Two Years in the Land of the Free – Calvin (Stanford ’17)

In this post, Calvin Yeoh (Stanford ’17) shares his journey to the U.S. – the inevitable uncertainty and fear, the struggle, and, finally, the payoff.

Calvin (Me during ski trip in freshman year!)

A brief recap of my two-years in the land of the free:

My first foray into U.S. college education came when I was still in Form 4, when my parents and I sent my sister off to college at Madison, Wisconsin. My sister took the bold step to study in the States rather than being with her friends back home, or the U.K. or Australia, or anywhere else for that matter, for reasons I could not understand at that time. I questioned her decision to be so far away from all of us, to be within a culture that was completely foreign from the one we were used to. However, being at Madison for a week while helping my sister settle-in also made me start wondering about college. Where do I want to go? What do I want to do? With all its natural beauty and vivaciousness, Madison got me hooked to the idea of studying in the States. (though I soon came to realize that not every college in the States was beautifully wedged amongst three lakes, where students can watch the sunset while enjoying ice cream made in a lab) Call that a brief introduction to “college life”.

Fast-forward three years, I found myself taking a flight to the States, albeit to the West Coast, two thousand miles (or about 28 days’ walk) away from Madison. I walked into campus with a weird sense of excitement and trepidation. On the one hand, this was the moment I’ve been waiting for, to begin a life of higher learning. On the other, since almost everyone here had to work their ass off to get into Stanford, does this mean that I have to work doubly, triply, or quadruply hard just to “stay afloat”? Everyone I met during my first few weeks exuded a sense of confidence and poise, and they seemed to already have college all figured out – the courses that they planned to take, the clubs they intend to join, even their weekly workout routine! And there I was, trying to make sense of the independent-life I’m suddenly expected to lead and curing my jetlag and hurriedly running off to the next orientation event, for fear of missing out (read: FOMO/kiasu).

Stanford soon turned out to be an amazing ride, one with its own vagaries, quirks, and idiosyncrasies. Academics at Stanford are rigorous, but they are not the only things that challenge and enrich you. There is some truth when people say that an American education is beyond just textbooks and whiteboards and problem sheets. Like learning how to bike without hands, learning in college is a process of taking risks and daring to try new things – you may fall or slip once or twice, but the sense of satisfaction and reward at the end is something you carry with you for a long, long time. At Stanford, I found myself partaking in a myriad of activities I would never have imagined doing so. I baked bread for a charity group to end world hunger; I danced (or attempted) salsa a couple of times; I ran barefoot from fountain to fountain (that opportunity is rather scarce now, given the drought that we’re facing); I skied off a mountain. And through these activities, I’ve met some of the most humble and down-to-earth people here, awe-inspiring and unique in their own ways. Almost two years on, I find myself beginning to call this place “home”.

I can still vividly remember one of my favorite experiences at Stanford. Being an amateur astronomy-enthusiast, I went to an open space preserve about 30 minutes away from campus with a couple of friends, hoping to catch comet Lovejoy’s transition across the sky. There, everything was pitch black, and you pretty much use red light for illumination, be it a star-chart on your phone or the digital display on your telescope, because of a biological effect in our eyes that changes our sensitivity towards different colors called the Purkinje effect. The preserve, being elevated about 300m above ground, was perfect as one could see the majestic beauty of the Bay Area in its night lights and the twinkling stars above. As my friends and I huddled together against the strong frigid winds blowing at the hilltop, I felt a sense of warmth, comfort, and satisfaction. This, is what I came to college for, to do some of the things I enjoy the most with the people I enjoy being with. Into our eyes, the universe emptied its creations, the sprinkling of stars amidst the pitch-black canvas that stretched out across the horizon. What amazement I felt when a streak of light appeared at the top-right corner of my field of vision – a shooting star right before my eyes! For this amateur astronomer who grew up under the perpetually-cloudy Kuala Lumpur skies, it was a moment of ecstasy.

For all the hard work that was expected and the hard alcohol that was provided*, Stanford turned out to be a paradise that many purported it to be. From the outside, one might imagine or call this a “resort” – what with the sun-kissed sandstones, the palm trees and fountains that dot our campus, and a beautiful church right smack in the heart of campus. However, beyond its physical beauty, Stanford also taught me to think independently, to follow my own voice and to avoid falling into the mainstream. Now you might be inclined to believe that Stanford is mainly a computer-science hub, an incubator for the “next big thing” to burst out of Silicon Valley, but it is also a place for the literature-enthusiasts, the philosophers, the future teachers, the activists and the physicists, to name a few. College is a place for you yourself to decide how to make the best out of your time, and I’ve decided to learn as much and as widely as I can about the world.

Looking back, I feel eternally grateful for the education that I’ve received and gone through thus far. With admissions rates dropping faster than the bass, choosing and getting into a college can be a tough and emotional process, and once you’re in one, enjoying it can be another. Life is full of uncertainty, and most of the time we get what we want, but sometimes we don’t. In the long run, it doesn’t matter – what matters most is how you face and embrace each of these uncertainties as they come. As Leo Tolstoy, under the pseudonym Kozma Prutkov, said, “if you want to be happy, be”.

To the generations of the past, present and future, I endow you with this snippet of advice. Don’t be afraid to go off the trodden path; Don’t be afraid to question; Don’t be afraid to walk against the tide; Don’t be afraid to be who you are and become what you want to be.

*For clarification, the University does not explicitly provide alcohol or condone alcohol-consumption.