Stanford experience by Taika Nummi

So Stanford, huh? Yeah. You heard the rumors right, I was one of the lucky Aalto students that had a chance to spend their summer studying at one of the world’s most beautiful campuses in sunny California. So lets jump right in, wont we?  And I’ll answer the four most pressing questions that I often get from friends and strangers alike.

Warning: I will be blunt and straight forward.

1. “How on earth did you get into Stanford? Isn’t it like crazy hard to get in?”

I know the common mentality of people is not to apply if they feel like there isn’t a chance of getting in and I think that strongly applies to Stanford Summer Session – with the name Stanford bolded. The prestige of the school definitely scares people away and I hear a lot of people saying that they would have applied they had a poor GPA, bad CV and two few courses. What was the point in putting so much effort into an application if you weren’t even going to make it to the interview.

Let me tell you a little secret. At the time I was applying to Stanford my GPA was well below the average gpa of a business student at Aalto and I definitely was lagging behind on my studies. I wasn’t a finance student *cough cough* and I had very little working experience anywhere to display proudly on my CV. If this all had worked like a Finnish application process, I would not have been at Stanford this Summer.

Gladly for me the application process to Stanford was executed in an American fashion. This means that in addition to displaying your GPA and credits, you had to send in a CV, motivation letter and a recommendation letter from one professor or academic. After this they called you in for a group interview – which by the way was the most interesting and easygoing interview I have been in – and a week or so later you got to know the results.

So back to the question how I got in. I can not give you a direct answer, for that you would have to ask those choosing, but I think that at least these two factors played a major role:

a) I really really really wanted to go to Stanford. Stanford has always been a dream school for me. My aunt used to go there and she would bring us merchandise when we were kids. So I was pretty much brain washed into it. I even applied for a bachelors program after high school and ever since then have felt like I wanted a chance to know what it was like to be a student at Stanford.
b) I knew why I wanted to go and what I wanted to do there. Stanford Is one of the best universities in the field of Psychology and that is something that greatly interests me. Psychology is also a field closely related to management and I personally think organizations have a great responsibility and possibility to take and improve the mental health of its numerous individuals. I wanted to gain a broader knowledge of the field and get to talk to professors and researchers who had the latest information on these topics.

Of course this is only a guess, but I would advise anyone who is interested in applying to ask themselves why they want to go and what they want to gain from the experience. I would also advice you just to apply, because the intake criteria might see vague, but exactly therefore it might just as well be you they are looking for than anybody else.

2. “What courses did you take? And did you like them?”

The grant from Aalto covers the expenses of 8-9 Stanford credits (about 13-15 ECTS) for the Summer. I started my semester by enrolling in quite a few more and started off with a total of 23 Stanford credits: 5 courses in psychology, 1 in philosophy and 1 in Chinese language. Stanford has what they call an add or drop period which means you have two weeks to sit in on courses before the enrollment is final.

I’m really glad they had this system because it became clear very fast that a lot of the psychology and philosophy I had already covered in High School and it would have been a complete waste to stay in those classes. I ended up taking the courses Genes, Memes and Behavior and Accelerated First-Year Chinese.

Psychology – Genes, Memes and Behavior (3cr)
Key words: genes, memes, behavior, psychology, discussion, interdisciplinary, small group teaching, freedom, happiness, mental disorders

Even though the main reason behind coming to Stanford was to study psychology it was clear to me that the courses offered during the summer where first year courses and sitting in on them just for the sake of it would have been a waste. I ended up only enrolling in Genes, Memes and Behavior, not because it was more advanced than the other courses – but because it offered small group teaching. Unlike the other classes which where lecture based, this class only had seats for 10 people, which meant that the professor really ha time for us and discussions on the topics. This was great because we had the possibility to go more in depth in anything that we were interested in.

The course material was very broad and that I also perceived as a huge bonus because we were able to bring discussion to topics that were relevant and we enjoyed. In addition the professor was an amazing lecturer and he was willing to assist with anything – even things outside of the class room. He assisted me in finding the people, who were specialized in the topics I was interested in and I was even able to get an offer to work as a research assistant next summer at the department. Perks of choosing a class with a quota! I would recommend you to check that out!

Language Center – Accelerated First-Year Chinese (5cr)
Key words: language, Asian culture, pinyin, kanji, mandarin, food from panda express, you are never going to learn a language this fast (be prepared).

