All Together Now

For the first time since spring 2020, there are several thousand undergraduates on the Farm. The university has big plans for how they’ll live and learn.

September 2021

Reading time min

Three Stanford students posing on the Quad

SOPHOMORES IN STEP: Kevin Thor, Sala Ba and Jenna Reed. Photo: Toni Bird

Illustrations by Shaw Nielsen

The Stanford campus hasn’t been the same without its undergrads. They imbue it with life, personality, verve. Coin catchphrases like “Nerd Nation” and “Fear the Tree.” Hop in fountains and throw Frisbees. Join the Band.

To be sure, there have been hundreds of undergraduates on campus since Stanford pivoted to pandemic operations in March 2020. Those with special circumstances were allowed to stay in housing throughout. In spring 2021, juniors and seniors were invited to return for the latter’s final quarter, and in summer, frosh and sophomores got to take a turn. Nevertheless, the Quad has been quiet.

Undergraduate life has been profoundly disrupted. And that presents an opportunity: to rebuild it intentionally in the direction Stanford was already heading. This fall marks the launch of a new neighborhood-based housing system designed to strengthen community and of a core curriculum based on principles of citizenship. Meanwhile, not only has the Class of ’25 arrived on campus to a warm Cardinal welcome, but so, at last, has the Class of ’24. 

Hail, Stanford, hail.

Illustration of people relaxing and playing on a grass park

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhoods

By Corinne Purtill

For generations of Stanford frosh, sophomores and juniors, figuring out where and with whom they’ll live the following year has been a rather anxiety-producing rite of spring. The Stanford Daily archives are full of stories with headlines like “Tears and trauma: It’s time for the Draw.” (That one was from 1990, a decade before most of the Class of 2022 were born.) 

In the early and relatively simple days of the undergraduate housing draw, students banded together in groups as large as eight, marked a handful of choices on a paper card, and learned of their next year’s lodgings by pulling a slip of paper from a box—a charmingly analog system that gave the Draw its name when it debuted in 1969. As technology advanced, groups submitted their choices online and learned their fate from posted printouts, and later via email. 

But just because you can, algorithmically speaking, doesn’t mean you should. By its final incarnation, in spring 2019, the Draw seemed more like an exemplar of the tyranny of choice than a reasonable method of allocating access to houses of varying appeal. After narrowing down their friends to a Draw group no larger than four people, students were asked to rank up to 135 different options across more than 80 different residences. 

The Draw gave students lots of choice in the physical buildings they lived in but far less in the people they lived with, and all but ensured the dissolution of tight-knit communities that had formed over the school year. Susie Brubaker-Cole, the vice provost for student affairs, remains haunted by a conversation with a student about his experience with the lottery.

“He said, ‘The Draw eviscerated my freshman friend group,’ ” she recalls. “I will never forget that statement.”

A lot has changed in the last year and a half; Stanford’s approach to housing has as well. Starting this fall, all undergraduate residences are being sorted into eight new neighborhoods intended to boost belonging and inclusivity, and to enable students who fall in love with the community they find in their first year to keep those relationships going. 

The neighborhoods are the signature creation of ResX, an initiative that branches from the university’s Long-Range Vision. Launched in spring 2018, ResX began with a task force determined to rethink Stanford’s undergraduate housing system. The aim was to double down on Residential Education’s successes—fostering relationships and extending academic experiences into the dorms—while redirecting the energy students spent navigating an increasingly complex housing system into strengthening the communities they had already built. 

When the task force released its report in spring 2019, the idea was to reconfigure current residences, build some new ones to fit into the neighborhood structure and then introduce the new plan to students some years in the future. 

Then the world turned upside down. In March 2020, Stanford became one of the first major universities in the United States to cancel in-person classes and send most undergraduates home. Several hundred did live on campus each quarter due to special circumstances, and juniors and seniors were invited to spend spring quarter 2021 on campus, with frosh and sophomores following in summer. But in large part, residence halls have been eerily quiet for a year and a half.

The temporary freeze of on-campus life and the announcement that in-person instruction would resume this fall represented a prime moment to rebuild undergraduate community intentionally. The university announced in February that it was moving the ResX launch to the fall, a few years ahead of schedule. Rather than redesign campus around the neighborhoods, the neighborhoods would debut first. New buildings and renovations will happen later, as the identities and needs of the different communities take shape. “It’s an amazing opportunity to revitalize social life,” Brubaker-Cole says.

For all that the pandemic has taken from students, the renewal of on-campus life signifies hope. “People are very ready to reconnect with others,” says Citlali Blanco, ’22. “I’m used to seeing faces on screens now, but a screen doesn’t replicate the chance of running into new people or old friends when you take a stroll through campus.”

