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Insight Alma Mater: Stanford

Welcome back to our blog series “Insight Alma Matar”. Today, our incredible college admissions counselor Sarah de Sousa talks about her experience getting into Stanford and the lessons she learned – mostly, outside of the classroom.  


Dec 25, 1998. I had just been accepted to Stanford early and beneath the Christmas tree was a pile of gifts wrapped in shiny, Cardinal red wrapping paper. Every. Single. Gift. my parents gave me that year had been purchased at the Stanford Bookstore: Stanford pencils, Stanford binders, pajamas, teddy bears (one of them still lives on my desk). And after the fifth present or so, I started sobbing uncontrollably.


My parents were understandably shocked. I turned to them and said: “What if I don’t finish? What if I transfer? What if I fail? What if, what if, what if….”


My tears were both for a future I feared and a form of longing for a previous time, forever erased by my Stanford acceptance, in which I only had as yet unrealized potential. In that blissful Eden of always and rather effortlessly exceeding expectations, I neither had to confront the real possibility of failure nor the deeper existential challenge of self-actualization. I was simply accomplished, collecting grades, titles, academic awards and test scores like merit badges on a girl scout’s uniform.


But with this single invitation to a future I had not fully believed possible, I came face to face with what psychologists call “imposter syndrome,” the belief that though I had achieved an important milestone through years of hard work and effort, I didn’t really deserve it. I genuinely believe that even what sometimes appears as self-destructive impulses contain an essential grain of wisdom. This was no exception. Most students bask in the fact of their statistically unlikely acceptance to an elite school at least for a while before the reality sinks in that this actually has little to do with their self-worth, happiness, and long-term potential. I skipped straight to identity-crisis-mode and perhaps in so doing I began the most important part of my educational journey.


You see, the thing is, if you are accepted to an elite college, you may be one of a few students from your high school who “got in.” But once you get there, EVERYONE got in. You go from being the “chosen one” to being one of many overnight. This is not to say I didn’t find success at Stanford. I performed so well in my freshman core humanities class that I was recommended to the Humanities Honors Program, where I also became student liaison to the Humanities Department Steering Committee. I loved having small classes, knowing my professors, and having the freedom to craft my own course of study.


I also became the co-director of Cardinal Ballet and helped organize the Urban Nights dance concert. I joined the Salsa performance team, Los Salseros de Stanford, wrote op-ed pieces for the Stanford Daily. I studied abroad in Florence, launched a campaign to convert all the coffee on Stanford’s campus to Fair Trade coffee. I even gave a presentation on Fair Trade at the Stanford GSB. I found my niche.

Sarah practicing ballet at Roble Gym on Stanford campus 


But I didn’t love Stanford. It turns out, Stanford has a fraught relationship with the humanities. It’s a place where you are either Techie or Fuzzy (translation: STEM major or humanities major), and Fuzzy is pronounced with a pejorative tone. Stanford is also every bit as cutthroat as Harvard, but no one will admit it, which leads to a symptom we call “duck syndrome.” Maintaining the school’s reputation as laid-back, friendly, and collaborative means gliding along the surface with feigned poise, as though you are not actually paddling like hell beneath those placid waters to survive. And last, but not least, I was surrounded by wealth the likes of which I had never seen before, meanwhile I worked four days a week to pay my own board bill.


Am I glad, in the end, that I went to Stanford? Of course. I am grateful, more than anything, for what my Stanford degree has done for me later in life. Professionally, it has opened doors. It has in no small way made it possible for me to do my dream job of helping young people develop meaning and purpose in their lives (note: I did not say helping young people attend elite universities). Personally, my experience at Stanford catalyzed a period of crisis, but also of personal growth that ultimately led to an unshakeable belief in my own purpose and in the gifts I have to offer the world. Stanford did not make me who I am, but it did make me ask the questions that shaped who I’ve become.


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