Different paths, same destination

AS TOLD TO DAVID KIEFER

The significance of a Stanford degree is reflective of the obstacles and challenges required to achieve it, something these 2020 graduates understand well. Eight student-athletes describe their journeys and why a Stanford degree is especially meaningful to them.

NADIA FINGALL

Women’s Basketball - Human Biology

WHEN MY FATHER, Air Force Maj. Andrew Fingall, was deployed to Afghanistan for the third time, during my sophomore year at Stanford, he dedicated an American flag to our women’s basketball team.

He hand-carried the flag in honor of the program during one of his missions in Kabul, where he was stationed in support of Combined Security Transition Command that provides training to the Afghan Ministry of Interior.

Afterward, he folded the flag and framed it alongside the mission’s patches, and sent it to Stanford. The day the flag arrived, the team waited after practice as I brought it out and explained its significance and what it represented to my family. Enclosed were patches my father made for us - half an American flag and half a Stanford block -S- with a basketball. I gave one to each of my teammates.

It was emotional, opening up about that part of my life. I sometimes wonder if I-d even be at Stanford if I didn-t have the experiences that my dad’s service provided. Every time I see that flag in the basketball office, I reflect on how different my life could be.

My dad has served for 18 years, and whether through a church or military initiative, we always try to do a couple of community service events a year. It-s important for us to get out into the communities rather than remain tied to the base. It-s our way of understanding the culture of the places we-ve lived.

Just as every place has left a mark on us, we try to leave our own mark too. That’s how I-ve approached my time at Stanford. It-s just like Coach Kate Paye always says, when we go into a visiting locker room, -Leave the place better than you found it.-

I internalize that to mean developing meaningful relationships as I worked as a receptionist at the front desk of the athletic department; or, after tearing my ACL and shifting my focus to doing anything in my capacity to support my teammates and the program.

I-m constantly aware of how I represent the program and the university. The visibility and platform that we have as student-athletes are great, and our fans, especially the kids, are always watching. It-s imperative that we represent to the best of our ability.

As a college athlete, I was most excited to go into the communities surrounding Stanford. When I-m competing, I am a student-athlete, but when I-m reading to a classroom full of kids, I feel like more than that. I feel a sense of gratitude when I am allowed into someone else’s space and can make an impact there.

I experienced this kind of impact when I was in sixth grade and attending a basketball camp at USC. We were doing ball-handling drills and I could not figure out how to do a spin dribble. I was fumbling the ball and frustrated with myself. One of the players saw me and took me aside from the rest of the campers and worked with me individually.

In that moment, I felt like somebody really cared. She didn-t have to do this at all, but she cared about me and my improvement.

I never forgot that.

Recent events in our country have caused me to do some introspection. What exactly are the responsibilities that come with being a Black woman with a Stanford degree?-
Nadia Fingall

That moment guides me to this day. How can I pay it forward?

As a human biology major with a focus of human physiology and performance, I wonder how I can inspire others. I-m the oldest of five children. How can I be a role model for my siblings?

Recent events in our country have caused me to do some introspection. What exactly are the responsibilities that come with being a Black woman, with a Stanford degree?

I am thankful for the opportunities that Stanford has afforded me. This degree and knowledge behind it will give me a platform to be a part of the solution.

In society and in whatever field I choose, I want to work to bring about positive change. My father has spent his career trying to make a difference, and I, too, want to make a difference in my own way.

In simple terms, my hope is this: That I made Stanford a better place than I found it.

MALIK ANTOINE

Football - Management Science & Engineering

PEOPLE TELL YOU that a Stanford degree means so much only after you graduate, but that’s not necessarily true.

For a kid from Louisiana, being accepted to such a prestigious university is a milestone of its own. It shows kids that you aren-t confined to the limitations the world places on you. You can go wherever you want and become successful.

This inspiration becomes more apparent due to the current climate our country is in. As we fight to end systemic racism and the harsh reality of police brutality against the Black community, I hope my journey at Stanford can give encouragement to the Black youth across America.

Where I grew up, there are certain routes you-re supposed to take. The courage comes in taking a different one. That’s why it was so important to leave, no matter how tough it was to leave my family.