Provost Persis Drell commissioned the ResX task force in 2018, naming vice provosts Susie Brubaker-Cole and Harry Elam (now the president of Occidental College) as co-chairs. Over the course of six months, the group met with more than 500 students, faculty, staff and alumni; traveled to Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and Rice to review alternative approaches to undergraduate housing; and sifted through hundreds of community comments solicited through its website. 

A few truisms soon became clear. For one, there is a vast range in popularity (or “the perceived and actual attractiveness,” as the ResX report diplomatically puts it) of Stanford’s undergraduate housing stock. Some of these differences have existed for decades: You could wind up stuffed into a one-room triple in a four-class dorm complex that’s years away from its next scheduled renovation, or in a spacious two-room double in a prime Row address. More recent housing additions push those extremes even further. As students will tell you—in reverent tones—some undergraduates in the spiffy Escondido Village Graduate Residences have their own bathrooms. Their own bathrooms!  

Due in part to this disparity, as well as students’ desire to remain near their friends, the task force discovered, roughly half of them weren’t going through the Draw at all. To be sure, some students had medical accommodations that required particular housing options. Others became residence staff members, joined housed fraternities or sororities, or opted for pre-assignment to specialized housing, such as co-ops and academic theme houses. 

Many students seek these experiences for reasons that have nothing to do with the Draw, of course (and all will continue under ResX). But some were using them largely to avoid the vagaries of the lottery. The unintended consequence was that “the other half of the student body that does go through the draw must choose from the housing that is left available,” the report noted. “These students tend to be those with less institutional knowledge, those who are less inclined to challenge or game the system, or those who are from underrepresented communities. Randomness turns out to be inherently unfair.”

The task force enlisted associate professor of psychology Jamil Zaki to look deeper into the relationship between housing type and undergraduate happiness. Students who lived in all-frosh dorms, he found, reported having larger and deeper social networks on campus and a greater sense of well-being than those who had spent their first year in four-class dorms. 

Seeing those close-knit dorm networks fracture when it was time to form Draw groups in the spring of frosh year and then splinter entirely in sophomore year was disheartening. Given that one of ResEd’s primary goals is to promote students’ mental health and well-being, it was also counterproductive.

“Students were saying, ‘We would like to stay together with our first-year community, but the structure itself doesn’t allow for that,’” says Cheryl Brown, who heads ResEd as the assistant vice provost for residential education and serves as a resident fellow in Meier Hall. “That also made it difficult, if you were in an upperclass house, to build community, because you’re trying to bring people together in your house and they’re trying to find the people that they already built relationships with.”

The neighborhood system gives students who love the idea of living near their frosh dormmates all four years a way to make that happen. Most students will spend the bulk of their undergraduate years in residences assigned to their specific neighborhood, similar to the house or college residential systems the task force observed at peer institutions. At the moment, each of the eight neighborhoods is known by a single letter, which together spell STANFORD.

Illustrated map of Stanford Campus

Each neighborhood will have a mix of housing, an assortment of dining options and common spaces, and a Community Council that includes students as well as staff from ResEd, housing, dining and academic advising. At long last, there should be enough all-frosh housing for those who want it, and some all-sophomore housing is being piloted as well. Each neighborhood also features the kind of quasi-independent accommodations often favored by older undergraduates, like suites, Row houses and apartments.

Students who want to explore communities beyond their neighborhoods can still do so. They can apply to live in the ethnic theme dorms, academic theme houses, co-ops or Greek houses, regardless of neighborhood. They’ll retain priority for housing assignments in their home neighborhood should they wish to return there, as will those who study abroad or at Stanford’s programs in New York or Washington, D.C. They can even change neighborhoods permanently.

A student in Neighborhood D, for example, might spend her first year in an all-frosh dorm in Sterling Quad, follow that up with a year in all-sophomore Murray House, attend Stanford in Florence fall quarter before spending the remainder of junior year in her neighborhood’s designated section of the Mirrielees apartments, then move into the Row house at 550 Lasuen for her final year. Or she might opt to leave the neighborhood and live in Ujamaa as a sophomore, RA there as a junior, and return to Neighborhood D to live with friends in an Anderson House suite as a senior.

The new system limits some previously available housing choices: a non-themed Row house like Robert Moore House South (aka BOB), for example, will be available only to students in Neighborhood S. But each neighborhood has been carefully conceived to offer a mix of each type of housing. And don’t worry: Administrators say those one-letter appellations are just placeholders until students come up with more meaningful names. (Thank goodness, says one returning student. “No one wants to have, like, ‘A pride,’ or ‘T pride.’ It’s just weird.”) Also on students’ to-do lists: creating neighborhood mascots, crests and theme dorms (which can change annually, in contrast to the more formal university theme houses).

