My Stanford Education

Ken Del Rossi

Starting a new job is like being a freshman, only with a little more experience.

In both cases, you must overcome those first few days, a-twitch with anxiety, wondering if your admission was really the product of a mistake, some terrible oversight that allowed you to sneak in, undetected and unworthy. That's if outright dread doesn't grab you first, as the prospect occurs to you that maybe, in fact, you are supposed to be here and now people expect you to deliver on what you promised back when you were bold and confident and full of clever aphorisms that left the admissions committee swooning.

Okay, buddy, you're in. Let's see what you've got.

Of course, unlike some freshmen, I did not have a weepy separation from my parents back in September, and my angst stems from my own expectations, not from such pesky issues as whether my roommate will think I'm a geek. Still, I feel a kinship.

The freshmen and I arrived at our new homes only a few days apart, beginning, each in our own way, a Stanford education. Theirs will involve boundary-stretching exercises in which the muscles they thought were in shape will be sore, and some new ones they didn't know they had will emerge. Wherever it is they came from will start to seem wanting and then, later, not so bad. Coffee will become important.

Come to think of it, that more or less describes my first few weeks, too.

Actually, I'm cheating a little. I'm not entirely new to Stanford, having worked for 18 months at the Law School before making the short walk over to the Alumni Association. And that time has been long enough to recognize that even if you're among the unlucky folks who don't have an actual Stanford education, there is a decent chance you'll still feel the embrace of this place. I have felt it, despite the fact that I am not 1) an alumnus, 2) a friend of an alumnus, or 3) the beneficiary of some other pedigreed education that might suggest a natural affinity. I attended a small, little-known liberal arts college in Iowa, having gravitated there from an even smaller, lesser-known town nearby. I am descended from farmers who until one generation ago had never traveled farther than their adjacent county, and my memories of "the farm" involve standing in a sweltering barn pitching hay bales half my weight while the straw dust fought with the air to be what you breathed. So how is it that I feel so at home at Stanford and at Stanford?

I think the answer lies in an ethos that infuses both the University and the magazine. That ethos embodies spirited enthusiasm for the human experience, a recognition that achievement transcends history and title, and the good sense to know interesting ideas come from unusual places. That last one may be most important of all.

Stanford ignores the stuff that doesn't matter better than any place I've ever been. In the context of the magazine, that means we focus on what matters most--namely, the quality of the story. We're less interested in what you are than in who you are. We're less interested in what you do than in how you do it. I love finding those stories, and telling them, about as much as anybody can love any job.

Our cover subject, Norbert Wu, for example, is a guy who grew up in suburban Atlanta, about as far as you can get from swimming around under the ice of Antarctica taking pictures of crazy-looking creatures most people have never seen. And I always harbored a suspicion--probably based on the common misconception--that home-schooled students were social anachronisms, separated from the mainstream because of dogma or eccentricity or both. As it turns out, many of them--and all of them who come to Stanford--are merely learning in a different way, and perhaps teaching the rest of us a thing or two about the nature of knowledge. Like I said, interesting stories have unusual origins.

So, here I am, having convinced or fooled, take your pick, the "admissions" folks that I have the chops to edit a magazine deemed the best in the country in its category last year. That will be a pretty good story, too, if my Stanford education holds up.

Stay tuned.


You can reach Kevin at jkcool@stanford.edu.