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New Student Orientation

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


A warm welcome to all new students. As you settle in, we have prepared a little orientation below on three topics that we think are relevant to your safety.

Food safety

Bike Safety

Mental Muscle

Select the option above by clicking on the image

Food Safety

It is really important that you eat healthy so your educational pursuits are not disturbed by ill health. This deck of slides will orient you to some healthy eating information (was prepared for an orientation for the Indian community, but should be useful to all). Also, check out the Healthy Eating blog.

Biycle Safety

Rules of the Road
Most students end up buying a bicycle on campus and using it as their main mode of transportation. However, many are new to the United States and need to be aware of the rules of the road. Please make sure you've gone through the Bike Safety Information page and read the bike safety flyer. The flyer lists causes for citation that you need to be aware of. Student bicyclists do get cited for breaking the law. Two frequent citation causes are not stopping at stop signs and not having a bicycle light at night.

Stopping at Stop Signs
Take a look at this map of bicycle accidents. You will find that most of the accidents in the last few years between bicyclists and motorists seem to happen at key intersections, two of which are Campus & Bowdoin, Campus & Escondido. Clicking on the icons will show you the police report. In most cases, the bicyclist was at fault for not stopping at the stop sign. A big reason to stop is that motorists often miss see a bicycle enter the intersection, as they are focusing on the road ahead.

Protect your most valuable asset
You have probably bought a u-lock to protect your bicycle. But have you bought a helmet to protect your most valuable asset - your head? Almost all other injuries heal over time, except head injuries. Simple falls where people have landed on their head have lead to major brain trauma and irreversible conditions. These can be easily avoided by wearing a helmet - you should be able to get a subsidized one for $20 in the Campus bike shop.

Buy a good bike
The tendency to buy the cheapest bike under $100 should be reviewed. Bikes under that amount will often develop mechanical malfunctions. For instance, one of the brakes could stop working, or the chain could slip. If you notice any problems with your brakes, get them looked at immediately by the Campus Bike Shop (in Tresidder). For other problems, there could be serious injuries if your bike malfunctions while you are riding it. It is best to spend a little more and get a good quality bike, either from the Campus Bike Shop or from a retail store.

Developing Mental Muscle

During the course of your stay, you will face intense pressure to learn and succeed in your classes. You will also face pressure in your environment - whether it is about securing your funding through a research assistantship or dealing with a relationship. It is extremely important to skillfully deal with stressful situations in order to get the most out of your stay at Stanford.

This piece has pointers that may help you deal with stress and develop your mental muscle.

Remember Why You Are Here
Once the feeling of familiarity creeps in, it is easy to forget that you are in one of the most esteemed academic institutions on this planet. Are you here just because you want a job? No - you can get a job without coming to Stanford. Are you here because you want an RAship? No - no one cares about how many hours you spent on an RAship or that you managed to find one in your first quarter on campus. People care about what you can do for them. You are here as a student, and your main mission is to learn as much as you can from your teachers, colleagues and friends. It is rare to be surrounded with such exceptionally talented people - it is important to develop gratitude and recognize the opportunity to learn. When you are down with stress of any sort, go back to the fundamentals, and ask yourself if you need to slow down and get back to being a good student.

Think Clearly About Your Finances
Most students in the graduate Masters programs tend not to have financial aid. If you are in this category, thinking all the time that you are in trouble is unhelpful and very distracting. How can you focus on your studies if all you think about is how you can avoid taking that back-breaking loan? Slow down. Write down on a piece of paper how much you might make per month once you find a job. Calculate how many years it will take you to repay. Remind yourself that you have already done this calculation before coming here, so the mind has no business sabotaging your peace now that you are living out your plan. For most disciplines, you will find that loans can be repaid within two years, if not less. This is *normal*.

