Stanford experience by Olli Laukkanen

I’m writing this blog post on the way home, flying over the never-ending prairies of the West, after an inspiring, instructive and terribly fun experience at the International Honors Program (IHP) at Stanford University over the summer of 2017. In this all too brief description of the summer at Stanford, I will first focus on the classes I took and then provide some insight and tips for future students in the program. Altogether, my key takeaway is: A summer at Stanford and in the Silicon Valley is definitely one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and yes, you should apply!

When applying for the IHP last spring, I was a second-year chemical engineering student at Aalto. I had studied a variety of different engineering courses and a bit of economics as my minor. As for my studies at Stanford, I decided to take note of some previous Aalto students’ tips and select courses outside the area of my previous studies. Personally, I would definitely recommend choosing at least one course with an experimental nature – this is your chance to discover a passion for something that you might not be able to study at home! Anyway, as I look back and try to evaluate my classes at Stanford, it is worth keeping in mind that they were all new to me in a sense, which might positively skew my judgment about them.

My three classes over the summer comprised a splendid plunge into the fields of public speaking, political philosophy and political science. The classes were called 1) Romancing the Room,  2) Justice and Climate Change and 3) Comparative Corruption. The brief descriptions provided online might not fully accurately describe the classes and it is definitely worth spending some of the first days at Stanford checking out several optional courses and then settling on those that seem to be the most intriguing all things considered.

Comparative Corruption (3 units) was a fascinating political science class on the different aspects of corruption. This class greatly benefited from the diversity of the student body of the summer quarter, as the students from all the world could engage and share their views and stories in the discussion and debate that consituted a significant part of the classes. Even though the class had quite a lot of weekly preparatory reading, I would definitely consider its workload the most lightweight of my three classes. I must say that at times, certain student presentations seemed to take too much time as the teacher enforced some of the time limits rather poorly, but I certainly met and connected with some of the most interesting characters of the summer in this class!

Justice and Climate Change (3 units) was primarily a political philosophy class on the concept of justice, not so much purely environmental studies. I enjoyed the variety of different thinkers that we were exposed to during the course. Seemingly technical or economic climate change problems led to surprisingly complex ethical questions and provided great substance matter to the discussions about different natures of justice. This class was held by an enthousiastic PhD student and all the class meetings were very engaging and a great opportunity to get to know students in class. The class did demand quite a lot of time to complete all the preparatory reading and essays, but as I mentioned, I thoroughly enjoyed the variety of viewpoints, from Locke and Friedman to the leading contemporary climate science philosophers.

Public Speaking – Romancing the Room (3 units) was definitely one of the highlights of my experience at Stanford. Altogether, the wonderful teaching team, the shared passion for the art of speaking, the individuals’ growth on stage throughout the course and the unforgettable final exam dinner in Palo Alto restaurant made this class an absolute favorite of many and a constant topic in the discussions among IHP students outside the classroom, as well. Personally, I would love to make this course mandatory for all, and thus I feel I need not reveal more: I give the strongest of recommendations for the future students to check it out!


Department of Chemistry

As much as people come to Stanford for the pure academic experience, it is mostly what happens outside the classroom that makes the IHP summer so memorable and fascinating. Silicon Valley itself surely provides unlimited curiosities even if you’re not a tech maniac coming to Stanford – perhaps even more so in that case! The many nuances of the American society are also visible in the Bay Area: the vast inequality problem is contrasted between the tech billionaires and the seemingly unlimited resources of institutions like Stanford, as simultaneously the countless homeless people roam the streets of San Francisco and spend their nights under the stars, on the stairs of the City Hall. The boom of the technology companies has led to high costs of living in the area and one can literally witness gentrification taking place in many neighborhoods. Following the news at least a little can prove worthwile while in the Valley, as the local and national news ranged from the role of gender as Google engineers to the worrisome rise of white nationalism in the American South to the immigration policies of Trump administration and the effect of the greater political turmoil on the technology sphere. Every now and then, I found it sobering to have discussions about matters like these, as it might be all too easy to forget about many of the nasty real world problems when surrounded by the unlimited sunny weather, the evergreen lawns of Stanford in the middle of the drought of California, and the fascinating encounters between the catalytic venture capital and optimistic start-ups, aiming at technological disruption on all fronts. All in all, the experience at Stanford was thought-provoking much beyond the academics and the vibrant, intoxicating tech scene.

Kuva 1

The diverse backgrounds of the bright students within the IHP and the Summer Quarter guarantee friendships across the globe, if you give it a chance. I definitely recommend getting outside of your comfort zone during the summer: if possible, 1) Be open-minded, don’t be too cool for some perhaps odd or seemingly silly activities. (A Jazz Festival in San Francisco was one of the more inspiring experiences for me, a person with the musical skills of a speed bump!) 2) Try out a new hobby or sport (maybe some intra-murals or extra-curricular activities – take advantage of the superb facilities provided at Stanford) 3) Consider sharing a room with someone (most of the students at our Lagunita Court residences had their own room, but I saw some the greatest friendships being formed between roommates.) 4) Arrange activities and trips on your own – these are bound to be some the most memorable experiences! (I would not trade a weekend at Yosemite National Park for anything.) 5) Do not always dine only with oh-so-wonderful Aalto-Six as an exclusive Finnish Speakers Club!

And on a more practical note: 6) Get a bike as soon as you can. (The supply can prove to be rather limited at the nearest Walmart!) 7) Try out the different dining halls of the campus for a little variety of cuisine!

Kuva 2

In the end, it proves hard to give specific attributes that make the Stanford IHP summer so worthwile. There are truly so many incredible aspects to this wonderful opportunity that Aalto and Stanford generously provide. If you are reading this and made it all the way down here, it would be an absolute disgrace not to apply for this adventure. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or second thoughts about the application process, practicalities at Stanford or anything related!

Always take time to smell the flowers.

Olli Laukkanen

School of Chemical Engineering