ResX was planned well before the pandemic, but administrators are hoping that the neighborhood structure provides extra support for a unique cohort of students whose high school and college experiences were turned upside down by COVID. 

When the neighborhoods were first announced, “I’d never even been to campus, much less understood how residence life is structured,” says Sam Catania, a sophomore who spent his entire first year at home in Haverford, Pa. “It was all one and the same to me.”

Only the seniors have been through the Draw—once, in the spring of their first year. Many juniors haven’t been on campus since winter quarter of their frosh year, a bit before they would have had to choose Drawmates. Most sophomores will set foot on campus for the first time ever this fall, and freshmen—well, everything is new to freshmen. 

For this first year of ResX, returning students were placed into neighborhoods based on their preferences, which they ranked solo or in groups of up to eight. (Proving that old habits die hard, many of them referred to the process as “drawing.”) Hector Angel Rivera, ’24, is looking forward to putting down roots in Neighborhood R, which includes Roble Hall and Lagunita Court, after splitting his frosh year between home in Lovington, N.M., and a single room on a quiet and vastly different Stanford campus. 

The location seems good, he says, but even more exciting is the prospect of finally experiencing the full spectrum of campus life that only juniors and seniors remember. “I went into this past year not knowing what to expect, on both sides of the coin—both with COVID going on and because I’d never looked into campus culture,” Rivera says. “So after hearing about it this past year, I’m really excited to dive into that, and to experience all of it.”

While frosh—and this year, sophomores—bring a certain amount of energy and enthusiasm from the sheer novelty of being on campus for the first time, juniors and seniors may hold the key to ResX’s initial success. By design, the neighborhoods are intended to offer a strong frosh-soph experience. Will older students, many of whom spent the past year in “pandemic pods,” be as motivated to invest in these new communities?

“As a junior, the new ResX neighborhood system doesn’t affect my life that much. I think it would’ve been great when I was a freshman,” says Kayley Gould, ’23. “The excitement has to be driven by the students, and part of my worry is that upperclassmen will not be as excited about the neighborhoods as underclassmen (since the system affects them less) and that this will trickle down into the underclassmen’s perspective of ResX.”

The university shares those concerns. “The buy-in from juniors and seniors may influence how frosh and sophomores see themselves in the future, the ways in which they engage in the neighborhood,” Brown says. “That’s something I think we are going to be paying a lot of attention to.”

Blanco, the senior, is approaching the new plan with an open mind. She wasn’t the type to get stressed out by the Draw and was happy to delegate housing selection to her Drawmates the one time she went through the process. (“All I remember is the three of them peering into one laptop and me sitting off to the side,” she recalls.) In the fall, she’ll be living in Well House, a new university theme dorm dedicated to substance-free living, in Neighborhood N. Neither the theme nor the neighborhood existed before the pandemic. It’s just one of many ways that the year has transformed Stanford, and the people in it.

“I feel like change is something we are all used to by now, and that is a great understatement,” Blanco says. “The way I see it, we have the opportunity to create loving communities, no matter how the dorms are arranged.”

Corinne Purtill, ’02, is a writer in Los Angeles. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

Illustration of students on grass sitting at desks

Civic Engagement

By Sam Scott

The first year of college is a time of discovery and reinvention, a moment to sample new interests and try new paths. Or so goes the idyll of a liberal education. 

The reality is often very different, says Dan Edelstein, professor of French and director of Stanford Introductory Studies. Frosh have scarcely arrived on campus when many of them lock onto a select group of majors—computer science is the predominant choice—often with plans to get certain internships and a mind to land certain jobs.

Ever was it so, but the trend, he says, has grown relentless. “There is so much peer pressure within the first month to identify with one of the major tracks that the majority of the students are going down,” he says. “It’s really hard for a student to resist that kind of pull.”

Seeing undergraduate education primarily as a path to a lucrative job serves neither students nor society well, says philosophy professor Debra Satz, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences. Individually, she says, “we have lots of stories of people who got on a treadmill and didn’t flourish. They may have earned a lot of money, but they didn’t flourish.” Collectively, “our democracy desperately needs people with a set of skills that aren’t well served by the instrumental mindset.” 

It’s with an eye to strengthening students’ intellectual autonomy—as well as improving campus discourse and preparation for civic life—that Stanford conceived its new core curriculum for frosh. Civic, Liberal and Global Education, or COLLEGE, gets underway as a formal requirement this fall after its two lead courses, Why College? and Citizenship in the 21st Century, were piloted during the 2020–21 academic year. 

