Legacy trap

Rachel Hepworth is a Sacramento resident and Stanford alumna

Curious, spastic movements are emanating from the corner where my brother types. His fingers drum the keyboard restlessly. Sometimes he twists in his seat compulsively, as if trying to mold not just his back but also his brain into a tranquil, flowing state.

He can’t relax, and I’m not surprised. After all, applications to Stanford University are stressful enough without the weight of three generations of Cardinal scholars.

The Farm has been a presence in my family’s life forever. My grandfather worked in engineering; my uncles both attended the school. My parents met on campus their freshman year, so one could say I owe my very existence to the institution. Growing up, I easily answered questions about my future plans: “Go to Stanford.”

Being a legacy gave me college tunnel vision. I had been raised on Stanford tales of yore; I had a family tradition to uphold! Instead of working on a life plan and an ultimate goal for my collegiate career, I worked on my early-decision application, never seriously applying anywhere else.

It was only by attending Stanford that I began to question my choice. My high-school accomplishments often were dismissed by classmates who viewed legacy students as automatic admits. Then came the revelation that, although my legacy status had pointed me toward Stanford, it left me without direction once I arrived. I drifted aimlessly through my first three years, distressed to discover that attending the same university as my parents didn’t guarantee equivalent future success. What if Stanford were not my destiny after all?

In high school, that thought would have been incomprehensible. And therein lies the trouble with legacies: Family tradition doesn’t necessarily correspond to a good fit for the student. Those who have strong family ties to an institution can feel enormous pressure to be accepted at a parent’s alma mater, but whatever advantages legacies bring—and I don’t deny that advantages exist—they can blind students to other worthy universities.

Such is certainly my brother’s case. With two sisters added to an already-daunting family tradition, the pressure on him to study at Stanford is intense. I certainly can relate to his single-minded drive to attend the university that has shaped our entire family.

Yet I wonder, if he does attend, will he ultimately believe Stanford was his one true destiny?