Eden Hadar, a Stanford first-year undergraduate student, has long been fascinated by the human brain and what makes people think, feel, and act the way they do.

Eden Hadar

Eden Hadar found intellectual and personal fulfillment through Stanford’s newly redesigned first year requirement, Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE). (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Throughout her freshman year, Hadar has taken a variety of classes that have allowed her to explore different ways of understanding how the mind works. She has delved into the science itself, studying how billions of nerve cells in the brain transmit messages throughout the body. She has examined some of its psychological aspects as well, and she has even learned how philosophy can help explain the human mind and consciousness.

But it’s been seeing how her classmates think – from expanding ideas to articulating arguments – in her Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE) classes that has been one of the most rewarding Stanford experiences for her so far.

“I love having conversations and seeing people’s rationale and thought processes – that was something that COLLEGE allowed me to do,” said Hadar. But she has also learned more about herself: “When people bring different perspectives to the discussion, you really ask yourself, ‘What do I believe?’ ”

Putting problems into perspective

In the spring quarter, Hadar took Living with Viruses, one of seven courses offered as part of the Global Perspectives component of the COLLEGE program.

Having experienced the COVID-19 pandemic in Israel – where Hadar lived between the ages of 12 to 18 – she was interested to learn more about the global impact of viruses.

It was the social aspects of the class that Hadar found most striking.

As Julie Baker, a professor of genetics at the School of Medicine and the course instructor, explains: “I don’t think you can understand science without putting it into a social perspective – for example, vaccines are only as good as being able to distribute them. It’s really important to understand the societies that we live in. No matter where you go with a subject matter, you always end up in its social context.”

Understanding how different contexts shape how people view illness – from smallpox to AIDS to most recently, COVID-19 – formed much of the course’s discussion, which was something students could relate to having just experienced a pandemic where response varied between countries and cultures.

“It was interesting to compare and contrast different experiences based on people’s geography during COVID-19,” said Hadar. For example, in Israel during the first lockdown in early 2020, Hadar couldn’t leave her town without encountering a police checkpoint and presenting an exceptional reason to be on the road. Students from other countries – even different states within the U.S. where restrictions too were varied – brought in their perspectives as well.

“We all have firsthand narratives,” Hadar said. “I want to learn more about people and their unique story.”

For Eden Hadar, the seminar style of her COLLEGE courses allowed her to explore issues and ideas from multiple different perspectives and viewpoints. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Storytelling was a central part of the class: reading them, hearing them, and for their final project, telling them. Students had to create a 6- to 8-minute-long podcast about an interesting or controversial story they encountered while researching the virus they were assigned, which for Hadar was smallpox.

In Hadar’s final project for the class, she and her group looked at the case of Janet Parker, who was the last known person to die of smallpox in 1978. At the time, the country was close to declaring it had eradicated the highly contagious disease and was confounded by her case, which she likely contracted at the local medical school where she worked. Hadar and her group used Parker’s story as a way to examine how researchers store and study pathogens.

Hadar was also struck by how persuasive a chosen perspective can be

“The way you tell the narrative can significantly change the story,” said Hadar. “Even though the facts might be the same, picking and choosing information can really shape how you view the science.”

Learning through listening

Like the many different approaches to studying the human brain, there too are countless entry points into understanding an issue or problem, which was a theme that emerged for Hadar throughout her COLLEGE experience.

When individual stories are put together, a fuller story emerges.

“It’s only through getting a collective bigger picture that I can formulate a more factually representative narrative,” she said. As Hadar has come to appreciate, listening – and really considering that information – also plays an important role.

This came to the fore during Hadar’s winter quarter course, Citizenship in the 21st Century.

Her classmates came from all over the world: one came from the United Arab Emirates, another, Australia. Others had parents who emigrated from other countries like Bangladesh. Hadar herself is international: She was born in Los Angeles to Israeli parents and moved to Israel when she was 12.

With her fellow frosh – some of whom have since become her good friends – ideas and issues would be hashed out.

Even though much of the course material in Citizenship in the 21st Century was U.S.-focused, there was room to examine different interpretations of what it means to be a citizen elsewhere. Each person brought their own global experiences into the discussion. Hadar too found parallels in the country’s readings to Israel, and for her final paper, she used Israel’s recent judicial overhaul and reforms to the court system as her case study.

“Having all these different perspectives come together for conversations that were honest and open made everyone feel welcome to say their opinions, to disagree, and also to support each other,” Hadar said. For her, the small class size really allowed for such nuanced examinations.

Creating a space to explore and reflect

As her frosh year comes to a close, Hadar is still undecided on what major she will choose. She’s interested in the Symbolic Systems Program in the School of Humanities and Sciences, and is also drawn to politics and international relations. She is at ease with her uncertainty – if anything, she is enjoying being open-minded about her education ahead.

“I am taking the opportunity to explore and try everything – now is the peak time to do it,” Hadar said.

A goal of a liberal arts education is to give students like Hadar the opportunity to explore their interests and find joy in discovering new ones, said Sarah Church, the Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, who led the university’s Coordinated First-Year Committee tasked with reimagining the first-year experience at Stanford.

“I want students to get the most out of their college experience,” said Church, who has also been teaching in the COLLEGE program. “I want them not to be fearful. I want them to be aware that there are no fundamental errors in their education in their first year. I want to show them that they can take a breath and really think, engage, and be well equipped to make good decisions about their education.”

Church is also the Pritzker University Fellow in Undergraduate Education.