This course that raises most questions and eyebrows. Why did I end up studying Chinese at Stanford. Simple: I have always wanted to learn Chinese and there really is no better place than Stanford.

This. Is. The. Best. Course. I. Have. Had. In. University. Hands up. Never have I learnt a language as fast and with such ease. If you compare Stanford language education to the education we get back home – I hate to admit it but this is where the Stanford outshines Aalto by miles. The class only consisted of 6 participants and it was held daily in the mornings so we were immersed in the language for 1 hour and 15minutes every day and when I say immersed, I mean it.

From day one the teacher would mostly just speak Mandarin to us. This didn’t mean that it was just aimless ramble and we had no clue what she was speaking about. Every lesson was well planned out and she used gestures, pictures, animations and items to explain details to us. You quickly learnt to associate objects to words. Class time was used for making us speak and outside of class we had to learn characters and pinyin.

The class was really intensive and most of my days I spent working on Chinese because we had weekly oral tests and quizzes. But the hard work payed off, because after only 8 weeks I can read, speak and write over 150 characters – confidently. So rewarding!

All in all in my opinion classes at Stanford were much easier than classes back home at Aalto. Credits where much easier to obtain and I felt like I had a lot of time to do extra. This could also have been because a) it was a summer session, b) I wasn’t taking tech and science classes, c) I had less activities outside of school to distract me and d) I actually enjoyed what I was studying.

3. “What did you do during your spare time? Did you meet lots of cool people?”

This is the one where I will have to disappoint you: I studied. I made use of the great athletics facilities and the great food. But mostly, I studied.

And to be honest it was the thing I wanted to do. Last time I enjoyed studying this much was back in High School. Imagine waking up every morning and being excited to head to the library with a cup of coffee and just sit there and learn new things! After getting my work done, I would switch to reading some of the books on the libraries shelves. Never have I been in a library with such vast offering. How could I not have resisted staying in there and reading till closing time?

Yes, I talked to people but a lot of the time I felt like it was very much networking and getting to a deeper conversational level was almost impossible. I hate networking and I give up immediately if interaction even slightly feel like it. I actually thought it was funny how we all came from over 30 different countries but were so similar. It was really hard to find diversity of background in us as a group. Of course there were cultural differences but for example, we Aalto students where the only ones on scholarships, the rest had parents who could afford to send them to Stanford for the Summer.

The Summer program offered a lot of weekend activities and the international students planed a lot of trips and outings together. So if you are extroverted and like big groups of people there definitely is more for you in California than just studying and spending your time talking to researchers. It really all comes down to your mentality and what you want to take away from it. There is no right or wrong way of doing Stanford.

I did make one friend for life though. It is quite funny. Who would have thought that you would have to go all the way to California to meet and bond with an Aalto ARTS student? Heidi, if you are reading this: Thank you for being there for me.

4. “Would You do it again?”

My first reaction to this question is of course a big YES. And I mean obviously for me it is a no brainer. I had always wanted to experience Stanford. Now I know what it is and know what I am missing and what I am not. But under different circumstances I wouldn’t be too sure if I would. What I noticed at Stanford is that the quality of education back home is just unbelievably good. If I hadn’t gotten a fee waiver from Aalto, I would not have paid the amount of money for summer courses that are courses you can get back in high school in Finland.

This is not to say that the teaching at Stanford was poor. On the contrary, I feel that professors at Stanford where much more equipped to teach and obviously had more resources than back home. The problem just is that the quality of high school teaching in the States is so versatile that they have to offer very basic classes for undergraduates to let them catch up.

One is for sure. Stanford is really mostly just a university like Aalto. The undergrad students are intelligent but no more so than elsewhere. The difference is that it has a name and the name gives it more resources to put into research and this again attracts top-notch Professors and PhDs from around the globe. Yes – PhDs are a completely different story and I am seriously worried about the health of those PhD students at Stanford. But I guess that is a story for another time.

I just want to end this blog post by telling you all that Aalto is a great University and we are so lucky to be a part of its student body. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the Atlantic (well, actually it was because they watered the campus 24/7 and I didn’t witness a single cloudy day, but oh well…).

If you have any questions about applying to Stanford Summer Session, don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.surname(at)aalto.fi .

Yours,

Taika