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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

HOW TO LUCK OUT AND GET INTO STANFORD

I was sick with the flu, which gives you time to reflect on your life and how close the end might be.  This is Day 8, and no pneumonia, so life is okay.

I wondered if there was something distinctive about myself that brought me to where I'm at today.  Hard to believe, but a broken wrist way back in 1956 could well be why I rate my life as successful enough.

Super-smart I'm not, certainly not athletic and perhaps an above average human specimen.  While my father's father, Kenjiro, had to be uncommonly gifted to in 1906 build the first hydroelectric facility (3 MW) on Kauai, I never met him, for he died two months before the power plant was dedicated from a workplace accident.  Here I am 110 years later, with his system still producing 3 MW.

While memories fade away, especially those sixty years in the past,  I tried to recollect what were the circumstances in the mid-1950's when I was a 15-year old (I looked young for my age) in Kakaako, for reasons I can't truly comprehend today, I was so inspired as to apply for admission to Stanford, and, well, why not, also to the California Institute of Technology.  I must have had all kinds of confidence, for I did not bother to even try the University of Hawaii.

The best as I can today deduce was misplaced grand vision (to even have the nerve to apply) and a lot of luck (for, under, impossible circumstances, I actually got accepted...to both universities).  Read on, for you won't believe what happened, and even I wonder if there was more to what I will be saying.

About today, there are recommended ways to apply to the leading institutions of higher learning.  First, begin planning when you're in elementary school.  Even if your parents are rich (and mine certainly weren't), you pretty much need to compete with everyone who applies.  Financial aid is a secondary consideration, for the Ivy Leagues, Stanford and a few other schools will support you if you make the cut.  The only way to leave college without a debt these days is to get into a military academy or those above universities.

About Stanford, start by:
  • Reading a 14-minute guide on How to Get into Stanford.  Read it.  Absolutely.
  • There is a 2013 article from the Stanford alumni magazine.  Don't read it.  You'll almost surely get scared off.  For example:
    • The school now requires three sections of SATs, where perfect for all three adds up to 2400.
    • 69% of those who scored 2400 DID NOT get accepted. 
    • They showed these graphs:

Since then, Stanford has become the most difficult "real" university to enter.  In 2018 Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia was listed as #1 at 4.9%, while Stanford was #2 with 5.1% and Harvard #3 6%.  I found it interesting that Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky was #6 (7.1%), College of Ozarks in Missouri #19 (8.3%) and...at #13, my Californian Institute of Technology at 8.8%.  Oh, the total cost at Stanford is now $62,363/year.

Other bits of Stanford info.  Can't seem to find any confirmation, but in 1958 when I became a freshman, there might have been zero black students, and I did not make one friend in my class who was Japanese.  Maybe I was it.  The term Hispanic did not enter my vocabulary.  Today:  Asian (23%), Hispanic (15%) and Black (10%).  This publication indicated:
  • the cost was $66,696/year, 
  • 16,000 students and 12,000 academic staff/support
  • 20 Nobel Laureates on campus
  • 13,000 bicycles
  • free system of 86 buses and 27 routes, with links to Caltrain and Palo Alto
  • has won the Director's Cup (making it the top NCAA athletic program in the nation) for 22 straight years
Okay, so back I go to mid-1955, I was a sophomore attending McKinley High School, when my family moved (we got kicked out because of re-development) from Kakaako to Kalihi.  Lost my "gang," and the re-invention of myself began a lifetime of delusion and fantasy.  My memory is weak and details are missing, but there are no actual exaggerations and everything is true as best as I can remember.

I always did well in math and science, but I was not a particularly terrific student of Stanford caliber.  I was not in the #1 English/Social Studies class as a sophomore.  But I did well enough, maybe because of the move, that I was sent to Mrs. Mildred Kosaki's E/SS group of the best in my junior year.

She and science teacher Sueko Hirokowa deserve a good part of the credit for showing me the way.  Mrs. Kosaki, incidentally, quit teaching after my class, and much later went on to join the board of Hawaiian Electric Company.  Her husband, Richard, established the University of Hawaii community college system.

You can't plan for Stanford or Caltech when you're already in high school.  But this was more than 60 years ago and nobody told me that.  

I'm trying really hard to recall why I had any confidence to begin this pursuit, and the best I can come up with is that I had a friend, a year older, who had decided to go to Cal at Berkeley and nowhere else (he did end up going there).  Plus, my older brother was at the University of Michigan, and at worst, I thought that was an option.  Perhaps I thought I was such a math/science brain that those universities would ignore my incompetence with everything else.  I did get a string of perfect scores in a range of comprehensive math/science exams for which I was almost famous.  That must have given me that necessary magnificent obsession to continue with my goal.

Then the crushing bombshell:  the practice SAT test I took early in my junior year showed that, while my math score was excellent, my verbal ended up somewhere below 300.  Not sure of the 200-800 percentiles way back then, but today, anything close to 300 and below places you in the bottom one percent.

Crushed?  Of course.  Any normal person would have rightfully given up and abandon Plan A. What was my recovering solution?  I had none.  Never once did I give any thought of trying to improve that score.  It would have been impossible anyway.  I grew up in Kakaako.

If I had gone for counseling, they would have looked at my records and, in a nice way, suggest that I try the University of Hawaii.  Why waste money when your family had none.

What surprises me today is that I don't remember  purposefully adjusting anything to overcome any defects.  Makes no sense to me, but the fact of the matter was that I had no strategy.  If I had just run some financial figures, that alone should have been the dissuasive factor.

