The third first quarter

It feels a bit odd to be staring into my third autumn quarter here. It’s odd partly because I was sure this day would never come: the battle to get into any doctoral programme, let alone this one, looked too steep to be feasible. But it’s also odd because, once again—to my surprise—I’m in the shoes of a clueless first-year unsure about how the system works and intimidated by the well-meaning but ultimately useless advice offered by more experienced students.

Of course, I’m less clueless now. I at least know how to navigate the university, even if not the doctoral programme. Indeed, to incoming masters students, I am one of those experienced students eager to offer well-meaning but useless counsel—and, make no mistake, I’m guilty of doing so, too. We too often forget that our anecdotes are not canonical. And I’ve been neglecting to encourage new students to “enjoy your time here” just as much as everyone else. But by far the biggest difference between me two years ago and me today is that I’ve developed the internal strength to catch myself when I start to feel intimidated or want to quit again (something that used to be a daily occurrence), and to consciously try to talk myself out of those thoughts, albeit with varying degrees of success.

I’m looking forward to doing less coursework and spending more time in research projects. I’m sad about not doing any teaching for the next while—the undergraduates are so much fun—but it’ll be nice to recover the time to do some other things. I’m not looking forward to the qualifying exams in January that professors keep telling us “not to worry about”. (Then why would we have them?) If things go well, I’ll have some big decisions ahead of me. Not knowing what I’ll be doing at this year’s end maybe excites me a little but mainly doesn’t bother me, probably mainly because I’ve grown used to it.

This blog suffered something of a neglect during my second year, probably owing more to waning enthusiasm than time, but certainly not for lack of things to write about. Here is a list of topics in my notebook. Friends of mine might have heard me rant about one or more of these. Some are more interesting than others, and some have half-written drafts attached to them, though some, being outdated, will probably never make it.

  • The ways sub-disciplines of electrical engineering are grouped and labelled. Yes, these differ between countries (and even universities, I guess).
  • The structure of American undergraduate degrees. Spoiler: It’s better and other countries should adopt it.
  • In a context where it’s becoming fashionable to pass judgement on undergraduates at elite universities, a bit about my experience with undergraduates as a teaching assistant.
  • An exploration of the meaning of collective national identity, which I hadn’t really understood before leaving home.
  • Thoughts on the political discourse in America, and how it’s caricatured by other countries.
  • The idea permeating through doctoral programmes that you have to find your one true passion.
  • Trips to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (February) and New York City (March). By now, they’ll probably just be photo albums.

Toronto, Ontario

“It’s pretty warm this week,” Toronto residents kept telling me, nodding approvingly at the 0 to 4 °C highs (32 to 39 °F) I faced on my arrival. I could barely disagree more. All the warm layers I could feasibly fit on me, plus a windbreaker, weren’t enough to keep me from incessantly shivering as I walked around the city with my sister and her friends. The Bay Area can get that cold in winter, but only at 3 a.m. when I’m wrapped up in my heated apartment. To hear Torontonians call it “warm” was a little insane.

Of course, I was the only one shivering. My sister’s friend lent me his ski jacket and down vest for the rest of my time here. Having all those layers on at once somewhat restricted my freedom of movement (and drew funny looks as I’d remove so many layers upon entering restaurants), but it made the weather at least bearable, even as it dropped to −3 °C (27 °F) later that week. A week later, I was walking around in just three layers, earmuffs and without a down vest. Today, I called the 8 °C (46 °F) air “warm”. Apparently, acclimatisation is possible, and I made it just in time for Christmas, the forecast for which is a lovely comfortable 4 °C.

