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Planning, But Not Paining

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Stanford group photo


“Courtney Gao, freshman. Undeclared!” our announcer boomed into the microphone with a twinkle in his eye. His words needed no Thai translation. The audience chuckled and I joined the palms of my hands in a slight wai , fixing my lips to match grin for grin. In that moment, I knew what I was: a Stanford student who had no idea what she was doing with her life.

Allow me to supplement this introduction. My name is Courtney Gao. I’m a rising sophomore who sings in Chamber Chorale; this summer our chorus had the opportunity to tour with Taiko in Thailand for two weeks. During a few of our concerts, each of us were introduced by name and major, and I happened to be the first one on the list labeled “undeclared”.

Undeclared — what a curious word. According to the dictionary, it means I haven’t filed paperwork to announce my commitment to a major. According to Stanford’s 2016 Undergraduate Student Profile, more than half of my class was undeclared in the fall. But blink too fast and it may look like “undecided”, “unmotivated”, or even “uninterested”. In other words, I should worry because I have no game plan.

Regardless of the validity of this assessment, thankfully the group I was traveling with certainly did. Our conductor Steve Sano and our Thai friends who sponsored our trip had outlined thoughtful plans that would carry us safe, sound and smiling between rehearsals, through city traffic, out of performances, and into the countryside. At all times, I knew who was carrying the extra bug spray (Jasmine), who was recording attendance (Daniel B.) and occasionally even who had the handheld Taiko instruments (various).

We represented Stanford not only with our music and our glaringly cardinal red banner, but also with our meticulous, perfect, overachieving Plan.

It did wonders for all of our self esteems to discover that the plan wasn’t so perfect after all. Life didn’t always care how many hours went into streamlining a travel itinerary — it would do as it pleased, meddling with weather, stomachs and oversized baggage processing times.

We began to learn this lesson on our first day in Bangkok, when sheets of rain came pouring down right as our choral cultural exchange was supposed to begin, trapping us at a Chinese restaurant with no transportation in sight. We stomached our jet lag, enlisted umbrellas and hailed taxi after taxi for almost 30 people. We arrived very late, but we arrived.

Our Plan allowed us to anticipate upcoming challenges and gave us exciting things to look forward to. Without it, we couldn’t have calculated how much mango sticky rice orders we could fit in between call times.

But this traveling Plan was secondary to the traveling itself. The more exciting and unpredictable tour became, the more flexibility mattered.

Before I become too tempted, I must remind myself: the moral of this story is not to discard all plans out of the window and go to Thailand. Rather, I need to recognize that being undeclared won’t guarantee success, but being declared won’t either. True strategic prowess will require insightful sensitivity to whether the present situation calls for ad lib or verbatim, for Plan A or no plan at all.

Allow me to reintroduce myself: I’m Courtney Gao, I’m undeclared but I will take chemistry and Human Biology core classes in the fall, which will help inform my winter quarter course choices. I’m undeclared and unexpected, undaunted and unstoppable.

Courtney Gao

Class of 2020

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