If it wasn-t for their support and my trust in God, I might not have done it. I remember how my older brother, Marlon, came to all my games at U-High. But being away from my two younger brothers and younger sister, I wasn-t the same older brother to them that I wanted to be. I missed football games, basketball games, cheerleading events, track meets. That was the toughest thing, not being there for their big moments.

But the trade-off is this: My parents wanted me pushed academically, athletically, and socially. They wanted me to experience something different. They knew Stanford would catapult me to my full potential. I am forever grateful for their support in pushing me to become the best version of myself.

Where I grew up, there are certain routes you-re supposed to take. The courage comes in taking a different one.-
Malik Antoine

You don-t hear about Stanford when you-re a kid in Baton Rouge. I found out about Stanford from watching TV - Andrew Luck and Richard Sherman and the Orange Bowl. My favorite color was red, and I thought, I like this team. My mom, Karen Thomas, told me it was a great academic institution, and I was hooked. I told my seventh-grade teacher that someday I would graduate from Stanford... and here I am.

Everyone that steps on campus feels a kind of initial shock. It hit me first academically in my first calculus class. The teacher was rapidly doing a deep dive in derivatives and everybody’s taking notes seeming to understand, and I-m thinking, I don-t understand a thing this guy’s saying.

It was the same on the football field. The first couple of practices I-m going against J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. He catches a pass over me and I-m thinking, in high school I would have knocked that pass down. The excellence at Stanford hits you real fast: This is the real deal. These people at Stanford are extraordinary in everything they do.

But being around so many successful people, you have no choice but to be successful as well. You feel it when you meet with teachers and explain a project to them and they give you affirmation. Or when you-re on the scout team guarding guys like Trent Irwin and Michael Rector and you hold your own. You feel like you belong.

Coach Shaw likes to say this: -There’s no locker room like ours.- And I truly believe that. This is why:

In mid-August during my first Stanford training camp, a massive storm that produced three times as much rain as Hurricane Katrina struck Baton Rouge. Water rose steadily, at first coming down the road, then covering our property, then coming into the house, and submerging all we had. The water topped at 5 ┬oe feet up the walls.

At Stanford, I was trying to fight for a role on the team when I came back from practice and was hit with the news. I was in shock, complete shock. I remember being in my room and having an emotional breakdown, just thinking of what my family must be going through.

But within days, the Stanford community came through, getting permission from the NCAA to raise more than $100,000 for our family through a GoFundMe page. If you looked at the list of donors, there were teammates, friends, coaches, alumni. I-m seeing all these names... some I barely knew or didn-t know at all. But to give anything means that someone cares about you. It was a blessing.

After spending a couple of days in Baton Rouge, the phrases I heard when I returned to Stanford were: -Do you need anything?- and -I-m here for you.-

That sparked the fire of being a member of the Stanford family, and that fire has been growing brighter inside me ever since. A fire that developed me into a leader and captain on the team. Stanford has truly helped me become a better man.

Now that I-m on the verge of a Stanford degree in management science and engineering, my dream is coming true. Next, I-ll be working toward a master’s in communication and completing my Stanford football career as a safety and team captain.

As my Stanford career comes to a close, I sometimes get a flash of all those amazing moments, as well as the bad ones, and how beautiful and perfect they all come together. Honestly, I wouldn-t want to have it any other way.

When that diploma is real, when it has my name on it, when I can see it and touch it and feel it, I-ll try not to cry. But I probably will.

I want to come back to Louisiana and show the kids at the same elementary school I went to, and the same middle school, that you-re not confined to the boxes people might put you into.

That paper is going to be an inspiration to the youth of Louisiana and Black youth from everywhere - that you can go to Stanford and be anything you want to be. Dream big and always strive to reach your full potential.

NATALIE FLETCHER

Synchronized Swimming - Symbolic Systems

MY GRANDMOTHER (-Yaya,- as my Greek family calls her), Eleana Peratis, would always tell me stories about Stanford. It was her favorite thing to talk about and a special thing we shared.

She was only at Stanford for a year. Her dad was sick and she had to leave school to take care of the family’s business. She was happy where she ended up in life, but part of her always wished she had been able to finish that degree.

She really wanted her kids to go to Stanford. Neither of them ended up doing that, so she really wanted a grandkid to go. I was the youngest.

