I didn’t get in, but has that made all the difference?
When I was a little boy, I wanted to go to Stanford one day.
I first set foot on campus when I was in middle school. My older sister was touring universities, so my parents dragged me along with them. I was only ten years old, but I knew that I felt something when I stepped on the main avenue to the university. The campus was, and still is, beautiful. I loved the fresh green grass that extended on for hundreds of meters into the distance. I loved the architecture of the buildings, the smooth stone columns and the iconic church. I loved the weather, and the feeling of the sun as I laid on the grass and soaked in the sunlight. It was idyllic.
Then, my turn came to visit colleges again. I was sixteen years old this time. With the memory of the university still within me, I visited Stanford again. This time, I felt something different. I still loved the campus and all of its beauty. But as I stood there, watching college students play soccer on the lawn and Chinese tourists take photos of their children, who were probably hoping for their own children to be admitted one day, a feeling of hope and envy rose in my chest. I had worked hard during my high school career. I spent nearly an entire summer preparing for my SATs and writing my college admissions essay. I had researched Stanford. It was a place that spoke to me, in a way that most other universities didn’t. The students that I talked to liked it. The education was top-notch. The campus was beautiful.
Then admission decision day came. I went through the process of checking my decision letter slowly. My throat had choked up, and I was silent as I moved my mouse across the screen towards the link that would reveal the decision. With only a moment’s hesitation, I opened the letter and read what followed.
And read again. And reread. Read it slowly, silently enunciating every word in my head. I read that letter fifteen times, and nothing changed. I didn’t get into Stanford that day.
I was quieter at school that week. I kept thinking about all the wasted hours spent studying for my tests and preparing my college applications. I couldn’t stop thinking about my parents, who loved me and sacrificed so much to ensure that I had the best possible chance at whatever I wanted to do. Yet, years later, I did that exact opposite. I had set my goal, and I had failed. Completely.
That’s what I had been left with when I started college in the fall of that year.
It’s been almost three years since that day now.
I now know much more than when I had been just a high school student applying to colleges. You would think so, wouldn’t you? Otherwise, I would have really wasted my efforts and my parents’ efforts.
I visited Stanford again recently. I haven’t set foot on campus since my last tour almost three years ago. The grass was the same. The buildings were the same. The students were the same. Again, I felt different this time around.
But this time, I didn’t know what to feel.
When I first came to college at Georgia Tech, I thought that I was just going to a school that I had thought that I would be comfortable in. It wasn’t a “reach” university like the others that I had applied to, so I didn’t have high expectations. I viewed everything that happened at that school with that lens. That was just the way that I was.
Turns out, I was pretty wrong.
I had friends at other universities during my time at Tech. I kept up with them and learned about their lives at their schools. All of it seemed fairly normal. Same dining hall experiences, same hard classes, same goals, same worries. That’s when I started to get an inkling of the truth.
But it wasn’t until this past summer in San Francisco that my eyes were truly opened.
If you’ve been following me for a while, then you know that I was a TEC Fellow at True Ventures this past summer. I spent ten weeks in the Bay Area, learning more than I ever thought I could learn in a single summer. During that time, I met hundreds of other interns from all around the country. So many different universities, yet there were so many that I recognized. That you would probably recognize. University of Pennsylvania. Cornell. MIT. Boston University. Harvard. Yale. Georgetown. Stanford.
As I talked to these people, my contemporaries at other universities, I learned a lot. I made some friends. I learned about their aspirations, their involvements at school, their hobbies, their desires in life. That’s when I realized the truth.
We were all the same.
We had the same strengths and same flaws. There was nothing different about these people. Take a student from Georgia Tech and place him or her at any of these other schools, and no one would notice a thing. And vice versa. My friends at Tech interned at Google. They joined clubs like India Club. They liked to stay in their beds and watch Friends. They love going out and taking Snapchats of themselves partying. They suffered through exams. They were unsure about their futures.
The people I met this past summer were the same. The only difference was the school on our diplomas.
For the longest time, I felt like my self-worth was tied to my university. The truth is that I know that thousands of other students across the country have felt that. We all grew up thinking about college being the end game. Our parents pushed us all so hard to apply to the best universities. We spend some of our most formative years in high school taking trips to universities, studying for standardized exams, and doing everything in our power to be the perfect applicant.
You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? You volunteered at shelters and organized a fundraiser for disaster victims in some foreign country. You were the captain of a math team and won several competitions in your tenure. You were a soccer player since you were small and became a nationally ranked player by the time you reached high school. You were a pianist from a very young age and spent an immeasurable amount of hours practicing and learning and memorizing new pieces, reliving the lives of Chopin and Mozart and Beethoven and Lizst through frenzied fingers. You learned how to code before you were out of elementary school and went to high school hackathons, building apps and learning new stacks every time, creating, innovating, problem solving. You went to a countless number of summer programs and summer colleges and did internships and learned everything you could about your dream career and even did lab research — pipetting liquid into tubes for hours on end — but you don’t complain — because all this was done in hopes that that would affect the admissions decision.
After all that, is it any wonder that we assigned so much value to college? And is it really shocking that the assignment of value to our choice of college permeated to our actual perception of ourselves?
I said that I had mixed feelings.
As I stood there in the middle of campus, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be there anymore. Yet, Stanford remains one of the biggest what-ifs I’ve had in my life. Would I be as far along in my personal development? Would I be surer of my future career? Would I have made better friends? Would I have been a different major? Would I have been involved in the same communities on campus? Would I have developed different hobbies?
Would I have been a different person?
It’s tough to say. I know some things would have been better. As a business student in a technical school, I haven’t really been appreciated as much while going to Georgia Tech. I probably would have fared better at Stanford. The education would most likely have been better in that regard. I know my interests in startups and desire to start my own business would have been better received at Stanford. I know that I would have loved the California climate and the weather in the Bay Area.
Yet, I know that’s not the whole story. Stanford, and the Bay Area as a whole, is a bubble. I know that I wouldn’t have been exposed to as many different perspectives on life and topical issues had I gone to Stanford. The university is expensive, and I know that I would have been worrying about my parents, who pay for my education, the entire time, guilt slowly eating away at me internally. Even compared to a place like Georgia Tech, I know that there is a huge bias towards the tech industry in almost all aspects of life there.
I’m aware of the advantages and disadvantages now. And I know that, despite everything, the people are the same. They’re neither better nor worse. In the future, we’ll all end up in the same places. We were all once young children whose hearts were filled with passion and determination while the grassy campuses of our dreams were reflected in our eyes.
I can’t help but feel melancholic when I set foot on Stanford’s campus. Even as I gaze down the avenue into the heart of Stanford, kids laughing and playing on the green lawn, their minds filled with the same hope that resided within me all those years ago, I still haven’t made up my mind.
Maybe I’ll feel different once again someday.
Palo Alto, 2016