2014-12-23 13.45.39 - CopyOne thing I did notice early on was a lot of people wearing heavy jackets with the logo to the right. I first saw it on the public ice rink in Nathan Phillips Square, ice skating on the first night. (The ice rink is run by the City of Toronto, and is free for anyone with skates to use, or with skates hired from a nearby stand.) I couldn’t read it with everyone skating past, so assumed it was a skating school or something. Once I caught a glimpse of the words “Arctic Program”, I wondered if it was some sort of programme lots of Canadians do. The logo does look the part, doesn’t it? But it turns out that Canada Goose is a popular (and obscenely expensive) brand of outerwear, famous because they provide jackets for Canadian Arctic explorers.

Out and about
On my first weekday here, with my sister at work, I did what I normally do after arriving in a new city: wander around the CBD/city centre/downtown to get a feel for what’s going on. You would think I’d have learnt from my experience in Los Angeles to do a bit more research before so embarking, but I had assumed Los Angeles was an outlier. Now, don’t get me wrong, Toronto’s downtown is great, there’s lots to see and do (there’s even a public ice rink in the middle of it, like, honestly). But I had assumed the majestic-sounding “Historic Queen” would be a magnificent place to stroll around, and was disappointed to find a bunch of pawnbrokers and pretty much nothing else. It turns out it’s a bad place to go, and all I needed to do to avoid it was to turn left, rather than right, at the Bay and Queen intersection. I swung by Queen West the next day; it was much more exciting.

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“Would you like a donut with that?”

I made a point to visit Tim Hortons, Canada’s largest fast casual restaurant chain. Now, people on America’s West Coast obsess with In-N-Out, and I don’t entirely understand why, but the food there isn’t disgusting. By contrast, the food at Tim Hortons is. And inexplicably, Canadians aren’t just obsessed with it—they seem to stake their national identity on it. Tim Horton’s is more of a coffee and donut chain than a fast food chain; appropriately, their meals come with donuts in place of the more usual fries.

I also toured Ontario’s Legislative Assembly building. They have some funny stories, like that time two workers accidentally burnt down the entire west wing, along almost their entire library, and the time the Americans stole their mace for a century or so before deciding to return it. In a surprise to me, they’re also unicameral. But compared to the extravagance of Ohio’s legislature, there’s not really much there.

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You wouldn’t want to build the replacement west wing in something that can be burnt down again

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I found this restaurant, which I thought was amusing:

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Aww, a kiwi dancing with a kangaroo… of its size?
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A statue of King Edward VII, gifted to Toronto by India
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In the University of Toronto

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Other bits and pieces
Trains and trams (“streetcars” to Canadians) come with a frequency that rivals Hong Kong; I never waited longer than about five minutes (in downtown) for either. The streetcar tracks are just as annoyingly placed as they are in Melbourne, in the middle of the road, but unlike Melbourne, most Downtown streetcar stops lack a traffic-island shelter. People just cross the road en masse to board or alight a streetcar. Cars are expected to know to stop, without any guidance on when or where (no hatched yellow area, for example) beyond the streetcar’s existence. It helps that, like America (and unlike Australia), cars have a habit of stopping for pedestrians.

Tipping is a nuisance, but less so in Canada, where they bring you a wireless terminal to run the transaction (the type you see in some bars in New Zealand), and it prompts you on the machine to tip either a percentage or amount. Not having to do any arithmetic yourself to figure out “how much is 15%” makes this so much easier. The waiter’s need to visit your table only twice (present the bill, bring the terminal) rather than three times (present the bill, collect your card, return with the dockets) makes it faster. Perhaps bypassing the mental arithmetic makes it less meaningful, but given that tips are socially mandatory in America and Canada, I’m not really satisfied they’re meaningful to begin with.

2014-12-23 13.14.26If I thought advertising in America was annoyingly pushy and lawsuits rampant, I hadn’t seen everything. In Toronto (I didn’t really see this in Montreal) there are lots of advertisements for “personal injury lawyers”, whose sole purpose in life appears to be to file lawsuits after you injure yourself. The ads run along the lines of “injured? See how much you can get!” A quick Google tells me they’re a thing in America too, so maybe I just haven’t seen them yet, or they’re not as omnipresent.