At the end of September of my senior year at Bentley School in Lafayette, California, I was accepted to Stanford. She was the first person I called. She had a big Stanford banner from 1956 that she brought to our house that evening. She was, in her own words from a text that I-ve saved, -bursting her buttons with pride.-

She passed away six months later.

I used to rely on my successes, thinking they would bring the joy back and make me happier. But I found success isn-t enough. It has to come down to more.-
Natalie Fletcher

I was able to have the opportunities that she didn-t get to have, but always wanted for someone in her family. I happened to be that someone.

This week, I will be graduating with a degree in symbolic systems, after closing a synchronized swimming career in which I earned All-America honors and helped Stanford to three overall runner-up finishes at the collegiate national championships.

I expected the journey to be smooth. I was from the Bay Area, from Concord, so I knew the culture. But I found myself struggling to find my place and my voice.

I struggled with depression for a long time, but was resistant to help. I always felt I could just work harder, or try harder to be happy. Instead, as my freshman year continued, I felt more and more stuck in this foggy head space. Nothing made me particularly upset or sad, and nothing ever really brought me happiness or excitement. If I had to use one word, it would probably be -numbness.-

I came to the realization that, Yes, I-m surviving on my own, but I-m definitely far from thriving. Finally, I sought help.

No matter how I was feeling, synchro always made me feel at least a little better. I used to rely on my successes, thinking they would bring the joy back and make me happier. But, more recently, I found that success isn-t enough. It has to come down to more, like really loving what I-m doing and appreciating all the things my sport has given me, and the person it-s made me. I had to rediscover my -why.-

In my junior year, I suffered a relapse more severe than the first. I was really good at interpreting my thoughts, but really bad at interpreting my feelings, so it crept up on me. My default was, I feel fine.

One night, as I stared at myself in the mirror, in shock at what I had just done to myself, I realized how far off I had been. I was not fine.

It-s important to acknowledge the bad with the good. No school is perfect.

Any time you talk to someone at Stanford, of course they-re going to tell you all the great things about their experience, and how amazing the school is, which is true. But you don-t always get to see or hear about the difficult parts. I was confused. Why is it that everyone thinks that this place is so perfect and so wonderful when I-m here struggling?

So, I leaned on others, like my teammates, family, and coaches. I got connected to sports psychiatry and sports psychology. That was crucial. I felt I could trust the people around me.

I thought of my grandmother. I didn-t want what happened to her, to happen to me. I didn-t want to give up on this degree that I-d already worked so hard for, but I also knew that I needed to prioritize my mental health. I withdrew from two of my four classes, and I made it to the end of my most difficult quarter at Stanford. One small step closer to that degree.

There is so much more to getting through four years than what’s on your transcript at the end. Everyone has struggled with something. Being able to hold up that diploma means I overcame a lot to get to where I am today.

It-s a testament to personal growth and the support of those around me. From the person who refused to ask for help, I-m happy to say, I didn-t get there on my own.

And one more thing:

Yaya, I did it!

BEN HALLOCK

Men’s Water Polo - Economics

AS THE CLOCK ticked away the final seconds of the 2019 NCAA men’s water polo championship game, goalie Andrew Chun made a huge penalty block. We already had a big lead, but this was icing on the cake in a 13-8 victory over Pacific in Stockton.

I felt a flood of emotion. I remember hugging everyone I could and trying not to slip on the pool deck as I jumped into the water to celebrate.

This was Stanford’s first national championship in 17 years and it felt even sweeter because of what we-d gone through the year before, when we fell behind USC by eight goals in the championship game at home and couldn-t mount a comeback until it was too late.

Losing the championship game still haunts me to this day. As an athlete, I don-t think you ever let something like that go. It-s a feeling I never want to feel again.

I-m most proud of the way we bounced back. It took resilience and toughness. It-s a journey I-ll share with these guys forever.-
Ben Hallock

But growth comes from failure. It creates an accountability check for yourself and your teammates. There’s a famous quote from Theodore Roosevelt: -Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.-

Not winning means going into the offseason and asking yourself, What do I need to do to get better? You win a lot more from your losses than your wins, and not just in sports. When you don-t do well on a test, it forces you to look back and review what you did well and what you did wrong, and make changes. That builds character and keeps you evolving.

