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Saturday, January 9, 2016

CROSSROADS: Stanford University

Late last year I began a series entitled Crossroads of my Life.   A long time ago, I might have wanted to become a dentist.  That's me with my dog at home in Kakaako,  When Sputnik shocked America, like many, I thought, perhaps I should look into engineering.  So, where was the best school to follow this pathway?  Today I think back to my first big decision:  Why I went to Stanford University.

I was a junior at McKinley High School when I took the practice College Board Exam in the Fall, and soon thereafter learned I did well in math, but my verbal was somewhere in the 200's.  Being in the bottom 10% just confirmed my gross deficiency, for in the eight grade, my scores were quite similar.

During those days in the mid-50's, very few from McKinley went to college on the mainland.  However, my older brother was living in Ann Arbor and going to graduate school at the University of Michigan, so he was my inspiration to go beyond the University of Hawaii.  Two high school teachers were also crucial to my dreams.  Sueko Hirokawa provided the right spark in the sciences and Mildred Kosaki was my English-Social Studies instructor in my junior year.  If these three individuals were not there, who knows where I would today be.  

To the right are Mildred, and her husband, Richard, in a more recent photo.  He was a beginning political science professor at the University of Hawaii when Mrs. Kosaki taught me.  I had the foresight to select him as our commencement speaker.  He went on to become the founder of our community college system and served as Chancellor of the University of Hawaii.  My career at the UH was no doubt aided by his presence at the highest level of administration.  After I retired, Richard passed on to me a copy of his 1958 commencement address.
An incredible series of luck helped.  First, my family was forced to move away from Kakaako at the end of my sophomore year at McKinley.  My gang was just a bunch of loyal friends.  We did not rob or cause any harm.  There was a dozen of us and by the time everyone got together we were almost always late to our home rooms.  This meant we were penalized by being kept after school for an hour.  Frankly, there was nothing in their attitude that compromised my studies, but the physical separation I think was a factor in changing my general attitude about my future.

Second, students normally worked in the pineapple cannery between their junior and senior years.  I broke my wrist playing basketball in April.  This resulted in, perhaps, two most important consequences:
  • I had never run for any kind of office in my life (and since then never did again).  I don't know how this happened, but I found myself campaigning for Senior Class vice president against three females, one who was heavily favored, and went on to later becoming Narcissus Queen.  The combination of gender ratio advantage and the cast on my wrist was just enough for me to prevail.  As vice president I also was to become chairman of the commencement and a bunch of other leadership roles.
  • As I couldn't work in the cannery, I decided to memorize the words in a guide on how to do well on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.  After just a couple of months of this intensive activity, my verbal score improved from the 200's to high 600's, with my math score close to 800, the maximum.
In my sophomore year some of my friends on the tennis team asked me to join them, as they were short of members.  Never having played before, from the end of my sophomore year to much of my senior year I must have spent 690 out of 700 days on the courts, which was the norm for the group.  In those days McKinley and Roosevelt were the only public schools competing against Punahou, Iolani, Kamehameha and Mid-Pac.  Those private schools gave tennis scholarships, so we should have had no real chance of beating them.  But we did, and by, again, a fate of  luck, I was the third singles, which meant I was the fifth best player on the team, as the third and fourth served as the first doubles.  Each private school only had a few scholarship players, and when it came to their fifth best, they were no better than I was.  So I proceeded to win most of my matches, if not all of them, even though I would not have been able to beat the top players from McKinley.

While in my sophomore year I was a below average student, by the end of my senior year I was among the best students in the state, for I went on to win various honors, like the Bausch and Lomb Science medal, an Elks Scholarship, a Science Fair award, had both a poem and an essay published in a national anthology and carried pretty much a straight A average.

A school like Stanford not only looks at your grade average and SAT scores.  The extra-curricula activities are maybe more important.  It was not like in high school I had reached a certain crossroad and dedicated my life to accumulating all these impacting factors like class officership, success on my tennis team and high college board scores.  Those things, mostly through luck and circumstances, just happened.


Thus, I never even bothered to apply to the University of Hawaii.  I just took a chance on Stanford and the California Institute of Technology.  CalTech accepted me, and that was my first choice, for they only accepted around 250/year and was generally considered to be the most difficult school to get into.  However, their financial package was limited.  Luckily, Stanford provided a full scholarship with tuition waiver and a part time job working in the library.  In follow-up discussions with teachers and counselors I picked Stanford.  CalTech would have led me into a totally different way of life.

If I had at the beginning analyzed the reality and also the economics of going away to college, any kind of common sense would have convinced me to stay home for college.  This experience of shooting for the best against all odds, and succeeding, changed my whole life attitude.  Then, graduating from Stanford provided the most important payoff:  CONFIDENCE.  

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