ESSAYS

Our Family Legacy

How I came to understand the true reason Uncle Dan dropped out.

May 2023

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Collage featuring photos of uncle Dan with Sierra as a baby and as an adult

Collage: Courtesy Sierra Garcia (2); Rachel Lim/CCSC; Illustration by DaVidRo

When my freshman year began, I thought I knew the story of my family’s Stanford connection.

Daniel Garcia, ’73—Uncle Dan, to me—was the only one of my grandmother’s five sons to enroll in college. When my father dropped out of high school at age 16, he traveled north from Los Angeles to join his older brother on Stanford’s campus—in his case, as a full-time dishwasher at Tresidder Union. Occasionally, he’d sneak into the back of Daniel’s classes and eavesdrop on the early childhood psychology lectures. That ended when Uncle Dan dropped out sophomore year—for financial reasons, as I understood—and started working full time as a caregiver at the newly formed campus childcare co-op, a job he’d begun while on federal work-study.

I rarely saw my uncle when I was growing up, in Monterey County, Calif., but at Stanford, I got to know him better. I learned he was a guitarist and songwriter, a devout Buddhist, a bocce ball aficionado, and a self-described court jester. I discovered during a campus history presentation that he’d been part of the first large class of Chicano students admitted to Stanford. Throughout my years on campus, I would run into people who knew my uncle from his work at the daycare, and their faces would light up. “We tried to get our daughter into his class,” one Stanford staff member told me. “All the other parents say he’s the best teacher.”

His work with the children provided everything he had hoped to find at Stanford and beyond.

Once, Uncle Dan took me on a tour of the co-op’s play yard, and in showing it to me transformed the sand pit and redwood trees into a microcosm of the California landscape. A mound of dirt a few feet high was an excellent place to encourage “mountain meditation” as toddlers climbed it and observed the world on high. He’d hoist them one at a time onto his shoulders to behold the world beyond the fence.

Over time, I started to suspect that my dad had missed something about his brother’s Stanford story, which he’d always framed as a bit of a tragedy of circumstances: If our family had had more money, and Uncle Dan hadn’t needed to work so much on top of his studies, he could have finished college.

Last year, I asked my uncle why he’d quit school. It had been an unhappy time for him, he said, an era of isolation and loneliness. His work with the children provided everything he had hoped to find at Stanford and beyond: intellectual and philosophical rigor, meaningful impact, and a need to continually innovate and learn.

He didn’t say whether he would have stayed enrolled had Stanford better supported first-generation students back then, and I didn’t ask. I didn’t need to. I finally understood my family’s Stanford story from my uncle’s perspective: not as a tale of educational achievement postponed but as a necessary turn onto a path that offered far more joy and fulfillment.


Sierra Garcia, ’18, MA ’20, is a 2022–23 Fulbright-National Geographic Storyteller. Her uncle, Daniel Garcia, has “known more than 1,000 people at the age of 2” in his 53 years at the Children’s Center of the Stanford Community. Email Sierra at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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