ESSAYS

The King and I

Could I live up to this imagined version of my dad?

March 2024

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Illustration of Stanford student Allan Lopez with his dad

Illustration: Carlos Zamora

Standing outside Arrillaga Family Dining Commons, my dad looks toward the sky and swivels his head, enjoying every inch of the sunset. As I try to figure out how else to entertain my parents during Family Weekend, he smiles and, to no one in particular, says, “Man, I could have gone to Stanford if I was born in the U.S.”

I let out a laugh, an instinctive one. It’s the kind of laugh I use to react to most things my parents say: a heavy breath out of my nose paired with a weak smile. It’s a go-to response for the things I do not process immediately. When my mom or dad says something I cannot be bothered to appreciate (“Oh, this place has cheap poke bowls on Tuesdays”), I let it out like a reflex and then keep on reading on my phone. I never ignore the information; I just don’t always know how to respond.

Here, with my dad in front of me, once again I don’t know what to say.

A part of me immediately thinks, “No, he can’t know that. I go here, and I didn’t feel confident that I’d get in.”

But then another internal voice responds. “Yeah, but the difference is that he would have wanted it more than anything. When has he ever failed at that?”

When I got to Stanford, upperclassmen were constantly warning me about impostor syndrome. How meeting all these accomplished people from around the world could force me to be overly critical of myself. I’ve been here for four years. I’ve met actors from my favorite TV shows, Olympians who went to Tokyo, and coders for NASA. I’ve never felt impostor syndrome.

I felt like I paled in comparison to my dad and what he could have done.

But at that moment, smiling outside of the dining hall, I started to get it. It’s one thing to compare myself with the people around me, the known. But comparing myself with a hypothetical—the imagined version of my father who could have been biking these streets and walking these halls and eating these meals—that’s distinct. My impostor syndrome was coming from the fact that if my dad were here, I believe he would have appreciated it more than I do and taken full advantage of it.

I never assumed I’d be someone who went to Stanford. I’d never coded before, and I didn’t play any sports. My extracurriculars didn’t feel like extracurriculars. I never went to church and thought, “The admissions officers are going to eat this up!” My dad was against me getting a job, because he was worried it would take away from my academics, but I once interviewed to work at Baskin-Robbins. Instead of asking me questions, though, the owner made me scoop ice cream until I mastered getting exactly 2½ ounces into the cone. I woke up with my right arm sore the next day and decided I’d rather focus on school.

My dad is a different story. He grew up in Guatemala, taking care of his eight younger siblings and guiding them through their childhood as he navigated his own. His mother had passed away when he was 8, and his father was more than a thousand miles away in the United States, working and sending back remittances. With the money his dad sent, he could’ve bought all the pencils and Nike shoes he wanted, but he didn’t care for flashy things all that much, since all a boy really wants is his father. He worked tirelessly to support himself and his siblings, and eventually he got a scholarship to Guatemala’s preeminent engineering school. No matter how hard he tries to downplay it, I recognize the significance of his putting himself through school like that.

I’m an English major. When I first told him what I wanted to study, he responded with, “But you already speak English. I should be taking those classes.” And to that I responded with a real laugh, not with a heavy breath and a weak smile. Even so, it’s conversations with my dad that often get me to think about my English classes.

Allan Lopez with his father, LeoPhoto: Leo Lopez

There’s a line in Hamlet seared into my brain: “So excellent a king, that was to this/Hyperion to a satyr,” an angsty and indignant Hamlet says, ranting about his stepfather taking his dead dad’s throne. His dad is on the level of Hyperion, the god of the sun, whereas his stepdad is a satyr, this half-man, half-goat creature.

Underneath that sunset, I felt like the satyr standing next to Hyperion. Even with orange rays landing on my skin, I felt like I paled in comparison to my dad and what he could have done. But then he turned to me and said, “I’m glad you’re here.”

All the first-generation kids I know feel the weight of their family’s past on their shoulders and recognize that they didn’t end up in a position to succeed by themselves. For that split second in between his two sentences, I worried that I wasn’t doing right by my dad—I wasn’t doing enough. I thought to myself, “If he accomplished that, then I’ve got to do it times two.” I felt both this need to match his life, to go through the same hardships he did, and this guilt that his circumstances had prevented him from doing more.

But I realized that my being here at Stanford was that “more.” My dad loves his life, and I’ve never heard him compare it with anyone else’s. His enjoying the idea of being a student here doesn’t mean I have to chase after an imaginary scenario of what he could have done. I do plenty on my own, and I’ve got to be as proud of all that as he is. If all a boy wants is his father, all a father wants is for his son to be happy. So excellent a king he is, my dad. I will be excellent in my own way.


Allan Lopez, ’23, was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley. He stands on the shoulders of his teachers, friends, family members, and so many others. Email him at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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