In my second semester as a junior at McKinley an incredible series of truly lucky events came together.  I could have bragged that it was my astute planning.  Nope, the Gods were with me.  In most ways, my whole life has depended on "something" good happening.  After all, my name is Patrick, and I love Rainbows:
  • I had friends on the tennis team.  They lacked one more player to cover all their 8 slots necessary to field a team.  I had never played the game before.  For a two-year period that began late in my sophomore year I played 750 out of 753 days in a row.  No doubt this says something about me.  By the time the season came, I was third singles, and am guessing that my high school record was 90% wins, with victories against Punahou, Iolani, Kamehameha, Mid-Pacific and Iolani.  But college application experts don't know that third singles means you're the fifth-best player on the team (first doubles composed of #3 and #4), and by the time private schools get to their #5, he is not on scholarship.  In trying to get into a top university, some kind of classy athletic competence helps.
  • I had never run for any kind of officer in my life.  How this came to be must have been some kind of fluke (and the reason had nothing to do about a college application), but one day I found my name on the ballot for Vice President of the Senior Class.  I eked out a victory, which could well have been the main reason why Stanford accepted me.  They thought they had a leader.  This is important.  Show some political skills in your application. I never ran again, for anything, ever.
    • One bit of luck:  all three opponents were female, and the prohibitive favorite a few years later became Narcissus Queen.
    • Second bit of luck:  I was playing intramural basketball, went up for a lay-up, got roughly fouled, fell, and broke my wrist.  People recognized me as the one with the cast.  Poor guy. Let's vote for him.  I took a cute photo for my final campaign poster showing me and the cast.
  • After the junior year during those Kakaako days, we were expected to toil in one of the pineapple canneries.  I couldn't (go back to broken wrist) so decided to memorize all those words in the Scholastic Aptitude Test book.  Thus, in my senior year I scored about perfect in math and somewhere in the higher 600's in verbal to make the 90th percentile.  In my case, it was not like I was driven by the need to get into Stanford.  Simply, I had nothing better to do because of my broken wrist.
As you can see, I was not programmed to get into a top university.  I just made up my mind rather late to shoot for the best two.  The Ivy League schools were never a consideration because of the weather and distance.  The possible thought of Ann Arbor was enough to keep me in California.

There were a few other tidbits that will enhance your college application.  I enjoy the unconventional.  I had both an essay and a poem accepted into two national high school anthologies, which were published.  Ask me to write a poem today, or 60 years ago, and you can appreciate my amazement.  Keep in mind, also, that my verbal ability when I actually wrote that essay was when I was in the bottom 1%.  This leads to a key point.  Get involved in areas where there is no competition.  If you're the only one there, you're by default #1.  Only a few were geeky in high school then to submit essays and poems...and maybe, too, today.  There is nothing like success to build confidence.

Sometimes you stretch the truth.  One of my Hi-Y clubs (I was the only person I know who actually spent time with two), the Aztecs, sold pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving one year, but we screwed up.  We had so many pies left over that we had to do something before they spoiled.  Someone suggested we give them to the needy (can't remember who they were).  Made the news.  But inserting "donating pumpkin pies for the deserving for Thanksgiving as a public service" I'm sure was well-received in my application.  I did not provide any details that minimized this endeavor.

Mind you, I was a pretty good student in my junior and senior years at McKinley.  I won the Bausch & Lomb Science Medal and earned a major State Science Fair award.  But everything I accomplished came at the end, something you should be maximizing a year earlier.  Somehow, all the above could be made part of my application.  I actually studied more in my three years of high school than four years at Stanford, which I selected because they were very generous with their financial award, something mostly missing from Caltech.

So in conclusion, my mind has this ability to fool me into accomplishing things beyond the pale.  If anything, that was the distinguishing feature of my attitude that, first, gave me me the inspiration to try for the best, and, then, actually accomplish those goals.

Thinking back to the mid-1950's, I cannot imagine why I would only apply to Caltech and Stanford.  From what I know now, that was clearly foolhardy, if not idiotic.

Then, once I got there, to take more art than chemical engineering (my major) classes.  Why?  I'd like to think that I was building a foundation of thinking out of the box.  The reality was that those ChE courses were a pain and art courses were fun.  So much so that after I got my initial degree, I seriously thought about heading for Sophia University in Tokyo to become an artist.  Good thing my mind actually has the power to say no.  It drew the line there and kept me on my engineering pathway.

It helps that my mind gained the ability to synthesize and enhance, to transcend today for tomorrow and gained the courage to try.  I got accepted to both universities, graduated from Stanford, went on to get a PhD in biochemical engineering at LSU and fashioned a decent academic career at the University of Hawaii.  Worked at the NASA Ames Research Center on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on laser fusion and wrote original legislation for hydrogen and ocean energy while in the U.S. Senate.  Almost twenty years after I retired, I still have an office on the Manoa Campus.  I'm happy with what I've accomplished.

I still fully expect a billion dollars or so to be tossed my way for the Blue Revolution, and the Hydrogen Economy arriving sooner than expected.  Certainly Toyota and Honda fuel cell cars...and Rinaldo's Hydrogen Clipper, followed by the Orient Express.  Someday, Free HydrogenWorld Peace?  Well, there are limits.

Thus, my quest for the future of Planet Earth will continue for a very long time to come because I have learned that because there is very little I myself can do, I have planted powerful seeds of progress for the fate of Humanity.  I have become non-essential to these causes.  Finally, I well-lived my namesake--Takahashi (either high bridge or long chopsticks)--by regularly taking the high bridge between challenge and opportunity, while continuing to maintain lofty epicurean tastes.  Finally, here is a story explaining that rainbow symbol to the right.

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Tropical Storm Hola battered Vanuatu, and after passing over the island, will make a left turn and strengthen into a Category 5, head for the eastern side of New Caledonia, then towards New Zealand:


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