This year will serve as a transition from the outgoing requirement, Thinking Matters, to COLLEGE, and most students will choose a one-quarter course from either menu. (Some will fulfill the core requirement by enrolling in Structured Liberal Education, Stanford’s intensive yearlong residence-based program in the humanities, or ITALIC, in the arts.) Next year, they’ll take two quarters from the sequence: Why College? in the fall, Citizenship in the 21st Century in the winter and global citizenship courses in the spring. The university will decide by 2026 whether to make the COLLEGE requirement yearlong. 

Stanford has long required core courses aimed at broadening the mind, starting in the 1920s with Problems of Citizenship. Common frosh curricula have morphed over the years, from Western Civilization in mid-century to Western Culture in the 1980s to Cultures, Ideas and Values in the 1990s to Introduction to the Humanities in the aughts. COLLEGE shares some elements with these forebears, including common readings and a longer duration, in hopes of providing students with a shared vocabulary and experience.

In Thinking Matters, frosh have been picking a single, one-quarter lecture course from an array of offerings designed to inspire intellectual wonder—this fall’s choices include Our Genome and Understanding China Though Film. But a lack of overlap among the offerings leaves students with little to chew on together in the dining hall, organizers say.

“We’re trying to create a common culture and a common experience among our very, very diverse undergraduates,” says Satz, an instructor in Citizenship in the 21st Century. “We don’t all have to agree, but we have to have a common basis for talking through some of our disagreements.”

COLLEGE is not a return to the days of Western Civilization or Western Culture, which sparked protests over the exclusion of thinkers outside the mostly white and male canon, organizers say. Plato and Epicurus might still be on the reading list, but so are W.E.B. Du Bois, Tsitsi Dangarembga and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who spoke to students in Why College? last year.

Ultimately, the seminars are less about making sure students read certain authors and thinkers, Edelstein says, than making sure they wrestle with certain issues and questions.

Why College? does that, starting with its very title. “We’re not trying to be overly subtle,” Edelstein says. Indeed, in the seminar, Edelstein begins by likening the class to an intervention, one that aims to pull students away from merely banking facts and knowledge—tactics that got many of them through high school—to something more inquisitive and open-ended.

The idea isn’t to create fewer engineering majors or mint more liberal arts majors, though the imbalance between the two is on organizers’ minds. “Over 40 percent of Stanford undergrads are majoring in engineering,” Satz says. “When I first came here, it was about 15 percent. If that trend line keeps going, we will wind up with phenomenal faculty in the humanities and social sciences and the natural sciences, with no students.”  

Rather, the aim is to deemphasize the major as the end-all, be-all of education, Edelstein says. “Are you majoring in CS because you love CS and you really enjoy this?” he says. “Or are you majoring in CS because everybody else is majoring in CS and you get this impression from your parents and your peers that’s the only thing you should be doing? Having autonomy and authenticity in your education is crucial.”

Student evaluations from last year’s Why College? pilot, Edelstein says, show that the course is hitting the target. “I have undergone some philosophical transformation, and this has made me want to gain more than just a degree from Stanford,” wrote Tino Nyandoro, a sophomore from Zimbabwe. “I am striving to get educated.”

Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at sscott3@stanford.edu.

Illustration of a woman riding a bike while three men in the background are running

Farm Fresh Sophs

By Christine Foster

As sophomores prepared to move onto campus—many of them for the first time—Stanford caught up with the seven members of the Class of ’24 we’ve been shadowing.

After the university announced that winter quarter 2021 would be virtual, some students looked for an alternative to more time at home. In the spring, Sala Ba left Loudon County, Va., to move in with a group of frosh women in San Jose.

Photos, from top: Toni Bird; Kevin Thor; Elena RecaldiniPhotos, from top: Toni Bird; Kevin Thor; Elena Recaldini

SalaI was like, “Let’s take a risk here.” That was a really, really cool experience and made spring super, super fun. I felt a lot more like a Stanford student than I did when I was at home.

Kevin Thor continued to live on campus due to special circumstances, and Elena Recaldini moved from Tokyo to do the same. 

Kevin: Although there wasn’t everybody on campus, there still definitely was a social aspect to campus life. I remember going out to get dinner at Wilbur dining hall and just seeing people sitting at the benches and sitting on the fields, and it was really nice, and I felt like I finally came to college. 

ElenaGoing to campus in the winter and actually stepping foot on campus, seeing what I see on Google Images in real life, was just crazy to me, and I felt a lot more connected with Stanford.

Classes continued to work well online.

