Friday, September 17, 2010

New campus, new adventures, new friends

What an amazing first week at school! It's been a whirlwind of opportunity, fast friendships, random connections, and lots of beer.

First off: the campus. It is positively gorgeous. It's also REALLY BIG. Good thing I have my bicycle to get around. Here are some photos. It was difficult to capture everything about the campus -- being so expansive -- but I've hoped to point out it's beautiful trees, interesting art installations, and outdoor reading nooks.

Here's a photo from inside the Green Library, which is the main library on campus. I also included a photo from inside the library. Stunning. Their library system -- which spans ~20 individual libraries -- is fully integrated to deliver over 6 million books; 1,000 databases; and more journals, articles, and newspapers than you can shake a stick at. Even a really big stick. The magnitude and capacity of the library system is staggering. They also have a music library. I'm totally spending hours down there going through old Blues recordings.

I'll begin with the connections I've been making. I've been excited about returning to student life in graduate school. My undergrad social experience was decidedly subpar. I believe there were many factors involved, but the fact is that I didn't build many strong relationships with my peers in undergrad.

As I stepped foot on campus, I set my mind to making a difference this time around. My time outside of school, my growth through dance and school and love, my experiences with wonderful friends that have taught me so much: these were all ways that I had prepared myself for this moment.

Fortunately for me, Stanford highly values the social lives of its graduate students. Our first week at school has been an opportunity to settle in, mingle with others, and gear up for academia. Each day was peppered with social gatherings and mixers: Grad 101, BBQs, speed friending, and bar hopping (just to name a few).

The first big event was a BBQ mixer offered by my residence area (Rains). With word spreading quickly, the event opened up into a campus-wide graduate student mixer with free food and booze. There were easily 150 students present, probably many more. My nerves kicked up as I found myself wandering around the area, not sure what to do. People were already circling up, having conversations. Crap! I'm missing my window! What do I do?

At that moment, I channeled Mr. Joshua K. There was this moment at Burning Man last year, I remember wandering around with him to various camps. He would just walk up to a group of people, sit down with them, and say, "Hey, I'm Joshua." That's it. That's all I had to do.

So I did. I would just go up to groups of people and insert myself into the conversation. It helped that my fellow students showed genuine interest in establishing connections with other random people.

The rest has been an exercise in saying "Hello." I've met many wonderful and interesting people, typically through introductions from newly-fashioned friends or through just approaching someone who looked like they were worth knowing. (I have come to appreciate my unique background in dance and environmentalism, for the discussions it sparks.)

A big moment -- a proof of my growth, if you will -- came on Tuesday night. I was on my way to some event when I passed by a woman with hair dyed a captivating shade of red. I offered my compliments to her appearance, and went on my way. Later that night, I was attending an event featuring stand-up comics. Many were in attendance, but my eyes were immediately caught by the same woman sitting across the room from me.

Normally, at this point, I would shyly eye the intriguing woman, fantasize about some miraculous connection that would bring me about to meeting her, and the friendship that would grow from it. Nothing would come of it and my imaginings would go the way of a Harlem dream.

Instead, I just went up and said "Hello."

I made my way over to her area so I could catch her on her egress. I caught her attention, said hello, and introduced myself. I even effortlessly said that terrifying sentence that so many people agonize over: "Would you like to hang out some time?" By far my most successful cold-call introduction ever. It was just so easy! (Her name is Sara, she's from Slovenia. The following night we spent a few hours chatting over sake, chocolate, and a traditional Slovenian dessert called potica.)

Speaking of international, I have been surprised by the number of international students I've met. I've met people from France, Slovenia, Iran, G.B., China, and India. Craziness.

My secret weapon has definitely been my notebook. I carry it with me wherever I go. When I meet someone that I want to keep in touch with, I have them write down their info. There have just been so many people, it's the only way I can keep track of all the introductions through the chaos. My countless hours at exchanges -- bouncing from one social group to another by way of random processes -- has proven good training in keeping my cool and going with the flow. While others seem to get overwhelmed and stick to one group, I have allowed myself to slip in and out of circles, a tactic that has opened up many new connections.

By Wednesday, I had already fashioned one small get-together and was making plans for a dinner party the following night. My little tan book had several pages filled with names of people whom I hope to know better through the coming year(s).

On Thursday, I made my move. "Dinner party at my place tonight: Indian, vegetarian, friends. Bring $5 for food and booze provided. 229 Rains #201. Please RSVP." This was the text sent out to a select group of about ten friends. What resulted was a wonderful evening attended by new friends and delicious food. In attendance, by group: Adam and Noah (civil engineering); Antoine and Clement (French neighbors, engineering); Ashley, Jess, and Suzanne (education); and myself. I reheated the various Indian dishes, cooked more brown basmati rice, and prepared the roasted peppers recipe I picked up from Ted. Add some good wine, Miles Davis, and a big table, and you have one happy group of people. I think I made a good impression. My hope is to establish it people's minds that I am a person worth knowing for what I have to offer.