When I think of my Stanford water polo career so far (I have one more season), I-m most proud of the way we bounced back. It took resilience and toughness. It-s a journey I-ll share with these guys forever.

Five of us - Andrew Chun, Duncan Mactavish, Bennett Williams, Dylan Woodhead and myself - arrived in the fall of 2016, and we-ve stuck together.

In high school, you think those are the best friends you-re ever going to have. Then you go to college and you live with the guys and there’s a different level of support and understanding. These guys are my lifelong friends. Even if we moved to polar opposite ends of the world, we would stay close.

When I talk to some of our recent alumni, they ask, -How does it feel?- While winning was unbelievable and it-s a hunger you-ll always have, I told them, -Not much has changed.- You-re thankful for the journey and the guys you took the journey with, and the struggles that you went through.

I-ve had my fair share of obstacles as an economics major, trying to learn things like econometrics while taking part in international tournaments. But you-ve got to put academics first and find a way to get through it.

When you come out of it as a Stanford graduate, you-ve proved something - that you-re extremely versatile. You-re required to take a lot of different classes and be exposed to a lot of situations and different kinds of people. It-s a culture of collaboration, which is why a Stanford graduate is someone who has proven to fit into any situation.

Stanford is the pinnacle of athletics and academics and I-ve tried to represent it well. My time at Stanford has far surpassed anything I could have imagined.

JACIE LEMOS

Women’s Lacrosse - Human Biology

BACK IN HIGH school when I was looking at colleges, I gave them the broken leg test. Would I be happy if I was injured and lacrosse was taken away? Incidentally, I tore my ACL during my freshman season. So, there you go.

I came to Stanford for its challenging environment on the field and in the classroom. I never doubted my decision to come here from Rye, New Hampshire, a coastal town about an hour from Boston.

My father is an orthopedic surgeon, and has been a role model for me for as long as I can remember in terms of his passion for his profession and his ability to impact the lives of so many others. That definitely influenced my decision to start on the premed track, and by taking chemistry and math classes early, I found myself surrounded by driven people who pushed me to be a better version of myself. As I became embedded into that community, it fueled my interest even more.

I knew there were other student-athletes on the premed track, who shared the same demands and pressures, and was lucky enough to meet and bond with many of them through my classes. But there was no organized community on campus. Kat Anderson, a close friend who plays on the beach volleyball team, and I recently decided to remedy that and create our own organization, Athletes in Medicine at Stanford (AIMS).

We searched for former Stanford student-athletes now working in healthcare and reached out, with the idea of creating a mentorship program. We got so many positive responses in return: -I would have loved this when I was an undergrad,- and, -This is so needed.- Dr. Michael Sgroi, a vascular surgeon at Stanford and former punter here, has been especially supportive.

I-ve been blown away by the amount of people wanting to help. I guess when you-re talking about the power of a Stanford degree, it involves the community you find as an undergrad that extends far beyond those four years.

Of course, not everything has gone smoothly. I never doubted that I belonged at Stanford, but there were times when I questioned whether I could handle it, especially after my knee injury. Being an athlete was such a big part of my identity, and having that taken away so early in my collegiate career was extremely difficult.

In the fall of my sophomore year, still sidelined, I took too many units, mostly in the human biology core. I wasn-t getting a lot of sleep or doing as well as I wanted to in my classes.

I didn-t have a good feeling in organic chemistry when we got our exams back. Wanting to open it in private, I stepped outside and looked at my score. It was not good.

As you can imagine, I was really upset. My head was in a fog and I wasn-t paying attention to what I was doing. So engrossed in my score, I missed a step on the top of a staircase, rolled my ankle and fell down three flights of stairs - legitimately three flights - all while clutching this chemistry exam in my hand.

At the bottom of the stairs, I just sat there, crying, terrified that I broke my ankle. And this was around the time I was about to be cleared for a cutting progression for my knee injury. I thought I would have to start all over.

I can honestly say this was my worst day at Stanford.

I missed a step on the top of a staircase, rolled my ankle and fell down three flights of stairs all while clutching this chemistry exam in my hand.-
Jacie Lemos

At a loss for what to do, I called my teammate and close friend, Julia. She biked over and sat with me on the steps. As I cycled through the stages of grief, Julia handed me a pair of socks. If you know Julia, this is classic. She’s our sock person. Everyone wears the black or white Nike midcalves to practice and she’s worn socks with everything from dollar signs to avocados to flying pigs.