The second first quarter

One year ago today, drowning in a sea of coursework and ruthlessly dragged along by the high-speed train of graduate school, I wrote, if I may quote myself, that “there must be at least some element of masochism in anyone who voluntarily stays around here.” That suspicion turned out to be correct, perhaps even a mild understatement.

The demands that I despised back then became normal; what I had previously considered sacrifices just became forgotten. More tellingly, though, after that quarter I stopped talking about the onslaught of impossible problem sets like they were the bane of my life. There started to be a weird joy in recounting the consecutive late nights (perhaps better described as early mornings) spent on linear dynamical systems and statistical signal processing.

To be fair, I have never since taken a quarter quite so heavy. (It turns out the two courses I thought would be easier for adjustment were two of the hardest in the department.) And I stand by my assessment that the fifteen-hour-a-week problem sets are helpful for the first eight hours, and valueless for the remaining seven. But standards change when you get used to things. Erstwhile genuine complaints become subtle, mutual brags about how much work you’re doing. Taking on punishing workloads is at least part of what life at Stanford is about.


The most popular courses at Stanford are renowned for being unforgiving on time. Graduate-level courses here in machine learning and convex optimisation are famous, and famously heavy, not just within Stanford. The undergraduate computer science sequence is enormously popular—among everyone, not just CS majors—and is no small undertaking, even for graduate students, who are commonly found in the class. (I’m doing CS 107 this quarter.)

The introductory electrical engineering class I’m helping teach this quarter has some 120 students, very few of whom are potential (or actual) EE majors. Seeing hundreds of motivated undergraduates sink time into demanding courses is one reason I have no concerns at Stanford about the sort of easy academic culture a recent Harvard graduate describes in the Atlantic, though the author’s suggestion that a lack of rigour correlates with the humanities may be a likely explanation.

At Auckland, where I did my undergraduate degree, people would recommend courses like PHIL 105G or ECON 151G because they were “easy A+’s”. That’s a phrase I haven’t heard here once. When I ask undergraduates what courses they’re doing, they don’t even name their filler courses. The only reason they even take lighter courses seems to be because it’s a bad idea to take a load of heavy ones. A freshman in the class I’m teaching discovered this the hard way, and wisely dropped the class.


It’s amazing what perspective even just being a second-year watching your new first-year classmates adjust to the workload brings you. I still remember vividly my first quarter here. I would never wish it on anyone. Never before then had I understood how “every day I wanted to quit” can be literal, not hyperbolic. I like to think that none of them are hit quite so hard, but it’s still not an easy transition to make.

Unsatisfyingly, I don’t know what I would tell them. The biggest adjustment is just getting used to the system: that problem sets aren’t, in general, direct applications of what you learn in class; that unit values of courses don’t even try to correlate to how much work they entail. I remember being overwhelmed with advice at orientation; while I’ve had countless snippets of good advice from peers and seniors since, with the greatest respect, everything I was told in that first week (except perhaps the advice to ignore all of it) was useless. You can’t accelerate an adjustment to a new lifestyle with words, you sort of have to bear with it.

The best I can do is to observe that, however dire things seemed then, I seem to have survived at least one year. I’ll be honest: in hindsight, it still feels like a pretty long year. But, as I hoped in this blog on this day last year, my attitude towards the education style here has shifted. I’ve adjusted; I don’t see tough courses or workloads as negatively as I once did. I guess if I’m going to subject myself to this life, I may as well do it properly.

Columbus, Ohio

“Why Columbus?” people kept asking. The reasons aren’t immediately obvious. It’s no New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, you know, one of those places you’d visit for the sake of visiting. I admit, I wouldn’t have known the city existed but for an Ohioan friend who did an exchange to Auckland when I was an undergraduate there. But I was keen to see the America that isn’t those big-name places, and I took the opportunity to prove wrong the general wisdom that our friend would never receive reciprocal visitors.

