Giving back: Finding my true purpose as a Knight Fellow

What does it mean to be a Knight Fellow? On May 2nd at 6:10 a.m., I thought I had the answer. 

That’s when I got the call telling me that I had been accepted as a 2012 Knight Fellow. I remember shouting excitedly in front of my wide-eyed girls and husband, “It means that I’ll be able to take all the classes that I want! I’ll meet great journalists with impressive resumes! I’ll meet Condoleezza Rice! Plus, they will pay me for all that!”

That morning during our breakfast of beans, tortillas and cheese, the whole family spoke only of the fellowship and “its great significance.”

But halfway through my fellowship, I discovered that being a Knight Fellow is something way beyond an association with power or gain.

My first awareness came one afternoon while I was walking in front of Stanford’s Memorial Church. I was coming out of my statistics class when I saw a couple – apparently Latinos – who looked scared. When I got closer, I saw their eyes were red. The woman was wiping tears from her eyes.

They were here to see their daughter, a Stanford student. But it had been a difficult journey. When their daughter had applied to Stanford, the couple had been living in the U.S. for more than 25 years. The mother cleaned houses, and the father worked in restaurant. But at the same time that they learned of their daughter’s acceptance at Stanford, they received a deportation notice, and had to return to Mexico. 

What to do? Stay in Mexico? Or return to support their two daughters, both American citizens and both great students?

I think you can imagine their answer. A few months after their daughter had started at Stanford, these parents walked hundreds of miles through the desert of Arizona in an attempt to get back to San Diego, where they lived. They failed, and almost died of dehydration. But they tried again, and this time, they made it back: “Our family is here, we had to take a chance,” said the mother. And now, they were visiting their daughter at Stanford.

As a journalist who has always struggled to break stereotypes, I felt ashamed that I fell for the stereotype of Stanford’s being a place of money, power, and influence. The family’s story sparked an idea: I wanted to bring this other Stanford to light.  I was auditing a multimedia and video production class at the time, and their daughter was taking the New Citizenship: Grassroots Movements for Social Justice in the U.S. class. Together, we created three multimedia pieces to support the rights of domestic workers. The story and the videos were widely distributed on websites, print, and radio.

Other surprises were waiting for me. In April, I met Tommy Lee Woon, director of Diversity and First Gen Programs, which offers scholarships – as well as support and guidance on campus – to students from low-income families. The idea is not just to help them to be the first in their family to achieve a college degree, but also to transform them into community leaders.

It’s like my experience as a Knight Fellow, I thought. As a child, I grew up living in a cardboard house, and as a student of journalism in Mexico, I could never imagine being on this gorgeous campus or having the money to buy even a coffee at this university. My fellowship and Stanford has given me everything I need and more.

Woon introduced me to what some call the “S” bomb, a generation of young Stanford grads from very humble backgrounds who are now leaders in many sectors.

Miriam Rivera, was one of them. Latina, beautiful, and with an intelligence that shined around her, Miriam grew up in poverty, and endured domestic violence. Despite these obstacles, Miriam was accepted to Stanford as a first generation college student and scholarship recipient. She went on to earn a Bachelor’s, Master’s, JD, and MBA from Stanford.

Rivera went on to become the second attorney hired at Google, and helped build the legal team from two to over 150 worldwide.  During her five-year tenure, Google’s revenue increased from $85 million to $10 billion. Miriam is now the Managing Partner of Ulu Ventures, which she co-founded.  Ulu is an early stage angel fund focused on IT investments and has made 30 investments in the last three years.  Miriam is also the co-founder and co-president of Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs, an “open source network” of Stanford alumni investors and entrepreneurs.

“It is often difficult in the throes of hardship to see that at some point in the future you may embrace those very hardships as contributing to making you stronger, more compassionate, and wise. Good character can and often does get built under conditions of adversity,” she told me.

One story led me to another, and another — always the human side of Stanford, far from the stereotype.

A college degree felt something like a miracle for Elizabeth Bernhardt, who lost one of her parents at a very young age and had to survive under severe economic hardship. But she persevered. Now, she is the director of the Stanford Language Center and a professor of German studies.

“I learned to be a scavenger. Scavenging is a valuable skill. Nowadays it might be considered to be ‘recycling,’ but in reality it’s about knowing what you need and then looking for it and grabbing it from some throwaway pile,” she said.

“Scavenging requires flexible thinking to understand that what might not be perfect will nevertheless fill a need until something perfect comes along. It also helps one to understand how to move assets around. In other words, if you intended to buy something but find that object through scavenging, then the money set aside for that object simply moves to another column. That’s the way you get more from nothing.”

Adversity is like a grain of sand that enters an oyster and can become a beautiful pearl.
— Sonoo Thadaney, Program Manager of Diversity, Stanford University

Petite in stature and with an intelligence that dazzles, Sonoo Thadaney, manages the diversity program in the office of Stanford’s Associate Vice President for Student Affairs. Her mother had a saying that has guided her throughout her life, she said: “Adversity is like a grain of sand that enters an oyster and can become a beautiful pearl.”

At a relentless pace, I discovered more and more such stories. Each cup of coffee, each sip of wine with others revealed a different world from the naive image I had of Stanford.

Through these incredible people, I’ve realized that the knowledge and technology that surround us at Stanford and in Silicon Valley are not just the selfish, cold instruments of business, but also powerful tools to help our communities.

“Each of us has to be open to that possibility or we can become embittered by the circumstances of our life. However, accepting adversity and hardship doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t change things that can be changed,” said Rivera.

Claudia discussing trends in media at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. photo: David Toerge

Those great reporters with impressive resumes who were part of my fellowship also became a great mirror of my own transformation.

Beth Daley and her ceaseless fighting for better education and information about the environment, Ben Hu up against the Great Firewall, struggling to access and share information with the people of China. And my dear fellows, Girma Fantaye and Jorge Imbaquingo, fighting for popular justice in their countries.

Day by day, I realized that the balance here is tilted more towards giving than gaining.

The days of my fellowship passed as water through my hands and yes, I met Condoleezza Rice and ambassadors of various countries and leaders of Google and other major companies. Interesting characters, no doubt, but after my meetings with these “big names,” I always came out with the unsettling thought, “Do other journalists deserve to be here in front of them and capitalize on those ‘big names’ more than I do?”

Then, in the last week of May, just a few days shy of finishing my fellowship, my alma-mater, La Universidad Autónoma de La Laguna (UAL) in Mexico invited me to give a class on data journalism, the focus of my project at Stanford. It was an area that I had devoted endless hours to during my fellowship year.

I accepted with pleasure and even though I am far from being an expert, the tools and lessons I learned at Stanford were something never before imaginable for me and I realized I could use them to help others.

The result? Fifty-two students registered for my class, and together, we explored the tools of data journalism. My students discovered a new branch of journalism, and I saw their excitement and heard their enthusiastic comments.

When the class was over, the answer to my question, “Do I deserve to be here?” hit my face like a bucket of cold water: “Yes, because being a Knight Fellow means giving back, and I’m giving back!”