research – I’d never had an internship, period! I hadn’t even been the president of any clubs. I wasn’t in the top 5% of my decidedly public high school graduating class – when I told my AP Psychology teacher I’d been accepted, she looked at me incredulously and exclaimed, “Wait, you got in? Then why didn’t either of our co-valedictorians?”
Intimidation wasn’t a strong enough word to describe my all-consuming fear of inadequacy the day I set foot in my requisite freshmen PWR (Program in Writing and Rhetoric) course. In a school seemingly filled to the brim with CS and STEM majors, I was the kid who’d (in lieu of other qualifications) presumably gotten in on her writing. Sure, my papers had held up pretty well in high school, but that was public high school, in classes of thirty students or more, surrounded by kids with all sorts of different experience levels. At Stanford, everyone seemed to come from a prestigious private school, or a highly intensive IB program. The longest essay I’d ever been required to write for class was still less than ten pages, total.
I tried to play it casual at first. I stayed quiet, trying to feel out the room, gauge which of my classmates were going to prove my education wholly lacking the moment they opened their mouths. But then I realized: they were all doing the same thing. The classroom was smothered in silence, because everyone was too afraid to sound ignorant in front of what we all assumed was a pantheon of prodigies.
And, you know what? None of us were nigh omniscient geniuses. We were all smart, sure. We were highly educated, for the most part, with somewhat variable levels of preparation. But no one in that classroom was any more or less intelligent than I was. They were all just…people. I was as qualified to be there as the girl who contracted with Lockheed Martin, or the boy who spoke at a congressional hearing.
It turned out, in fact, that my public high school education, my reputation as an underachiever, my less than perfect GPA, all served me well at Stanford. I not only passed my freshmen PWR class, I worked my butt off and I excelled. I chose a research topic I was interested in because I loved reading about it, despite its somewhat tenuous relationship to the course description, and I applied the skills I’d learned in AP Psychology to pry into every shiny detail that caught my eye. I stayed up for thirty-six hours straight writing the first draft (I would not recommend this – Class of 2019, manage your time better than I did!), because I discovered that I really genuinely enjoyed doing it. It was fun! It was like a party, and the only people invited were me and the long-dead authors of the texts I was studying.
The paper I wrote ended up winning the Fall Quarter Honorable Mention for the Boothe Prize, the award given to the two best papers written in freshmen PWR each quarter. It got accepted into NCUR (The National Conference for Undergraduate Research), where I travelled to present it. It’s published up online on Stanford’s website for people to read today if they want. But I’m not a prodigy. I’m not a super-intelligent savant, and I haven’t endured hours of extracurricular tutoring to supplement my regular high school education. I didn’t score a 2400 on the SAT, or get a 5.0 GPA, or win valedictorian, and I’m not a legacy. I’m just a public high school kid who, much to the surprise of her neighborhood, got accepted into Stanford. But I have just as much of a right to be here as anyone else, and so do you.
I was a scared eighteen year old away from home for the first time the day I showed up, and so was the Lockheed Martin girl. And so will most of you be. So when you hear about that kid who did something so incredible that the Dean feels the need to mention it in his welcome speech and you think, “Jeeze, I could never do that!” remember that she thought it too, until she did it, and that she’s just as intimidated as you are.
Class of 2018