Even with my time there lasting just one-and-a-half days, so I wasn’t expecting to be spoilt for must-sees, and I was right. But that wasn’t the point. Just being in the area fascinated me, as being in new places often does. Foreigners are often taken aback by the abundance of American flags on display (see #2). They aren’t overly common around San Francisco, but oh my, in Columbus, they’re everywhere. I saw at least three on properties in my friend’s neighbourhood, and many on storefronts in Easton Town Center, a part-indoor-part-outdoor shopping mall, a bit like Botany in Auckland but not as nice.

What’s more everywhere in Columbus, though, are brick buildings. I don’t really see much of bricks, and certainly not in new houses, so I sort of used to see it as an outdated material. Columbus doesn’t just build houses from bricks, and it’s not just old buildings, either. I was amazed to see it, and wondered out loud how it was even thinkable. I presume it’s because Ohio, unlike New Zealand and California, doesn’t really get earthquakes, or at least not as much.

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Bricks bricks bricks bricks bricks
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Perhaps a more modern take on Columbus’ favourite building material

My time in Columbus still had to be filled something, of course. So here’s some of it.

I saw part of the game in which Ohio State delivered a shellacking to Kent State, 66 to nil, and it was about as interesting as most other football games I’ve seen, that is, not very. But Ohio State University is known for its marching band, and the real spectacle was seeing this first-hand. We were seated on the other side of the stadium, so it perhaps wasn’t quite the same, but it was still pretty cool.

Today's show was a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of D-Day and tribute to the U.S. armed forces
Today’s show was a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of D-Day and tribute to the U.S. armed forces
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Brutus Buckeye, Ohio State University’s mascot, is a friendly nut

Being a politics junkie, I insisted on a trip to the Ohio Statehouse. To my surprise, we weren’t the only visitors there. There were only three (including the two of us, excluding the guide) on our tour, but a decent group (say, eight or so) before us. Ohio’s Statehouse uses a Greek Revival-style architecture, meant to hark back to Ancient Greece, the origins of democracy. On a similar theme, the bust on the right above the speaker’s chair is of Cleisthenes, the father of Athenian democracy. I was a little surprised to learn that the eagle above the speaker’s chair, a symbol of the United States, is partly a reminder of the supremacy of federal law over state law.

The Ohio House of Representatives
The Ohio House of Representatives
The Statehouse has an exhibition inside it, about how Ohio’s democracy works. But I guess they ran out of funds or something

We also walked through a few major areas of Columbus, including Easton as I mentioned earlier, and the Short North, a trendy district just north of downtown Columbus.

At the door of Easton Town center
At the door of Easton Town center. To me this sign says a lot, though I suppose it’s normal here
Columbus' skyline, as seen from a moving vehicle
Columbus’ skyline, as seen from a moving vehicle

Trois jours à Montréal

Montreal is gorgeous. Whether it was the city’s countless activities, seamless bilingualism, urban design or general buzz I don’t know, but for the whole three days, my fascination with it never stopped. Most likely, it was all of the above.

The default language in Montreal—the language on all its monolingual signs and the emphasised language on its bilingual signs—is French, but probably close to half the conversations I overheard were in English. The standard service greeting is “bonjour hi”. I omit the comma deliberately: the invitation to speak in either language seems to merge into a single phrase, if not a single word. All the restaurants and cafés we went to served in both languages, but a couple had only French menus.

Although I studied French for all five years of high school (now seven years ago), I had never until this weekend been to a French-speaking city. I would call myself rusty, but the more truthful statement is that my downward spiral started during the final year. (My teacher seemed more interested in exams than the language; my loss of enthusiasm followed.) Still, it appears it wasn’t all for waste. I could decipher a handful more signs than I would have relying solely on context and similarity with English.

