Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, April 10, 2002

  Founders' Celebration speech

The following is the text of the speech Sarah Shaw Middleton, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering, gave at Founders' Celebration April 7, 2002.

During my first year as a graduate student at Stanford, I tutored a 12-year-old girl in East Palo Alto named Empress. At our first tutoring session, Empress stopped me in the middle of an algebra problem, and asked, "Why are you still in school?" Although I tried to sell her on the merits of a Ph.D., neither Empress nor I were completely convinced. I steered her back toward her math problem, where I could give her satisfying answers. I have struggled with Empress' question throughout my nearly five years at Stanford and often have longed for an answer as cut and dried as algebra. How can I find meaning in the inner workings of bacteria when the world seems so broken? Shouldn't I be out there using my hands to help in a more concrete way?

As I head into the final year of my Ph.D., I have felt the answers to these questions take shape and am often inspired by those I see around me ­ people who strive to impact the world with their hands and their minds and their hearts. I see a law student fighting domestic violence, a geologist pinning down the speciation of mercury at abandoned mine sites, a computer scientist tweaking human/computer interactions for educational software, a medical student probing the causes for autoimmune disease, my laboratory bench mate accelerating the evolution of enzymes in vitro, a biologist studying ecotourism in Peru, the musical voice of a Stegner Fellow reading a poem about the clean curves of a figure eight on a skating pond. I've found Stanford to be a place where faculty are willing to hike through ancient redwoods with students, engrossed in conversation about human suffering and its relation to faith; a place where the Dean of Engineering will sit down with a small group of students and talk about what it's like to be a woman in a male-dominated field and what he can do to make it more supportive at Stanford.

From the beginning, Stanford has been full of people who are determined to make a positive impact. It was the strength and perseverance of Jane Stanford that carried this university through its first uncertain years. Her passion and commitment seemed to culminate in the construction of Memorial Church, which was built in memory of Mr. Stanford's death. She was known for her expert ability to read blueprints and would follow the resident architect high onto the scaffolding of the church. Mrs. Stanford claimed: "While my whole heart is in this University, my soul is in that Church." The Stanfords believed that spiritual understanding through an ethical education was the highest wisdom a person could find in life. Even in the wake of brokenness and loss, Jane Stanford shaped her dream of Memorial Church, and transformed her dream into reality. I think that as Jane Stanford stood on the scaffolding of Memorial Church, she knew Stanford would be a place that would impact the world. I think she would be proud of the intellect, energy and enthusiasm that bring this campus to life and would be especially proud of the achievements that women have made at Stanford since the days she looked out over Stanford's campus.

On several occasions, I have been close to giving up on my Ph.D. I answered Empress' question with a resounding, "I have no idea why I am still in school and maybe it's time to move on." But when I reflect on the collage of people I have encountered here, I see that dreaming and perseverance are both contagious, and a lot of people at Stanford seem to have caught something good. I realize that if I persevere, I may be able to achieve my dream of teaching college students and researching cutting-edge environmental solutions.

At the heart of Stanford is a pulse of creativity, technology and purpose, a pulse that examines our past and directs the future. Stanford has impacted, and will continue to impact, the world in powerful ways. We are blessed to be here. This is not a place to be cynical, to disregard the intense need for problem solving in this world, or become desensitized to those outside of the Stanford body. Instead, we conquer cynicism with our reach. Stanford's sandstone arms reach beyond our quadrangle of palms ­ they reach across our country and across oceans, across political, economic, scientific and social boundaries. When Jane Stanford stood on the scaffolding of her dreams, I think she knew that these arms would help future generations take flight.

Sarah Shaw Middleton