These are red, white, and blue. There are words written with the stitching: -Give a girl the right pair of socks and she can rule the world.- Julia told me everything was going to be okay. How could I not smile?

She helped me to physical therapy and it turned out my ankle was only sprained. My rehab got pushed back a little bit, but it wasn-t a big deal.

I still have the socks. I wear them whenever I need extra motivation.

Even in the worst quarter ever, there were people I could fall back on. I know that at any point in my life, they will be there. That’s how strong these bonds are, and they don-t come from an easy undergraduate experience. They come from 6 a.m. conditioning workouts and hard chemistry classes.

I-ve discovered that the significance of the diploma itself is most meaningful for the people you meet, the things you learn, and the friendships you create.

I have the socks to prove it.

TRISTAN KRUEGER

Fencing - English

STANFORD WAS THE dream. Kind of a big dream.

I was born and raised in Bend, a rural-ish town of 100,000 in Central Oregon. I feel so many people come to Stanford with an expectation that anything less than Stanford or an Ivy would be a disappointment. Coming from rural Oregon - from a normal public school and normal academic experience - it was the complete opposite of that. It was a pipedream that never fully seemed like it would be realized.

But through academics, and especially through fencing, it was.

My uncle fenced in college and coached a handful of people in his spare time in South Carolina. He came out and got me connected with a small club in Bend, the High Desert Fencing Club. It was mostly small kids and older formerly competitive fencers.

But, about three times a month, we-d drive 3 ┬oe hours each way to the Portland suburb of Beaverton, to one of the best fencing clubs in the country, the Northwest Fencing Center. I received one-hour lessons from high-level coaches and represented the club in competition, winning two junior national tournaments in 2014.

At Stanford, I continued to progress in fencing, reaching the NCAA Championships in the epee in each of my first two seasons.

But as an only child I also felt a pull toward home. My parents separated the summer before my freshman year and by that winter we found out my dad had prostate cancer.

It-s a strange and difficult thing, trying to break away from the household, to being drawn back.-
Tristan Krueger

That is a strange and difficult thing, trying to break away from the household, to being drawn back into family difficulty. I came home for the summer to take care of him as he went through surgery. Fortunately, it was successful.

However, about three weeks from the end of my sophomore year, my mom, Katie Krueger, an elementary school teacher, was diagnosed with an advanced stage of ovarian cancer. I needed to take care of her, to drive her to chemotherapy treatments, and make sure she was fed and as comfortable as possible.

When it seemed to be going well, she began to suffer through incredible pains in her abdomen. As I was preparing to begin my junior year, we found out she had a strain of genetic cancer that could not be treated. Chemotherapy actually weakened her body and allowed the cancer to progress more quickly.

We stopped all treatments and she went into hospice and I stayed with her rather than return to school. Feeling the need for a brief escape, I made plans to visit my friends at Stanford for a few days and my grandmother came to look after her. While I was gone, my mother passed away. She was 45.

In a crazy attempt to get my life back to normal, I decided to stay on campus and re-enroll. I was able to arrange housing and get classes, but it did not go well. I tried, I really tried, but an incredible underlying subconscious strain was affecting my ability to focus.

I had never given myself time to grieve. Looking back, dropping out was inevitable. I canceled my housing contract, withdrew from classes and spent the rest of that term recovering as best I could.

I was able to ease back into the academic world that spring by going on a study abroad program to Florence, Italy. It allowed me the distance to start the process of working through the emotional heaviness and grief. The experience was every bit as rejuvenating as I could have hoped.

I didn-t fence for a year - I don-t think my fencing ever recovered from the experience, but, honestly, the last two years have been by far my best at Stanford. I enjoyed my classes more. I wasn-t as stressed.

People do support each other at Stanford, but everyone also wants to be the smartest person and be the best at everything. That’s part of what got us to Stanford. But going through all this allowed me to take a step back and come at academics and athletics from a healthier perspective.