I feel like this party was only the beginning. I have had a lot of fun meeting new people, connecting them with other friends, and wrangling everyone together for good times. My (now plentiful) experiences of organizing or attending such activities within the dance community have taught me a lot about how to do it. It's actually fun, all this organizing that I do. (There are already tentative plans to get a group to backpack through the Muir Woods in a couple weeks.)

So, those have been the highlights of the social experiment that I call grad school. There have been downsides, of course: missed connections, people flaking out of plans and leaving me to improvise my own plans, and really just so many people that I've met once but haven't yet had a chance to see again.

The bar hopping excursion was probably my most undesirable experience. I had a lot going for me: I was in the company of good people and was riding the high from my successful dinner party. Once we get into the bar, however, the situation deteriorated. I found myself struggling to hear what was being said, which often makes me stop talking for fear of interrupting a conversation's flow with a non sequitor comment (or, even worse, a comment that screams, "Let's talk about me!").

Exhausted from shouting at the top of my lungs and straining to hear, I tried dancing. They had a big floor with enough elbow room for some maneuvering. The DJ was spinning hard-hitting thump music; at least it was a step up (to me) from rap or hip-hop. Once again, though, I left disappointed. I am so spoiled by the social dance experience; I feel out of place dancing by myself, in a group, for only myself. I want to have connection -- even if it's entirely non-physical -- with those I'm dancing with. Lacking any level of communication, I must look to be inspired by myself or by the music. The music was mostly uninspiring (though certainly not discouraging of dance). I kept myself inspired for a few songs before I grew tired of what I was doing: essentially, the same old stuff. At that point, I was left wondering what I was doing there. I tried really hard to branch out and feel like I was a part of something, but couldn't accomplish it; I felt isolated, alone, and bored. Eventually, I gave up and rode my bike home, frustrated. (Thanks to Gretchen and Elena whom bore the brunt of my venting that night.) Oh well, it can't all be sunshine and butterflies -- at least the dinner was a mad success.

That about covers the big moments of my social life. There are parts I'm glossing over, of course, but what's the sense (or feasibility) of recounting every moment for the past several days.


Academically, I am so stoked about Stanford. My civil engineering orientation happened yesterday morning. It was a four-hour ordeal to meet the professors, learn about the program, and be introduced to my degree specialization. Stanford has been far ahead of the curve in the sustainable construction industry. They pioneered 4-D digital building modeling -- a technology that allows project managers to improve efficiency and reduce waste through visualizing the construction phases over a timeline -- and considering the whole lifecycle of infrastructure projects -- a concept that has been integral to the sustainable design movement. Carnegie Mellon University has their claim to fame with Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), but Stanford University can take credit for advancing sustainability within construction long before it became popular. It is moments like that when I am struck by my good fortunate at attending such a prestigious school. A construction degree from Stanford carries tremendous weight. I am honored to be a part of this program and can only hope to do its title proud.

I met with my advisor, Professor Lepech, today before leaving for NSB. He is an engaging individual and staggeringly intelligent. One of his more famous areas of research is in developing ductile concrete -- a concrete that can bend like steel, withstand tremendous compression (like normal concrete), and requires less material.

Crazy, right?

I am pretty set on taking two years to complete my Master's degree, with the option to pursue a PhD after. There are many opportunities for independent study and research. My hope (and plan) is to get involved with my professors and volunteer my time at research labs. It's a way that I can show my gratitude for my fellowship and still advance my own academic goals.

Stanford's academic spirit blows my mind. One of the CEE professors described it as "anarchy." If I find a class that I believe should count toward my degree, I can take it to them and say so, and they will often make it so. I can tell them that I specialized in Structural Design as an undergrad, so I can take some higher-level structural analysis class where I will learn something new -- rather than taking a design class where I know most of the material -- to count toward my required structural credits. I can tell them that I can't find a class on a certain subject and I want to study it, and they will give me the opportunity and the funding to pursue it. I can attend business, economics, earth science, biology, mechanical engineering, political science, etc., classes and have it count toward my degree. I can athletic or dance classes and they won't say boo about it. I can audit classes for $15, allowing me to extract new skills and knowledge without overloading myself. All of the faculty and staff are here to help us succeed and become notable leaders in our field. The interdisciplinary culture at Stanford is pervasive. The spirit of entrepreneurial thinking, of taking agency for your own learning and success, is strong and highly valued.

Essentially, if I want to do something, all I have to do is tell someone, give a good reason for it, and it will probably happen.

Perhaps the greatest challenge will be not overloading myself. There is so much to learn, so much to do, so many opportunities to pursue, that it's impossible to do everything. I must pace myself and focus on getting the most out of what I do take on.


