2014 Stanford Women Winter Welcome: Yes, You Belong!

Ellen Petrill and Sharon LongThe Stanford Women Winter Welcome was a magical evening of great conversation and sharing of experiences, hopes, and dreams among over 100 Stanford women, from freshmen to upper-class students to faculty and new and seasoned alumnae. Held on Wednesday, January 22, 2014 in the main dining room of the Faculty Club, the event was sponsored by the Schools of Humanities and Sciences, Earth Sciences, and Engineering, the Dean of Freshmen, and the Women’s Community Center, and hosted by Cap and Gown. This event welcomed the freshman and sophomore women to the vibrant community of Stanford women for the ninth year in a row.

Honorary Cap and Gown member Pam Matson, Dean of Earth Sciences, welcomed us at the start of the evening and highlighted that she has learned as dean the importance of a strong collaborative, collegial, supportive, and inclusive community. Leadership is not “command and control,” Pam told us, but about building and supporting a community of people working together toward accomplishing big things. With relationships, networks, and connections, we are incredibly effective. In many ways, said Pam, this is what Cap and Gown is about – building relationships, mentoring, and connecting with each other. Pam welcomed the classes of 2017 and 2016 and invited them to make connections that may ultimately lead to change for good in our communities.

Then our featured speaker Dr. Sharon Long took the podium to share her personal story and give some great advice along the way. Dr. Long is the William C. Steere, Jr. – Pfizer Inc. Professor in Biological Sciences, Dean of Humanities and Sciences from 2001 to 2007, and graduate of CalTech (B.S.) and Yale (Ph.D.), as well as an honorary Cap and Gown member.

Sharon outlined her remarks by describing our three lives:

  1. The life we have prepared for
  2. The life we are improvising every moment
  3. The life we have imagined for ourselves

In our imaginations, we may picture the emotional connections, the sense of belonging. But it is in the improvised life where we actually live and need to adjust and learn as we go.

Sharon shared with us a passage from Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson that has resonated with her:

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For even and forever when I move.

The life you prepare for—the one you dream of—encompasses your classes, friends, teams and teammates, and the love and support you share. These become part of …all that you have met.

But life is full of surprises and you may not have specifically prepared for what actually comes. You will probably surprise yourself in good ways as you improvise your life in the moment. Give yourself grace and time to learn how to be successful in the life of the moment.

Sharon was one of the first four women admitted to Caltech as an undergraduate in 1970 in a class of about 200. The focus was on physics, where 60% of the frosh were physics majors, dwindling to 30% by their senior year.  Sharon revealed that in her freshman year, her “record was lousy.” She was disappointed by grades. But being stubborn, Sharon continued and found that she loved organic chemistry and literature. While she excelled in these, “they didn’t count because I wasn’t doing well in physics.” She had imagined a pure scientific intelligence, a Sherlock Holmes-type intelligence, and when she achieved success through asking questions and interacting with others, this was not valued (by Sharon) because it did not measure up to her imagination’s vision. A sense of belonging was blocked by her own ideals.

However, as Sharon improvised her life in the moment, she began to accept that her professors were human and scientists were real people, not just those perfect beings of her imagination. She also began to give herself the grace to accept what was different about her real self from her imagined self. When one professor told her, “nobody keeps up with the literature,” it was a gift. And the beginning of a sense of belonging.

Sharon told us that she missed the precious gift of female community. But she said she learned too, that it was not because she was a woman that she felt she did not belong. Sharon reported that the four women were ranked in the middle of the class and the men ran the gamut, higher and lower than the women. Men doubted themselves too.

When you feel doubt, you may think, “There must be a good reason.”  No, Sharon entreated, people feel doubt whether they should or not. This doubt, this sense of not belonging, is not a characteristic of women only, but something else. It may be your imagination that created an artificial landscape, something no one may be able to measure up to.

Dr. Sharon Long, with an amazing 32-year career at Stanford of research, teaching, and leadership, shed her artificial landscape through teaching here at Stanford, learning from students and fellow professors.

Sharon advised that if you doubt yourself, recognize that everyone faces doubt. Take solace alone, don’t shout out your doubts, but seek relationships and connections that will help you find your sense of belonging, which may only be blocked by your own imagination. You are a gift to Stanford University, your family, and this community of women at Stanford. We are ready to help you shed the artificial landscape of your imagination, base your self-confidence based on your real self, and learn that “Yes, you DO belong!”

Following Sharon Long’s story facilitators led discussions around the tables which introduced new friends, ideas, and approaches for dealing with challenges and doubts. Young women in the room were attracted to the opportunities to meet and really talk with faculty, upper class women, and alumnae.  Experienced Stanford women were equally enthralled by the freshman and sophomore women and the opportunities and bold steps they plan and take. This community of Stanford women shares a two-way growing experience. A common thread was the diversity of stories, interests, challenges, and goals of the women in the room, with the common bond of the Stanford community which makes us feel that we do, indeed, belong.