I-m an English major with a computer science minor, ideally with law school down the road. I-m lucky enough to have a job opportunity as a software engineer for Symbium, a startup in San Francisco, where we-ll be working on using computational law to create a tool to address the housing crisis.

Somebody needs to unlock this, whether it-s me or somebody else. In my mind, so much of the problem in Silicon Valley is that the government doesn-t know how to properly use technology to improve its efficiency, and the tech sector is not willing to be governed and regulated. So, we-re having this strange separation of powers.

It-s like they-re not speaking the same language. I hope to be someone who can serve as a translator between these powerful forces.

During my final weeks with my mom, she was so worried about holding me back. I put my life on hold for her. I know that she was incredibly worried this was going to permanently affect my life.

And it has. But not in a way that stopped me from following the things I care about and, I hope, making a difference in the world. I think she would be proud.

BRITTANY McGEE

Women’s Track & Field - Bioengineering

COMMENCEMENT WAS GOING to be whole family affair, a gathering of the masses at Stanford Stadium - my four brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, my mom. My dad was going to fly in from Afghanistan.

Everyone wanted to come. It was supposed to be a surprise. Even my high school English teacher was going to be here, all the way from Florida.

To understand why graduation, and a Stanford degree, is so significant for me, you have to understand my journey.

My parents, Thomas and Paula McGee, met in the military. My dad served 21 years in the Air Force before becoming an IT engineer who contracts with the military and began working in the Middle East when I was in middle school. My mom was in the Army for 15 years.

Our military lineage goes even deeper. I recently discovered that we-re related to Charles McGee, of the Tuskegee Airmen , an all-African American military pilot group that fought during World War II. My grandfather was named after him.

With my dad away, my parents thought it would be best to go to a high school with a disciplined environment, which is how I came to Admiral Farragut Academy, a military school in St. Petersburg, where I boarded five days a week and won six state titles in track and field.

It always was a dream to have their kids go to college right after high school. My twin brother Dontae , who goes to Ohio University, and I were the first in our family to do so.

Before I even arrived at Stanford, I knew what I wanted - to compete as a heptathlete in track and major in bioengineering. I loved science, Science News was my favorite Web site, and I was fascinated by how science was constantly changing and evolving.

A month before my first fall quarter, I came to the Stanford Summer Engineering Academy, where minorities, first-gen, and low-income students who plan to major in engineering fields get a taste and preparation on what they will face at Stanford.

I was a straight-A student in high school, but here? I felt so unprepared, the worst of everybody. I didn-t feel I belonged.

Not surprisingly, that first year was a struggle, not only in the classroom, but on the track. After two indoor meets, I chipped bone and cartilage in my ankle, beginning a debilitating injury cycle.

Academically, I started to turn things around. As a junior, I built an E. coli fermenter, which genetically modifies the culture and records the byproducts, with Bluetooth control, doing all the circuitry, 3-D printing and laser cutting.

On the track, I finally made my collegiate outdoor debut in 2018, when I experienced the best and worst day of my Stanford career. In the Big Meet at Cal, I set my personal record in the long jump and ran my best 100-meter hurdles race in years. I finally turned the corner, only for all that progress to come crashing down. In the high jump, my spikes caught in the ground as my plant leg rotated, ripping my knee apart.

I endured knee surgery, and, six months later, foot surgery after I broke a bone while jumping out of the way of a bicyclist. Eye surgery soon followed during a nightmare senior year. I had a hard time seeing in class, could barely walk, and found myself overwhelmed from an entire schedule of difficult Bio-E classes.

I felt like I had to get out, to take a step back and reassess everything. I left school and returned to Florida.

To understand why graduation, and a Stanford degree, is so significant for me, you have to understand my journey.-
Brittany McGee

Even though I came so far - I was part of the junior class cabinet, senior class cabinet and received a Stanford Award of Excellence - I felt everything I wanted was unattainable, that there was no way I was ever going to achieve what I wanted.

But during that calm detour, I realized that despite everything, I could count my blessings. I was happy to be alive and breathing.

When I returned to Stanford, I spent six weeks of intensive therapy for severe depression. Attending sessions during the day and taking classes and attending practice in the evening.

I even found a silver lining in track, by being valued as a loud and vocal supporter for my teammates, especially high jumper Rachel Reichenbach and pole vaulter Kaitlyn Merritt, who overcame serious injuries to become All-Americans.