SalaFor bigger classes, I actually like being virtual a lot more. You could see exactly what the professor had up right in front instead of him writing on a board far, far away. 

Eva OrozcoI feel like I’m a completely different person in the best way possible, and that’s a lot due to the people I’ve surrounded myself with online and the classes that I’ve chosen to take. I took Wellness 191, which is comprehensive sexual health for peer counselors. It’s not only eye-opening, but it was mind-opening and heart-opening. 

Photos, from top: Eva Orozco; Chloe LubagPhotos, from top: Eva Orozco; Chloe Lubag

Many also found their way to fulfilling extracurriculars.

Sala: I did a bunch of activities where I’d be like, “Hey, I’m not on campus. Can I still participate in the activity?” And they’d be like, “Yeah. Come on in.” The coolest thing I did was for the Stanford African Students Association. They had a cultural night, and I was in the fashion show.

Stacey Lubag: My sister and I started making music, and it was kind of a way to cope with everything. We actually just hit 2,000 streams on a song that we released this week. 

Eva: I threw an event for Stanford Women in Politics by myself pretty much, and I moderated it. I talked to the Los Angeles deputy mayor, Barbara Romero. That was definitely a highlight. 

Photos, from top: Erin Attkisson; Linda Reed, ’87Photos, from top: Erin Attkisson; Linda Reed, ’87

Virtual life has some oddities that could get better IRL.

Logan BerzinsWhen you’re in the [Zoom] breakout rooms, you’re almost in a speed-dating environment. You get a minute on the clock winding down as you’re trying to talk to this person, and you never can finish what you’re trying to say. It makes it hard for you to actually have a meaningful conversation.

Jenna ReedOne of the quirks of Zoom is that no one really knows what you look like besides shoulders up. I’m 5-foot-11, and because I have a relatively high-pitched voice, people on Zoom think I’m shorter. I’ve seen a couple of people in person, and they’re like, “Oh, you’re tall!” And I’m like, “You’re shorter than I thought.” 

KevinI’m really excited to meet people who I’ve been dying to meet the past year in person, and just see them and give them a big welcome hug. 

The sophomores faced a bevy of residential choices, including ranking their neighborhood preferences, alone or in groups, and electing or forgoing the traditional random frosh roommate match.JennaI drew alone. First of all, I didn’t know anyone well enough to draw in a group, but secondly, I really like the idea of having this random roommate. I’m going to be in Crothers/Toyon. I was happy about it because, first of all, that was the neighborhood I wanted to live in, but secondly, I was supposed to be in Toyon [last winter] and now I am actually going to live there. 

Sala: I ranked neighborhoods with my main friend group from the fall because we’ve stayed friends consistently throughout the entire year. [My friend Sloan and I] decided we wanted to be intentional roommates. I feel very picky about who I’m going to live with, so it’s actually a big relief that I get to pick my roommate.

Elena: I really wanted the experience of having a random roommate just because it’s known to be a very cool thing at Stanford, even though I’m very close to my two friends that I drew in with [for neighborhood ranking]. It’s another opportunity for us to meet other people.

So just where is Cubberley Auditorium, anyway?

Jenna: I am so nervous about in-person classes. Where do I take class? How do I take class? I’ve taken a lot of seminars, and a seminar on Zoom is just a bunch of screens and everyone talking. Some professors have mentioned talking around the seminar table. I’m like, “What is this table? Is it just a table?” Then I’m like, “OK, lecture: Do I go to a lecture hall? Wait, do I have my computer open? Am I taking notes?” It seems silly, but I’ve adapted to Stanford on Zoom academically, but I don’t know how to do it in person. 

KevinHakeem Jefferson was my professor for Identity Politics 101. He recommended the coffee shop called Backyard Brew. One morning, I scootered over and he was sitting right there, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I know you!” Those spontaneous run-ins are just golden. I am really excited to meet more professors.

It has been a really hard year. Now, the Class of ’24 gets to move forward together.

Stacey: [With] the Asian American hate crimes, it was a horrible thing to have intertwined anxiety and fear. I feel that maybe right now there’s not as much emphasis on keeping good mental health as there should be.

Jenna: I feel like there’s been such pressure on everyone, like, “Oh, what sort of hobby, what sort of personal development did you go under during lockdown?” I made it through a year of university at home in a very isolated environment, and I feel like there should be something to be said for all of us doing our best. I think there will definitely be appreciation for the time that we actually have together because we weren’t for so long.

Logan: No one’s really experienced the true college lifestyle, and so they’re going to be relying on each other to discover and find out what Stanford has to offer, which I think will be super cool. 

Christine Foster is a writer in Connecticut. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.