Think Clearly About Time
This is easier said than done. People start the quarter thinking they have unlimited time. As deadlines come closer and the workload increases, a sinking feeling can set in - you aren't going to meet all the promises you've made with your time. This is especially true in RAships. It is very tempting to think that an RAship is free money. It is not - you can end up spending 20 hours a week on it with a big chance of turning your RAship into a curse if it is not in the area of your interest. Your education will also suffer as you won't have time and energy to do justice to it. Slow down. Do an RAship only if it is aligned with your learning interests. Be fair to yourself and the people who are offering the RAship.

Even outside of RAships, the worst belief you can install in your head is "I don't have time." When you believe this, you will stop having time for important things, like appreciating the tree in front of you that never thinks for a moment that it does not have time to give you shade. Your relationships and friendships will also be stressful and you will start to see anyone with requests on your time as a source of stress. It helps to install a different belief - "I have time." You will still manage your time wisely, but when things don't happen according to your plan, you will realize that you have the time to be open to possibilities. You have the time to slow down and be grateful for all that you've received, and recognize your own strength for the journey ahead.

Think Clearly About Relationships
For many people, it is but natural to develop relationships during their stay here. It is important to note that a relationship can be like a 10-unit course. Do you have that many units to spare? For many students, there is no support network that is often crucial to sustaining healthy relationships. You are probably far away from your family and close friends. A relationship gone sour can be a very distracting situation. Hopefully, you will never have to face this, but should you encounter this, here are some important pointers:

1. Life is not over: Just because your partner has now become an ex-partner does not mean your life is worthless. Think about your family and all the people who have given you so much love. Think about why you are here, and tell your monkey-mind to let go.

2. Slow down: When you refuse to slow down and face the prospect of a broken relationship out of the fear of being unable to deal with it, you are behaving like the driver who says he has no time to stop and refuel. Only when you slow down do you have some possibility of creating a space for yourself. Then, clear thinking becomes possible. Remember life before the relationship - you were fine. You will survive and do very well.

3. Seek Help: For most of us with untrained minds, we need good help to get over serious mental traumas. There is help at Stanford. Visit Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) - a confidential service where you can get professional help. Talk to honest friends who will help you wake up. If you are being approached for help, remind your friend why they are here.

4. Learn the Lesson: Relationships are a great source of learning about oneself. Be grateful for the lesson - your preferences will be clearer. Your self-image will be challenged - the person you thought you were and the person you are perceived to be don't happen to match. You will learn to accept that you are not your self-image, neither are you the one the other person thinks you are. With this lesson comes great gratitude, for the lessons that helps us know who we are also help us grow the most.

Distinguish between Decisions and Outcomes
Don't make the fallacy of judging the decision from the outcome. You can only control your decisions. The outcome is determined by several variables, many of which are not in your hands. If you knew the outcome, you wouldn't have a decision to make. Therefore, focus on doing your best, and after the decision has been made, be equanimous about the outcome. If you drop the load of expectations of the outcome, you will be so much lighter and will also save a lot of time worrying about things you cannot control; and time saved is time earned for constructive activities.

Simplify your Complexes
We all come in with deep-rooted complexes. Some of us have a superiority complex as we come in from a recognized institution and feel like we belong here. Others have an inferiority complex as we come in from a relatively unknown place, and feel that we are not worthy of being here. Both complexes are unhelpful and they diminish our ability to learn. They are in-fact two sides of the same coin.

Those with a superiority complex can fall into the trap of staying in their comfort zone and only taking classes that play to their strengths. For instance, math wizards might avoid "soft" classes, and look down on people taking such classes. It helps to be honest with oneself - why do I dislike "soft" classes? Is it because I suck in such classes? Ah - so there's fear that's driving my aversion. I am not such a superstar after all, and I don't want to lose my self-image by doing badly in such classes. Therefore, I need to self-justify why such classes are useless.

