Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Admission dean reflects on college years

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Gregory Peck said that as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but the words of the favorite actor could very well be Richard Shaw’s personal motto.

As Stanford’s dean of Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid, Shaw is the man with the power to make or break the dreams of thousands of high school students vying for admission at the Farm. But not so long ago, he was the one feverishly applying to schools and going through orientation.

***

In 1968, Shaw was a bright-eyed theater buff fretting over his college admission essay.

“I was so afraid of not getting in somewhere,” he told The Daily, repeating the words he’s heard from thousands of applicants. “I think it’s pretty normal.”

Shaw was grappling with his admission topic: Who was one of the great people of the 20th century who influenced you?

“Those are hard questions because you weren’t too sure of answering the way that you thought the admission officers wanted to hear or telling the truth about who was important to you during that time of your life,” he said. “That’s true today — students try to develop a strategy in which they try to game the system and tell us what they think we want to hear, rather than talking about what’s really important to them.”

Shaw decided to bite the bullet. He wrote about Jimmy Stewart.

“I wrote an essay that nobody would ever write,” he admitted. “I said the person who was important to me at that time was James Stewart. I wrote about his acting and his characters and the impact he had on me, and that was really odd. That was an odd choice because at that time, people would have said Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King. I’m hoping that it helped, but even if it didn’t, I told the truth, and that was important.”

It worked. In 1968, Shaw entered his father’s old stomping ground and began as a freshman at Dartmouth.

“I was terrified,” Shaw remembered. “I wondered in some ways whether I was a mistake — I think we all feel that way when you start to meet others in the class and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you did that?’”

Shaw says that a dear-old Dartmouth tradition didn’t exactly ease his move into college. Until the late ‘60s, Dartmouth required its freshmen to don floppy bright green beanies to identify them as tyros. The 19-year-old Shaw wasn’t too keen on gamboling about campus with Dartmouth’s equivalent of a freshman red-nametag.

“I was really offended when Dartmouth made me wear a beanie,” he chuckled. “I was so offended by that that I sort of sat around in my room — I was angry at them. I frankly think orientations are much better today.”

Dartmouth took the playful freshman hazing avenue of welcoming students in Shaw’s day, but he said that now, the administration takes a hats-off approach (literally) to opening its doors warmly to freshmen.

“My hope is that in these orientations and transition, there is a high level of comfort,” Shaw said. “I think the experience will be a little daunting, but tremendously awesome.”

***

Shaw’s world was upended when he got into college — a culture shock from the Ozzie and Harriet homogeneity he knew from his childhood in Colorado and Vermont. America was embroiled in civil rights unrest at home and trying to disentangle itself from the disaster of Vietnam abroad.

“Growing up, I was pretty sheltered and probably I was pretty clueless about what was going on around me,” Shaw said.
He woke up when he got to college.

“I’ve never seen student activism like it was then,” he remembered. “I saw students lying down prone on the highway. I saw actions of the Spartacist League [a far-left student movement] defending the Weathermen in Washington, submachine gun nests on the top of federal buildings pointed down at the crowd. Pretty interesting times.”

***

Just three days before the May 4 Massacre at Ohio’s Kent State, Shaw found himself in Washington, D.C. for the May Day protests, decrying America’s invasion of Cambodia. It was 1970.

“That had a tremendous impact on my perceptions of the world in which we live and the challenges and issues — issues around access and opportunity and for populations to be enfranchised,” he said.

“I came from a very conservative family,” he said ruefully, “so it resulted in having some pretty interesting conflicts within my own family.” Shaw’s involvement didn’t stretch to the peripheries of radicalism, but his activism irreparably damaged his relationship with his father, the then-Republican state chairman of Colorado, who disowned him.

“A lot of that period was not so much being swept up in radicalism as it was learning,” he said. “So, from my vantage point, it was all-night conversations for weeks about issues that were of concern to us — not just war but concerns over the nature of society and the opportunities that people did or did not have. There were political debates going on all the time.”

***

Shaw didn’t come to California until 1983, after nabbing the post of associate director of admissions and records at the University of California-Berkeley.

“I was really blown away by how incredibly diverse and representative it was,” he remembered. “It had huge influence on me in terms of my career.”
Shaw went back to the East Coast as Yale’s dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid officer for 12 years until he returned to California and signed on with Stanford in 2005.

Fast-forward to now. Shaw is a bit grayer than when he entered the hallowed ivy-covered halls as a freshman, but every bit as passionate.

“I’m with young people who have dreams and hopes for what is possible,” he said. “To me, why not be at a place like that, a place where your dreams are always ahead? At college, you don’t get stuck in a viewpoint. That’s what it’s all about.”

Forty-one years ago, he was sitting slumped on his new college bed with a green beanie flopped on his head, discussing politics. Now, as he beams out over the 1,700 new freshmen at Convocation, Dean Shaw will be speaking as much to the Class of 2013 as to himself at 19 years-old — college is going to be a great run.

By: Amy Julia Harris

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