My Stanford Origin Story

Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt." -- William Shakespeare in Measure for Measure

It's about 7:00pm on January 4th, 2017. I'm in Southeast Portland, sitting in a booth at McMenamin’s Barley Mill Pub. Remnants of happy hour cajun tots and a hummus plate are scattered across the table. My glass of Ruby Ale is almost empty, and like my beer, my motivation is waning. I'm staring at my laptop, about to make a monumental decision.

I had been sitting in this same booth literally all day, writing, editing, finalizing, and submitting all my graduate school applications. There is no standard application -- each school has a different format, different required word count, a few different essay questions, a separate financial aid application. It takes a lot of time. I had been working on these applications for the last year, but committed to submitting them today because the first one was due tomorrow. I was exhausted and feeling very much done with the whole process. After tonight, it would be out of my hands and up to fate. 

Lewis and Clark was done. Georgetown was done. Columbia was done. Penn was done. Harvard was done. It was getting late, I was tired, and there was only one school left. 

Stanford.

The Stanford application was by far the longest. It also had an intensive financial aid application, separate from the regular application, with questions that I literally didn't know how to answer. It would take at least another couple hours to finish.

And then I saw that the application fee was $125 -- the most expensive of all. And this was right after I had already sunk a few hundred bucks into submitting these other applications.

Do I stay for the extra two hours to submit it, or do I pocket the $125 and give up on Stanford? I wrestled with my options.

I had no idea that I was in the middle of a defining moment -- dramatic, but true. This decision would be the difference between living on the west coast or the east coast, between taking out loans and graduating debt free.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this: I didn't think I had a chance in hell of getting into Stanford. All of my friends and family who had to deal with me during the application process would tell you that. My thinking was that I had 50-50 shot at getting into one of the Ivy League schools or Georgetown, a good shot at Lewis and Clark, and close to 0% chance at Stanford. There were a few reasons why: Stanford's program is smaller, their application is more intimidating, and their program is #1 ranked overall. Plus, I figured that being an Oregonian might be a little more interesting on the east coast than in California. 

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This thinking dominated my conception of grad school. Harvard became the symbol representing my goal of earning my master's degree at a top-ranked school -- because I saw it as my best attainable option. Every day for about a year, the last thing I saw when I walked out of my bedroom was a t-shirt with the word “HARVARD” written across the chest; I had it tacked on the wall just to the right of my door. It was a daily reminder to focus and to avoid making the same mistake again. I even visited campus, sat in on classes, and spoke with professors and students. 

Then Spring time rolled around and one by one, I started receiving acceptance letters. Penn was the first, so there were a few days that I was convinced I was going to Penn. Then Georgetown offered a sizable scholarship and I was sure I was going to DC. Reading the Harvard acceptance letter was a trip. It was 5:00 am and I was alone in my hotel room in Kuala Lumpur when I read the e-mail on my phone -- definitely one of my happiest moments. I shed a few silent tears with a big smile on my face and texted my dad.

Obviously I won’t be going to Harvard this fall. That's because I also received an acceptance letter from Stanford. Accompanying the admissions offer was a letter awarding me a $40,000 Graduate School of Education Tuition Fellowship. To the top-ranked education policy program in the country, in the middle of Silicon Valley, with an academic program that I could perfectly tailor to my professional goals. Unreal.

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When I got the e-mail with Stanford’s financial aid package, my mind immediately flashed back to the night at McMenamin's in January, where I debated whether or not it was worth it to invest a couple extra hours and 125 bucks into what seemed like a pipe dream.

Rarely do we get to catch a glimpse down the road not taken to see the direct consequences of a single decision -- but when we do, the lessons are clear.

Here's what I learned: self-doubt is impractical. I almost preemptively turned down an amazing opportunity and a huge scholarship because of self-doubt, or fear of failure, or fear of rejection. I almost cut bait before I even started fishing. I almost didn't even give myself a chance.

As I type this from the Stanford campus (a place I had never even visited until after I was admitted), I'm grateful that I did.