Stanford U: welcome to The Farm

You may wonder why Stanford is nicknamed The Farm. I did too. I guess an historical contextualization is probably due, so allow me to briefly resort to the typical touristic discourse that I have seen tour guides do on campus: Stanford was founded back in 1887 by Leland Stanford Sr to honor his young son, who had passed away due to a fever at the age of 7. His mission for the university was to create “an appropriate environment for learning”, a place that was secluded from the the busy life of cities around the Peninsula and that thrived on knowledge and research, but also a place that was self-sufficient and could provide students the environment they needed to thrive.

Plenty of years have passed, and Stanford has evolved and expanded beyond its original borders. Simultaneously, its physical context and the landscape around it has also changed drastically – located in the heart of Silicon Valley, surrounded by places like Menlo Park and Palo Alto (where, as you all know, large tech companies like Apple, Facebook and the like reside), Stanford is now part of the wealthiest area in Northern California and one of the wealthiest in the entire country (which brings up very specific issues of its own, but more on that later). These towns have evolved from somewhat suburban communities to major tech hubs – and this what the Bay Area is famous worldwide for. Old university buildings have been renovated and new buildings have been built (especially after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which destroyed a significant part of the campus facilities at the time). Today, Stanford is not considered a city in itself, but it is a large enough place it to have its own police force and fire department, as well as, seemingly, its own specific laws and regulations.

So, Stanford has seemingly steered away from its initial purpose, but maybe not so much. If one were to think of American universities, we would probably imagine them just like we see them in the college-movie blockbusters that fill in Saturday and Sunday TV slots — big, flourishing campuses, seemingly immersed in nature, idyllic paradises for knowledge and understanding, left-wing havens, students sitting in the green studying and reading: I would say that Stanford most definitely fits this profile.

As I have come to see it, reality can come pretty close to these stereotypes.

View of (part of) the Stanford campus from my 12th floor bedroom window

Having always lived in urban areas and frequented urban schools and universities, the switch to a campus-based University was a drastic change – and my thoughts on it are mixed.

For a long time I hesitated between a couple of universities when choosing where to study in the US. I had applied to four universities – Stanford, Northwestern (near Chicago), Temple (in Philadelphia) and San Francisco State (self-explanatory) – and had got into all of them. Urban colleges appealed to me a lot more than the kind of isolated campus that we’re used to seeing in movies – I wanted the chaos of urban life and public transportation, to be immersed in cities and the movement of its people, to come into touch with a wider variety of people and places that I believed I would only come to touch with in a large enough city. However, Stanford’s documentary programme has been around for over 50 years (!) and the financial support they gave me – coupled with my scholarship from Fulbright – allowed me to pay almost 90% of the costs of living here. It’s no secret that tuition in America are ludicrous and impossible to pay without resorting to student loans – which now take on almost a country-wide epidemic dimension -, and it was only with this amount of financial support that I was able to attend this University. It seemed silly, ridiculous even, to turn down the possibility of attending one of the best universities in the field just because of the environment where the university is in.

Having said that, Stanford has incredible facilities, great libraries (which sadly I have not had much of an opportunity to use – only the Art Library, one of the loveliest places on campus I’ve discovered yet) and for the Doc Film programme, great equipment and conditions. It’s a place of privilege and wealth, with all the issues that come with that.

My weeks tend to follow a routine of work – biking to and from home to campus, working in my edit room and at the library, attending classes, circulating within the same areas of campus, seeing the same people everyday. While social life is not something I pursue often, it’s on the agenda for me to try to attain… Eventually.

I am constantly reminded by other people of one somewhat unsettling idea – Stanford, or even the Bay Area, for that matter, is not “America”. A place of wealth and privilege, located within one of the most “liberal” states (though my own concept of left-wing tends to somewhat diverge from that of the left-wingers that I have met here) does not represent the majority of the territory (though America is far too big of a country for one to be able to consider it one whole, cohesive element, or to think there is only “one America”). Having the chance to travel, I try to get away as much as I can, and look for the most varied and genuine experience of this country as I possibly can.

Empty reading room at the Bowes Art Library on a sunny Sunday morning
Work with a view – the balcony at the Art library

In the weekends, I tend to escape from campus as much as possible – I can’t avoid being drawn to the confusion and chaos of cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley. I commute up to San Francisco as much as possible, every two weeks or so. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to get a California driver’s license (European licenses are not valid for long-term residents) and start driving more often – it’s practically impossible to get around freely without a car. Does this mean I’m converting to the American way of life? Hah!

As finals are almost over and the University starts to clear out for the holidays, the campus is starting to be emptier and emptier. Soon enough I’ll go home for the holidays too – but before that, I’ll go up to Seattle for a couple of days. More on that soon!

Afternoon window details at the McMurtry building

– Inês

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