Stanford experience by Helmi Korhonen

The most ridiculously impossible question you can ask a human being to answer is the following: “so could you like… boil your summer at Stanford down into a single sentence?”

Followed closely by near-to-impossible questions regarding the purpose of life, the existence of a God, and whether or not I actually like olives, I’m here to tell you why it is pure insanity to even attempt to answer the most ridiculously impossible question there is in such short length.

I will also give you some tips on how you could succeed in securing a weird position in your life where you are constantly answering The Impossible Question, especially for people you barely know at housewarming parties back in Helsinki.

All jokes aside, Aalto’s scholarship to the International Honors Program at Stanford was probably one of the most outstanding opportunities of my life. I am beyond grateful to have experienced a summer so full of life and growth that I am still taken aback a little when people ask me to describe it to them. Now that I’ve had some practice, here’s my attempt at describing Stanford. In more than one sentence, thankfully.

1. The Application Process

A lot of people say they don’t apply to programs like this because they simply aren’t good enough. That their grades don’t match, that they aren’t remarkable possessors of an all-embracing wisdom that would make even Einstein jealous, and so, the place mustn’t be for them. Fight this instinct. Give it a go. If a perfect 5.0 GPA was a prerequisite for Aalto’s choice of students, I wouldn’t be writing this text.

Focus on your vision, your passions, and what makes you memorable. Think about what excites
you and is so incredibly interesting that you find yourself binge-watching TED talks on it for hours on end. Communicate that, and how it relates to the exchange opportunity. If your only reason for applying to Stanford is to make your CV look more brag-worthy, find a new reason. Find multiple reasons, even stupid ones. I wrote my motivational letter about a pyjama shirt.

2. The Part Where You Surf the Californian Waves of Impostor Syndrome and Everyone Around You Is So Incredibly Smart

Correct. Everyone is really smart. But so are you (with huge thanks to your years in the Finnish education system and at Aalto). Get to know them. Turns out, they are really kind and passionate too, and some of them have the same taste in music as you. You’ll go on lunches and midnight walks around campus together, and you might decide to be best friends with an Icelandic engineer at 3am on a Friday night doing laundry while everyone else is exploring the pub scene in Palo Alto and your ID’s are still screaming 20 years old. In a place known for outstanding innovation and mind-blowing brain power you will, funnily enough, find marvelously normal humans.

3. The “Oh boy, I’m taking a course at Stanford”

Awesome! Especially for ARTS students, this is an incredible opportunity. For me, one of the biggest benefits of the summer academics was the chance to both venture out of my degree (Bachelor’s in Design), all while secretly collecting information on subjects I might want to specialize into in addition to what is traditionally offered within my BA program. I actually ended up with a mix-and-match minor from the following courses:

Digital media and behavior
Key words: AR, VR, human-computer interaction, media psychology, empathy, AI, algorithms, cool fun facts you can casually mention in conversation at housewarming parties

This course was pretty interesting, and offered a lot of food for thought. Learning was quite theorybased (as many might recall from high school psychology classes), but visits to the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, a sweetheart teacher and a group project kept the course versatile. Looking back, I think some of my prior interests in the area made the course not-super-challenging for me, because I was already aware and somewhat well-read into many of the subjects covered. Nevertheless, I’d recommend the course to anyone interested in digital media and how it is evolving and affecting human behavior.

Sustainability Design Thinking
Key words: concept development, co-design, sustainability, design thinking, human-centric design, interdisciplinary work

This course gave you lots of freedom and leeway as to how to approach the design briefs and
problems – but like many summer session courses, it was more of an introductory course into the design process and way of working. During the 8 weeks, you ended up completing 4 design
concepts (product, service, environment, urban system), and presenting them to class.
Sometimes I felt a bit frustrated going over basics of why design is important, and sadly felt
like the sustainability aspect of the course was occasionally overshadowed by a craze for making cool, gadget-y things that would fit the Silicon Valley mindset (with no further concern on the implications a product or service might actually have on the environment). Quite a lot of bizarre and maybe useless designs received a thumbs up if you mentioned you might add a solar panel to it. I’d say that if you are interested but mostly unfamiliar with either design-driven project work or sustainability, this might be a fun place to start.

New Indicators of Well-Being and Sustainability
Key words: measuring resilience, environmental economics, civics, policy design, macroeconomics, happiness, education, UN SDGs, political science

This course was by far the most eye-opening and motivating out of my studies at Stanford, if not my entire university career. It’s hard to describe the breadth of topics covered in class, but I
remember feeling both hopeless and empowered looking at the current and past states of the
world, and trying to understand them through economics and policy (I shared the same feelings
looking at the course work load). The teacher was great, and the classes were inspiring. Even
though I might’ve spent a few sleepless nights trying to wrap my head around topics covered in
class and finishing my personal research project on urban design, I felt like it was all worth it… and ultimately, a fitting balance against some of my less heavy courses.

A few more tips:
– Go course-shopping! Enroll yourself on some extra courses, see what they’re like, and drop theones that don’t feel like a good fit. I spent some time doing astronomy and environmentalentrepreneurship.
– Enjoy the freedom and burden of taking written exams. As an ARTS student, it was nice for me tobe able to prove my knowledge by actually scribbling it down on paper. If I was right, I was right. No room for further questioning, explaining or people’s personal style preferences getting in the way.
– Don’t stress it. Most of your learning will come from outside of class anyway. And if you’re interested in the stuff you’re studying, they’ll stick to your brain like a piece of gum on to a desk.

4. The Impossible Question

I should probably rename this subtitle “The Annoyingly Disgusting Cliché”, as I will prove to you in the following few sentences. If I can give you one big tip, it is to put those books down for a second, leave campus, and drag the nicest people you’ll ever meet along with you. There is such an overwhelming richness in being able to connect with people from all corners of the globe; be it laying on a country road under starlight at Lake Tahoe, fearing for your life biking through San Francisco traffic on a 60 dollar BMX from Walmart, and finally letting go of the hearts you were able to call your second home for an entire summer in the yellow blaze of the Pacific sun. This is going to sound so gross, but if my life was a movie, my summer in California would be one of those gold-tinted-memory-sequences the editor would cut in at some point to evoke a sense of rebellious youth and life at its fullest before everything went wrong.

So, when some nice stranger at a housewarming party asks you to “…like… boil your summer at
Stanford down into a single sentence” you’ll go on to give them a smile, think about the golden scenes in the movie of your life, snort your drink slightly into your nose and say, “Why don’t you go see it for yourself?”

Shoot me a message on my social medias or my university email (firstname.lastname@aalto.fi) for any questions regarding the exchange, even impossible ones.