Engaging in conversation, of course, is another matter. I learnt the hard way once (at an international competition I went to while in high school) that, if I start speaking in French, people will assume I speak fluently, I’ll understand zero of their next sentence and we’ll just revert to English, since their English is inevitably better. I suspected the same thing would happen here, so I was initially timid about drawing on my prior education. I tested my theory at a café negotiating a wait for a table, and I was right:

Waitress: Bonjour, ça va?
Me: Bonjour! Ça va bien, merci.
Waitress: <qqch> deux?
Me: Oui, une table pour deux.
Waitress: <qqch que je n’ai pas compris> cette table-là <qqch> attend <qqch>
Me: Nous attendons pendant…
Waitress: Do you speak English?
Me: Yeah, that would probably be easier.

At least part of my fascination, then, was seeing for myself that the subject of five years of textbooks was not some abstraction, but a living, breathing utility. I never doubted this and it’s not as if I’ve never read anything in French online or met any people (say, other Fulbrighters) from French-speaking countries. But there’s something quite different about being in an entire city of it in person.

Much happening
Quite apart from that, the city is a busy, vibrant place. All the centres we went to had lots of people and some sort of street event. Vieux-Port had a multicultural festival, L’avenue du Mont-Royal had a film thing going (we passed a band playing in Place Gérald-Godin as part of it, I’m not sure what the link was), and we walked past a busker show (like, a proper one) in Vieux-Montréal. Perhaps it was just a Labor Day weekend thing, but I had a feeling it wasn’t.

Most retail stores were closed for the public holiday (I find this strange), but there were still plenty of people out and about. Public spaces and artwork seem particularly commonplace in Montreal, as are pedestrian malls. Spaces are often decorated. On reflection, perhaps it is something to do with how Aucklanders and Wellingtonians (my past cities) romanticise an amorphous notion of “culture” that Montreal would epitomise, but if I were from Montreal, I would be proud.

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These fountains stretch well beyond what you see in this picture, and are programmed to do some cool things.
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I couldn’t quite figure out what this was for, but it looked serious.
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I saw these at two cafés, so took a photo at the second one.

There were a good (not overwhelming) number of cyclists. Like around San Francisco (and indeed everywhere except New Zealand and Australia), helmets aren’t mandatory and many cyclists do without them. Cycle lanes in Montreal were mostly separated from the road with a traffic island, such that cyclists in both directions ride on the same side of the road. The Metro takes bikes, but only six per train. (Though I guess given that trains leave every ten minutes of less, this is a decent amount.)

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You probably couldn’t do a U-turn though.

We didn’t really get to see Réso, Montreal’s “underground city”. It’s summer, which implies and is implied by it’s not snowing, so presumably it’s not as frequented right now. We were too preoccupied with other things on Sunday, and it was closed Labor Day. Also, to be honest, it proved hard to find. It’s meant to span seven stations. It took us several attempts to find one entrance at Station Peel; the entrance at Berri-UQÀM eluded us.

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Not related to Réso, but this underpass was kind of cool. The red sign underneath the no smoking sign bans loitering, and is in multiple places (and only in French).
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From a distance, I thought this was some rundown wreck they were too lazy to remove. Turns out it’s a deliberately-kept piece of history, something about grain shipping and processing.

I had been curious about how the U.S. and Canada treat each other’s travellers. It turns out there’s no direct comparison to Australia and New Zealand in the main feature of either pair. (The trans-Tasman quirk I had in mind is that Australia and New Zealand have each other’s passport holders join their domestic queues at border control.) The North American quirk is that in major Canadian airports, including Montréal-Trudeau, U.S.-bound passengers clear U.S. border control before boarding the plane, and then they fly into a domestic terminal. So I now have a U.S. admission stamp at the Montreal port of entry.

Getting a California driver’s licence

Californians don’t speak very highly of their Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Today, I saw for myself why.

