Who's the Senior Here?

For some students, it's never over.

May/June 2002

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Who's the Senior Here?

Richard Waggoner

Just before the winter quarter of my senior year, it hit me. One cannot live on Freud and Shakespeare alone.

After three years of focusing on my two majors, I wanted to take a class not listed, cross-listed or recognized by the departments of psychology or English—something completely different. I found it in Anthropological Sciences 122: The Ancient Maya, an evening course taught by Professor James Fox. I had no idea, however, just how different it would be.

When I walked into the classroom that first night, I thought I was in the wrong place. The room contained too little denim, too few sweatshirts and not a single baseball cap. There was maybe one bare midriff. I paused skeptically at the door. Half the students were triple my age.

In search of my own new experience, I had stumbled into something new for Stanford as a whole: a class mixing regular undergrads with “overgrads” enrolled through the Continuing Studies program. It was only the second such course taught at Stanford.

Never before had I taken a class with students older than the professor. With three years of nice, normal classes behind me, I felt disoriented. Was I the senior or were they?

At the end of the second week, I met Ruth. She was an overgrad, retired after 13 years with Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital on the other side of campus. Waiting for class to start, the two of us chatted about the syllabus. Lecture began and, apparently, I could see the blackboard better than she. Grandmotherly Ruth was copying off my notes.

At the next class, Ruth asked if she could sit next to me again. “I was very impressed by your notes last time,” she said with a smile as she settled into the seat. After that, when Ruth missed a class, I picked up the handouts for her. When I lost an e-mail from the professor, she relayed the information. I gave her a crash course in the Stanford library system. She wished me luck on midterms.

Similar relationships blossomed in the classroom around us. Together, an alum and an undergrad baseball player pondered the Cardinal’s chances in the College World Series. A Silicon Valley computer technician and a sophomore computer science major mused over why the projector wouldn’t work. Students of all ages discussed the pending arrival of more textbooks, what authors to read for our book report and where to find the best maps to study. One evening, putting to use those valuable negotiating skills learned in three years at Stanford, I secured a homework extension for the class. The overgrad in front of me turned around conspiratorially. “Oh, wow,” he whispered. “Nice work!”

A turning point came the evening we studied Mayan language. Toward the end of class, Professor Fox asked us to recite a few phrases after him. At first, only a handful of brave overgrads shouted out their attempts. But the wisdom behind those lone voices, even in Mayan, chipped away at the insecurity of us youngsters. Their adventurousness was contagious, showing us overachieving undergrads the value—even the fun—of making a few mistakes. In minutes, everyone was participating, filling the distinguished halls of the history department with the worst Mayan the world has ever heard.

I enjoyed my 10 weeks as an anthropology student as much as any other time on campus. In fact, I can’t help but wonder if I should have focused my studies on ruins and potsherds instead of neurons and syntax. The closer graduation looms, the more I find myself contemplating every opportunity I may have missed here. It’s all so final—four years defined by one piece of paper, then you get the boot.

Thinking about the overgrads helps ease that anxiety. They prove that second chances are there for the taking.

So I chose psychology and English this time around—who says that’s the end of it? I can always come back for something completely different.

Emily E. Williams, ’02, is from Bloomington, Ind.

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