It’s been a month of déjà vu.
My junior year of high school, my parents decided that my spring break would be spent visiting universities on the east coast. Now, seven years later, I have spent my last spring break in Oxford—that is to say, the last period in my life where Prague will be an £11 flight away—touring graduate schools in the U.S. The places are all different, but at times, the people feel the same. In my first college tour, my family seemed to be on the exact same itinerary as a few others, and by the time we got as far north as Harvard, it was obvious who was going to ask which question—“Ah yes, there goes the ‘do you have wireless access everywhere?’ parent.” Similarly, by three schools in, I already knew who in my cohort was going to ask for excruciating details on the courses, and was certain that I, for my part, would ask about job placements.
During my visits, I’ve also spent a decent number of hours with professors discussing my senior thesis on the freegans. Rewind my life two years—almost to the day—and I was turning in my thesis. Little did I know that I’d be revisiting it two years later—going over the same data, re-reading the same pages. As I see a wave of facebook statuses announcing that people from Princeton that, in my brain, will always be Freshmen, are turning in theses, it’s hard not to get the sense that my life is, at this point, just on replay.
Déjà vu hit me especially hard when I visited Stanford. I had travelled to Stanford with my Dad as a high school senior, but it wasn’t that trip I was remembering. Once I got past the beautiful colonial architecture and California sunshine, all I could see was Princeton. The comparison between Princeton and Stanford was glaringly obvious when I entered Palo Alto, a upper class surburban wasteland of coffee shops and clothing boutiques. But I also saw Princeton in the departmental presentation, when the chair took pains to let us know how much more money they had than other schools. In my mind, it was Princeton undergraduates—not Stanford graduate students—talking when a graduate student told me “We don’t really do activism here.” Before we went clubbing in San Francisco, there was a debate over who would take the train into the city, which prompted one current grad to whine, “Ugh, I hate taking public transport.” That was Princeton too.
Don’t get me wrong, Stanford has a phenomenal department—much as Princeton is a phenomenal educational institution. Doug McAdam is hands-down the greatest scholar of social movements out there. Mark Granovetter is the most cited sociologist alive, and the fact that he is interested in my work is an opportunity I would be insane to turn down. The financial package I’ve been offered by Stanford gives me a tantalizing opportunity to escape the misery of TA-ships and graduate-student poverty and live a borderline-affluent existence. And, at the end of the day, it is in California—sunny weather is one thing that definitely didn’t feel too familiar to me. I also shouldn’t be too hard on the people I met there. Probably my favorite host of the entire trip was at Stanford, and I had no shortage of engaging conversations with current students.
At the end of the day, though, it is difficult for me to give Stanford a fair hearing. As I talked to other students in my potential cohort, I realized that I was framing everything through orange-tinted glasses. Others—coming from cash-strapped state institutions—clearly loved the idea of generous funding, and I don’t begrudge them that. Nor do I hold it against them that they were drawn in by the prospect of teaching only world-class students, as we were promised.
There’s something to be said for the strategy of infiltrating elite institutions and gaining qualifications in the name of, at some future date, using them for social justice. But values and principles are something that can be kicked down the road indefinitely—I’ll become an activist and start living by my beliefs after I get my degree, after I get a job, after I get tenure. It’s a bit like Mean Girls, though—if you spend too much time around the plastics, you eventually become a plastic yourself.
As far as I can tell, if Stanford sociology were an eating club, it would by Ivy.