After California’s high rate of COVID-19 cases led Stanford to revoke its invitations for students to be on campus in the fall and winter, the university offered first- and second-year students a consolation prize: a chance to come to The Farm for summer quarter.
For the university, this was a step forward. But for many students, making summer plans was consistent with the pandemic zeitgeist: unprecedented and riddled with complexities.
In a normal year, most students enroll in an uninterrupted, fall-through-spring quarter sequence. For 2020-2021, Stanford introduced the “Flex Term:” a 10–week break in classes that students could take for any one of the four academic quarters. This structure gives first-year students the option to take their Flex Term fall, winter or spring and enroll in online classes while living on campus this summer.
To be eligible for university housing during a Flex Term, students must find a job or participate in Stanford-funded research that necessitates on-campus residency. Students who took their Flex Term earlier in the year can enroll for summer, as they would any other quarter, and receive housing. Those who enrolled for fall, winter and spring can take a fourth quarter of classes, but university financial aid does not apply.
Of course, students always have the option to go home, recharge after a year of online school and return in the fall. But first-year Benjamin Zaidel said that Stanford’s academic pressure and high-achieving peers makes taking a break feel “like I’m behind.”
On top of a full course load in the fall, winter and spring, Zaidel was an online tutor for K-12 students from several countries, served as Public Service Officer for Vietanmese Student Association and covered university news for The Stanford Daily. Still, to him a summer break would feel like a failure, something he chalks up to the Stanford culture. “There is an implicit pressure on students to function like adults, maybe before we should have to,” he said.
Zaidel plans to conduct heart arrhythmia bioengineering research on campus this summer, at least some of which he hopes to do in person. The Stanford program he applied through, Research Experience for Undergraduates, provided him with a grant to cover on-campus housing and dining costs for Summer Quarter.
Not all research opportunities come with funding, though. First-year Maya Somers will cover her own living expenses while she does immunology lab work on campus this summer. Rather than apply to a lab through a Stanford program, Somers cold-called professors to find a research opportunity and, as a result, did not receive a grant.
Somers shares Zaidel’s experience with pressure to achieve at Stanford. “When I told my family and friends back home I was going to do research, they all asked me why on earth I wanted to do that,” she said. “Here, it’s just normal and expected that people are always doing something.”
First-year Jonny Zients kept busy during his quarter off from classes, working remotely for the Stanford Center for Poverty and Inequality during a spring Flex Term. After Stanford canceled plans to bring his class to campus in the winter, Zients put all his chips on a summer on The Farm. “I knew it was going to be my one chance,” he said.
Zients is among about 580 undergraduates, from first-years to seniors, enrolled in a full Summer Quarter, according to the Registrar’s Office. This is around 200 more students than a regular Summer Quarter and more than double last summer’s number.
In addition, Stanford will still offer its “Summer Session,” a chance for non-matriculated high school, undergraduate and graduate students to take classes.
There are roughly 700 available courses, university officials say, though numbers vary widely across departments. Undergraduates can choose from nearly 30 History classes, but anyone who hopes to take a Public Policy class appears to be out of luck.
Zients describes the summer offerings as “very niche,” but sees this as a positive as he explores his interests and experiments with possible majors. In his summer course planner, a science of cooking class sits in between a biology seminar and a course on the LGBT history of San Francisco.
Zaidel, Somers and Zients all expressed excitement to get to know their classmates on campus — something Stanford hopes to help facilitate, according to Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Sarah Church. A first-year centered program to build community and acquaint students with campus is in the works, she said, and could carry over into fall when the entire Class of 2024 moves in.
First-years Maddy Seybold and Jakob Shackleton will join their classmates in September. Both opted for a summer away from campus. Seybold plans to intern for a venture capital firm in New York, a work experience she sees as more valuable than another quarter of classes. She spent fall in Florida, winter in Utah and spring near campus. To Seybold, this opportunity to travel has been a college experience in and of itself. “I feel I’ve gotten even more out of the year than I would have gotten at Stanford,” she said.
Shackleton’s mandatory ROTC summer training granted him less freedom to choose his enrollment plans than his peers. Required to take classes fall through spring, Shackleton was able to move onto campus for the last leg of his first year. After training is finished, he hopes to use the rest of his summer to travel outside of the U.S. for the first time — either to Greece or Guatemala, though COVID-19 conditions make it difficult to predict what travel restrictions will allow. “Nothing’s set in stone yet,” he said. “Sort of like this whole year…” He trails off in thought, eyes wandering across the dorm windows of Meier Hall. “Nothing is guaranteed. This year has reinforced that,”
All students interviewed for this article agreed that one summer on campus cannot make up for a year of canceled plans and dashed expectations. Somers grew up watching Stanford sporting events with her dad, storing his cheers and lingo in hopes of one day joining the cardinal-and-white clad students in the stands. A year of college gone and that dream delayed, Somers said her mindset was forced to change. “I’m not going to get the freshman experience I pictured for so long. We’re just going to take what we get and go from there.”
Zients agreed. “This year has pushed me to figure out how to enjoy what’s happening in the moment, and just let the rest figure itself out.”