Now in my fifth year, I feel like I found my place at Stanford. I surrounded myself with others like me, who had their own struggles, and worked together to get through them. And we made it. Next, I-ll be going to the University of South Florida to get my master’s in bioinformatics and computational biology.

My Stanford graduation won-t be as I pictured. My dad won-t be there, but my mom will play the national anthem on the computer, and I-ll wear all the regalia, and take pictures and do all that stuff.

It will still be special. How could it not? I don-t know how to put it into words. A diploma was so far out of my sight for so long, that being able to do it is rewarding and satisfying in ways I can-t describe.

I had the odds against me for so long... this feels monumental for me, like the biggest milestone I-ll ever reach. I honestly can-t believe it.

ELI WOPAT

Men’s Volleyball - Symbolic Systems

THE FIRST TIME I stepped on the Stanford campus, I told my mom, this is where I-m going.

Of course, I was a 12-year-old kid when my sisters, twins Carly and Sam, enrolled at Stanford. But my mom likes to tell the story anyway, about how I was determined to follow in their footsteps and play volleyball at Stanford.

That commitment did not waver, not even when Sam, a sophomore, took her own life.

Knowing this happened at Stanford, how could I follow through on my promise?

It was difficult. The experience was traumatic. But, ultimately, it came down to this: I didn-t want Stanford to be a dark place. I didn-t want it to be a dark memory.

I didn-t want to be afraid. I didn-t want to be scared of what happened to Sam, or to hate Stanford. I wanted to remember her and remember Stanford as something that was good. I wanted to create good memories.

It came down to this: I didn-t want Stanford to be a dark place. I didn-t want it to be a dark memory.-
Eli Wopat

Still, I wasn-t immune to the emotions and anxiety. Shortly after I got here, I remember calling Carly, saying, -I-m at a loss right now. I don-t know what I-m doing. What did I just sign up for?-

Carly shared how she got through it and remained at Stanford through her own graduation. She felt the embrace of her friends, teammates, and coaches. They were there not only for Carly, but for our family. That connection felt real to me. It was useful and powerful.

As a student-athlete on campus, sometimes I felt indestructible. And then, there-d be days when I-d sit in a dining hall thinking: This is where Sam used to go. And I-d feel so weak and vulnerable.

Not all memories are sad though. Overwhelmingly, they were good. Very good.

There were times playing volleyball when I felt a flow of joy, because I was doing what Sam did. I was thankful for Stanford, that I could have that connection to her and be able to share those memories.

Carly and Sam have inspired a project called -Twin Palms- - the construction of four beach volleyball courts at our high school, Dos Pueblos in Santa Barbara. -Twins,- of course, being a tribute to my sisters, and -palms- being a nod to Stanford’s Palm Drive. The project is also special to us because of how much support and generous donations we received, many of which were from the Stanford volleyball community - including from two alums who played at both Dos Pueblos and Stanford - who were able to make -Twin Palms- a reality.

It-s important to us, as we start to move into the next chapter of our lives, that we continue to remember what happened and share our experiences with others. With student-athletes in general, there is a huge problem with mental illness. The courts are a way to give back by getting people to talk. We want to keep the conversation going, and try to prevent this from happening again.

In a few days, I will graduate with a symbolic systems degree. I wish this moment could bring the proper sense of closure to our family. It-s sad and frustrating it had to end like this, but I know we-re thankful for the times we had at Stanford. We-ll look back happy for the opportunities, while also knowing we went through extremely hard times.

When we all left campus, it was crazy, everyone getting out as fast as they could. I never got the chance to just walk the campus one last time, and see the places that are most special to me. One of them is a place on campus also called -Twin Palms-, where there is a plaque in Sam’s honor on a palm tree just outside the Stanford beach volleyball courts.

Whenever my family came to visit, we would go there. It-s part of the reason why Stanford carries so many of our shared memories.

The tragic loss of a family member won-t change, but all of these experiences drew our family closer together. We became stronger. We truly could say, -We-re here for each other. We-re going to make it through this.-

We have, as best we can.

Graduating from Stanford in four years is absolutely amazing, and very special. But through it all, I-ve learned one thing above all else:

It-s hard to say goodbye.


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