DMV is famous for its long waits. I didn’t really experience this when I applied and did the written test in May. But this round—for my practical test (or “behind-the-wheel”, as they call it)—was impressive. I arrived at 10:45 a.m. for an 11 a.m. appointment, and joined the now-six-long driver test line. It took until 11:30 a.m. to get to the front (that’s nine minutes per person), so having collected the paperwork, I got into my car at 11:40 a.m.

Just a few drivers ahead of me
12:24 p.m.: Just a few drivers ahead of me

The best was yet to come. I drove in to join the back of a line of cars waiting for their drivers to sit the test. And there I sat for two-and-a-half hours. Every ten minutes or so, the line would creep forward by one. I’ve sat in cars for this long before, but normally I’d get a hundred miles or so in there, not a hundred metres. My test started at 2:20 p.m., and I was all done including final paperwork at 2:45 p.m. It was the most painful bureaucratic exercise I’ve undertaken yet. Allowing a couple of hours off work for it was evidently wishful thinking.

Nearly at the front!
1:31 p.m.: Nearly at the front!

It occurred to me only afterwards what an “appointment” means at the DMV. I had looked earlier to figure out when to arrive, expecting something on the lines of “arrive at the DMV office 15 minutes before your appointment”, or “don’t be late—you’ll forfeit the test”, or something. There was nothing of the sort. Appointments don’t seem to be a means of keeping things on schedule. They’re just a way to ration how many people come at once. (For paperwork visits, people with appointments can jump the queue.) But there’s no attempt to see anyone on time; DMV employees just work through the queue.

Individual employees naturally vary, but the general feel of office carries neither a sense of urgency nor service. Waiting forever is a default expectation. Part of me thinks that if this was what I faced every time I dealt with a government department, I’d begin to want a small government, too.

Thankfully, if this is a theme, it doesn’t seem to be to this degree. The Social Security Office involved long waits, but nothing like this and the staff seemed happy to help.

Driving in California
The test is easy, but very picky. The most complicated maneouvre I had to do was backing in a straight line, and this matches what others told me. So no parallel parking or three-point turns, no talking and driving at the same time, no describing everything you can see.

But a few finer conceptions of “safe driving” are different. At a stop sign in California, you stop at the line, not where you can see all the vehicles approaching the intersection. These aren’t always the same thing, and more so here than in New Zealand, because crosswalks are normally marked at intersections (and the limit line is before it). To me, a stop where you can’t see well enough to decide seems unhelpful. Similarly, here you indicate 100 feet (30 metres) before an intersection, not three seconds (unless you’re doing 36 km/h).

The rules of the road are actually fairly different, but for the most part, not hard to get used to. As fascinating as I find them, I shan’t bore you with all the differences. I mentioned a couple in my post on my first drive, particularly ones that I like, like how you can turn right on a red light after stopping if safe. I’ll throw terminology differences into another post.

What’s a resident? (or, do I need a licence?)
This is a question I’ve discussed many times with many people. Most people would tell me to get one eventually, but “eventually” meant anything between 10 days and 6 months, depending on who I asked. So I consulted official sources instead.

California law requires California residents to obtain a California licence. Non-residents can drive on their out-of-state or foreign licence for as long as that licence is valid. The missing piece is: what constitutes a California resident?

I would have thought that state residency required U.S. residency, but that’s not how it works. Residency, according to the driver handbook, is “established” when you register to vote, pay resident tuition at a state university, file for a homeowner’s tax exemption or “otherwise receive any other privilege not ordinarily extended to nonresidents”. First observation: unlike national residency, state residency is not a formal status.

So what if you’re studying? To me, the example of “paying resident tuition” implies that students aren’t automatically residents, because otherwise they would have said that instead. With the question unresolved, I checked the text of the California Vehicle Code itself. It gets even messier.

Residency for driver licensing is determined by a “person’s state of domicile”, which means “his or her true, fixed, and permanent home and principal residence”. That seems reasonable, but it goes on: “prima facie” evidence includes what I listed above, and “other acts, occurrences, or events that indicate presence in the state is more than temporary or transient.”