Those with an inferiority complex can fall into the same trap. For instance, people with a fear of math might avoid "hard" classes, and start justifying their own stories. Again, it helps to be honest with oneself - why do I avoid math classes? Math is not for me - either because I've forgotten all my math after working a few years, or because my previous academic institute wasn't very good at teaching me math. So, I am "disadvantaged." If I take math classes, I will surely flunk. Ah - there's that fear again. Therefore, I need to self-justify why math misses the point and why math junkies don't understand life anyway.

Deep down, both are running away from their fears and missing out on learning experiences that might actually help. Slow down. Stop believing what other people think about you. You will be in deep trouble if you think you are your self-image. You have nothing to prove to anyone. If you feel inferior about a subject, then start saying to yourself, "If not me, then who else can do this?" and with great determination, embark on your learning journey. Once the heart is in place, the head should also be used. So, accept your weaknesses for what they are. You may not have been exposed to math or "soft stuff" as much as your peers. This means you will want to allot more time to it, and maybe cut down on personal and party time. Once you let go of your fear of looking like a fool, you will find that you are able to ask for help, both from your TAs and your peers. Also test your assumptions - if something in the class didn't get through to you, and no one else asked any questions, ask your peers - did you really understand what happened? If so, can you explain it to me? You will often find that when no questions are asked, everyone felt the same fear. That should encourage you to get help and give help.

If you are feeling superior about a subject, and find yourself looking down on those who are struggling, then replace your contempt with compassion. Reach out to those who need help - it is a great test of your own learning if you are able to help others learn. You will find so much satisfaction when you help someone without any expectation of reward.

You are not a Rat
One of the biggest distractions on campus is the rat race for grades. Don't reveal your grades to others, and don't ask other's grades. You might have a story about how it won't affect you, but the monkey mind is the monkey mind. You might find yourself utterly distracted by the fact that a friend has done better or worse than you. You might find yourself judging others based on their grades, and you might find yourself judged by your grade. Therefore, don't rat on yourself - keep your grades a secret.

More important, don't enter the rat race. Play the game on your terms. You are here to learn, and if you find that you've really learned a lot in a class, give yourself an A+. The TAs and the professor are bound by their own criteria and will give you a grade based on that, but your standard for yourself is under your control. Test whether you've allowed your monkey mind to steal your peace - are you asking your TA or professor questions like, "What is the grade distribution in this class from past years?" How will this help you and how do you know which grade you will land? This crutch from the past will only add to your anxiety. Let it go. The grading system is an imperfect reflection of your mastery of the subject. Accept it for what it is. Your true mastery is known only to you - be honest with yourself and improve on that.

Always remember the story of the student who asked the teacher how long it would take to master a subject. The teacher replied, "10 years." When the student asked how long it would take if the effort was double, the teacher replied, "20 years." The bewildered student asked for the rationale. The teacher replied, "When you asked the second question, you had one eye on the process and one eye on the goal. With one eye on the process, it is going to take twice as long." Have both eyes on the process.

Practice Equanimity
We exercise to develop our physical strength and muscles, but how do we make our mind strong and ready to meet challenges? While all of the pointers above can be helpful, you will find that the monkey mind keeps coming back to trouble you, by heightening your fear of the unknown future. How does one develop equanimity as a matter of practice?

For this, different people have different solutions. Find your own solution in a scientific manner, through observation. When you feel fear or anger or stress, instead of reacting to it with panic, watch your breath. See how it has changed. Sit down somewhere and become an observer of your mind. You will find that the fear or anger passes as you keep observing it. Our mind is continuously flooded with thoughts and sensations - once you use your mind to see its own activity, you will naturally realize that nothing is constant. Your pleasant feelings don't last, and neither do the unpleasant. Therefore, practice a refusal to react. This is how a crucial mental muscle (called equanimity) can develop. This is the science behind meditation and it also works when you are not meditating.

You have a wonderful opportunity to work on yourself on many dimensions. Please make use of your stay at Stanford and be very successful in your learning journey.