Impact of summer program for high school students still reverberates for graduating Stanford seniors

Three graduating Stanford seniors look back at the path their studies took after participating in the first cohort of the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute as high school students.

For the past five summers, high school juniors and seniors from across the world have gathered at Stanford for an intensive, deep study of history, philosophy and literature as part of the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute.

7/2/2012 Stanford Summer Humanities Institute (SSHI). Ryan Lee, Abby Coleman, Sean Watson, and John Pitre participate in a small group discussion with associate professor of French and Italian Dan Edelstein (standing) and resident counselor Nathan Lindborg.

In July 2012 as a high school student, graduating senior Ryan Lee (far left) participated in the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute and took a course with French Professor Dan Edelstein. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

The institute, created in 2012, exposes students to the life of a humanities scholar and teaches them how to ask intelligent and rigorous questions. It is one of only a few high school programs taught by Stanford faculty.

“We help introduce high school students to a richer and broader conception of what humanistic inquiry is,” said Caroline Winterer, professor of history and director of the Stanford Humanities Center, who has taught in the program since it began. “Humanities is a way of living and students get a taste for that here.”

As part of the program, students live on the Stanford campus. They take one of several courses, participate in discussions and, ultimately, write a research paper. The students also get access to special collections and other resources Stanford has through field trips to the Stanford University Libraries and the Cantor Arts Center.

Three students from the Summer Humanities Institute’s first cohort are about to graduate from Stanford. Stanford News Service interviewed them about their experiences with the program and how it shaped their undergraduate studies.

Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee said his time at the Summer Humanities Institute was invaluable. He especially enjoyed the openness of ideas and discussions between students and professors.

Ryan Lee portrait

Ryan Lee (Image credit: Courtesy Ryan Lee)

“SHI’s probably one of the best academic experiences I’ve ever had,” said Lee, adding that it also sparked his interest in spending his freshman year in the Structured Liberal Education residential program. “It really got me interested in Stanford and in learning more because there was this back-and-forth dialogue that you don’t really get in high school.”

The material students studied also made an impression on Lee, who took French Professor Dan Edelstein’s course Revolutions, which covers different uprisings throughout human history. Lee studied the writings of Maximilien Robespierre, an influential figure during the French Revolution, who sought to rewrite his culture’s ideals and institutions so that only good, virtuous people could become powerful in society.

Robespierre’s ideas stuck with Lee after he fell in love with physics his sophomore year while taking a course with physics professor – and now provost – Persis Drell.

“At first I was really amazed by this whole world I never knew about,” Lee said. “But I also started to think about how what we’ve built with our knowledge of physics has influenced the way we live. I started to think about how roads, bridges and technologies could have been set up to engender differences in neighborhoods and in our society.”

For Lee, engineering merged his love of physics with addressing existing issues in society, such as geographical health inequality. Lee, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with a minor in human biology, hopes to work on researching medical devices and in the area of robotics.

“I very much want to be the kind of problem-solver that doesn’t just say, ‘Here’s the device’ or ‘Here’s some new fancy machine,’” Lee said. “I want to really understand what the issues are and what’s the best way to create something that a person needs.”

Holly Dayton

When Holly Dayton thinks back to what led her to Stanford, her time at the Summer Humanities Institute stands out.

Holly Dayton portrait

Holly Dayton (Image credit: Courtesy Holly Dayton)

“I was exposed to people who really cared about rigor in history and in the humanities, people who cared in a way that I hadn’t encountered before,” Dayton said. “The unbridled enthusiasm of kids who had never been around other people as passionate as they were made for a very special environment.”

Dayton, who pursued a major in history and a minor in theater and performance studies, said that her decision to take Winterer’s course Age of Jefferson deeply affected her time at Stanford. Dayton said Winterer became a mentor and advisor who helped guide her research projects.

Dayton, a 2016-2017 Hume Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, still remembers being humbled by the constructive but critical feedback she received on the first draft of the research paper she wrote while at the Summer Humanities Institute.

“I remember getting a lot of suggestions for the rewrite,” Dayton said. “To have someone hold you to high standards was so invigorating.”

Dayton plans to continue her humanities studies at the University of Cambridge.

Minkee Sohn

Minkee Sohn said one of his favorite parts about the Summer Humanities Institute was the exposure it gave students to Stanford professors and their teaching styles. He said the program not only inspired him to apply to and choose Stanford, but prepared him to excel when he enrolled.

Minkee Sohn portraint

Minkee Sohn (Image credit: Courtesy Minkee Sohn)

“The discussions that we engaged in were at a level deeper than the kinds of discussions that I would have had in high school,” Sohn said.

Sohn, like Lee, took Edelstein’s course Revolutions. He said he was particularly impacted by a speech that one of the professors gave to students toward the end of the summer program.

“I was planning on studying the humanities at whatever college I ended up in,” Sohn said. “But that talk really emphasized to me the value of developing that critical thinking skillset through the humanities.”

Sohn took that speech and the experience at the Summer Humanities Institute to heart, focusing on cultivating a strong understanding of the value of the humanities throughout his time at Stanford.

That critical thinking enriched Sohn’s experience in other classes, he said.

“Being able to consider different perspectives and to think critically about any sort of problem is important in every discipline,” Sohn said.

Sohn pursued a major in communication and will start working in the field of business consulting in the fall.

Media Contacts

Alex Shashkevich, Stanford News Service:, (650) 497-4419