It’s not clear to me what constitutes “temporary or transient”, and there’s no mention of that in the driver handbook. People who study are typically here for four or five years, which seems long enough, and most foreigners I’ve talked to think that makes it a requirement. But that would make the resident tuition clause superfluous, and the residency section doesn’t distinguish between foreigners and non-Californian Americans. In any case, the Code says you can “rebut” a presumption of residency by showing that your primary residence is somewhere else. For most students, this is probably true.

I would have thought a simpler rule would have been more sensible. But there are no restrictions on who can get a licence (as long as you’re entitled to be in the country) so it’s simpler just to apply for one than try to navigate this legal maze. I did, but mainly because I want a U.S.-issued proof of age for retailers who require it, and because I wanted to see what the DMV’s like for myself. I guess I got my wish.

What’s with all the high school kids?

I arrived back from New Zealand a few weeks ago to find a Stanford overrun by middle and high school students. They were all in organised groups, evidently in some sort of programme. The thing is, it wasn’t just one programme. There must have been at least half a dozen, judging by how many children there were and their different groups and activities.

I haven’t been paying much attention, but I’ve seen signs for basketball and soccer camps. A friend’s sister was here for an environmental science programme. I’ve known for a while that our debate society is connected with an institute that runs summer camps for middle and high school debaters. This list of academic youth camps, maintained by Stanford’s residences division, lists twenty-one (not necessarily concurrent, some of which run multiple camps, and excluding camps for undergraduates). A sign in the dining hall suggests “optimal meal times” for Stanford students to avoid the pesky high school traffic.

Summer camps aren’t a foreign concept to me. Rotary clubs in New Zealand run an excellent two-week camp for high school science students every January (I went in 2007 and have never had more fun). But the scale astounded me, at least at first. Other than national competitions (this excludes quite a lot), the only such programme I had heard of was the Rotary one. There are doubtless others too, but I don’t think there are that many, at least not ones run at universities.

The reason I make this distinction is that with almost all of the camps here, from what I hear, high school students apply, get selected and pay to go. So unlike the maths camp I once went to, which had an extrinsic motivation (being selected to compete internationally in Slovenia), the Stanford University Mathematics Camp is a collection of high schoolers just wanting to extend themselves in maths (or “math”, as they call it here). The price tag for this camp hits $6000, though students can apply for financial aid. Presumably getting selected for the camp is also very tough, but the camp itself is for the fun of it.

Once I thought about it, there are some quite obvious explanations. Firstly, there are way more people in America, so presumably it’s easier to find sufficient demand for any single one. Whether that alone would explain the difference, I don’t know. (I also don’t know if Stanford runs an unusual number of them, but I at least gather we’re not alone.) Secondly, universities here have a lot more scope to run these, because they have more residences that are empty during the summer. In New Zealand, where students who live on campus are the exception rather than the rule, capacity is more finite.

I wondered out loud several times (around different people) how common it is for people to apply to these. It’s probably not as common as I had first thought. But there are certainly a lot more in existence. One might imagine their being a booster on college applications (which, unlike NZ university applications, can be very competitive), or just a way to fill time during an otherwise-boring break.

Whatever the cause, it’s hard not to admire this kind of opportunity. At least as I remember it, it’s hard to come across motivated, like-minded peers of this sort while at high school. Admittedly, the scale makes me worry that it might be an obsession of “tiger moms”, or whether it can inadvertently be a way to exacerbate the head-start of the rich. But in general, encouraging teenagers to pursue interests outside the formulaic structure of school and make friends who think similarly should be a good thing.

The campus seems to have quietened down a bit now. I still see high-school-aged kids once in a while, but don’t feel overwhelmed by them. So either there are fewer of them or I’m getting used to them. I’m not sure which.