My dance life at Stanford shows great promise. I heard back from one of the Community Advisers (CAs) at Rains. She organizes dance classes through Rains and would love to offer more than just a swing class. She was thrilled to hear that a professional dance instructor was living in the community.

I also found a completely random (and extremely valuable) connection with the swing club at Stanford. I met him through a friend of one of my housemates. I'm not making this up; stuff like this just falls into my lap. He gave me the rundown of the local instructors, classes, dance organizations, and swing events in the area. He seemed open to getting me involved as an organizer and teacher at Stanford.

Plus, a lot of the people I've met have expressed interest in learning to dance.

Two words: Hellz. Yeah.


Well, that about covers my first week's Stanford adventure.

Bye for now! I have a plane to catch soon to Minneapolis. Presently I'm sitting next to some d-bag with his briefcase and polo shirt whom is talking on the phone about how his friend/daughter/not-sure-what got rear-ended and he wants to "sue their pants off." Some excerpts: "Rear ending is just plain irresponsible and unforgivable -- break lights always work on cars these days ... I'm going to take it to the most expensive body shop possible because they deserve it ... I'm glad I put her in the Durango. Don't care about the fuel economy, what with all these jerks on the road running into her. I want her in the biggest car possible." Yeah... you're a deuschbag. It's funny (and a little sad) to me when people are so incapable of seeing the world through someone else's perspective; I'm sure he'd be bitching up a storm if he accidentally rear-ended someone and they did that to him.

Coming up: North Star Blues (blooz!), classes (ooh!), and the SF Blues community (whoo!).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Stanford, ho!


I'm attending graduate school at Stanford.

That sentence still seems weird to me. I hope it stays that way.

My egress was filled with tears and many hugs with my wonderful and supportive family. I am so grateful for their presence. I wouldn't be the person I am without them.

The journey down to California was appropriately lengthy, giving me ample time to take stock of my new endeavors and past experiences. With some good music and privacy, I was able to freely and openly address my emotions. Spending nine hours in a car can work wonders for your state of mind (or wreck havoc, I would imagine).

Driving down south was mostly unremarkable. I-5 was quiet the whole way. Getting into the San Francisco area was stressful as the highway lanes narrowed and more cars appeared. These factors normally wouldn't be a problem except that I had a fully loaded car so that I couldn't see out my rear view or right side mirrors. Still, I made it to Elena's without incident where I crashed for the night.

Last night was my first night spent in my new room. Boxes cover every square inch of floor space. I get a lot of balance practice trying to navigate my way around boxes to get at a pair of socks, my computer, or a toothbrush.

The move-in process went relatively smoothly. Assistance by Elena proved pivotal in maintaining good spirits and speeding up the hauling process. I was concerned about what I'd do for dinner: I had no food and little energy to prepare a proper meal for myself. Ted stepped in to save the day. Calling me out of the blue, he wished me a good day of moving and invited my over to dinner in SF. Super-Ted to the rescue! Both the food and the company were a perfect welcome to San Francisco and a new phase in my life.

The meal included: excellent wine; tri-tip; grilled peppers with cream cheese (!), sage, thyme, salt, and olive oil; sauteed spinach, and rice.

Choosing prudence over recklessness, I opted out of attending Swig last night in favor of sleep; I had signed up for a 7am ride the next day. Returning home, I was introduced to the other housemates whom all seem like fine individuals. Grad students are so much more chill than undergrad. I think I'm going to like it here.

Shaking off drowsiness (and apprehension about joining a ride that would leave me in the dust) the next morning, I rode my way out to the appointed meeting spot. I joined two other men (Ken and Sol) for a brisk (read: 15 mph average) 30-mi ride around Stanford and its environs. With flats, a four-mile climb, and descents with challenging corners, this ride provided a well-rounded cycling experience. Being a small group, it provided a low-key environment to introduce myself to the cycling group and learn more about the Stanford club. I think I performed admirably, though I was clearly less strong than the other two riders. I did manage to keep pace, however, so I'm hopeful that I'll step it up by racing season next spring.

Returning to campus exhausted, it occurred to me that I still lacked food supplies. Damn! My ravenous hunger growing difficult to ignore, I made a quick search on Google to find a nearby cafe. (Thankfully I had set up my internet access the night before -- not sure what I would've done otherwise.) Refueling on a three-egg omelette with ham, avocado, tomato, bell pepper, onion, and cheese, I finally took a moment to gather my thoughts and write this post.

It's been a busy few days and I imagine the pace will only continue to ramp up. I am grateful for these moments that allow me to appreciate my situation.

Now it's time to return to campus, unpack, explore the school, and meet people. I have my fingers crossed.

"Hi! My name's Andrew Smith. Would you like to be my friend?"