Stanford: ‘Gates of Hell’ or ‘Gates of Paradise?’

I never imagined that one of Auguste Rodin’s most famous sculptures, “The Gates of Hell,” would be settled in one of the most divine gardens of Stanford. This prestigious and world-famous university is a gate to illumination, knowledge, leadership and innovation – not hell.

The sculpture is part of the Rodin Collection at the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, which has more than 100 of the French artist’s works. The Gates of Hell represents a scene from the Inferno, the first section of Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy.”

But I was intrigued to learn on a Knight Fellowships tour of the museum that Rodin’s original inspiration came from the gilded bronze doors of the Baptistery of St. John in Florence, Italy. Michelangelo described the relief by Lorenzo Ghiberti as the “Gates of Paradise.” Since then, I keep asking myself which vision, or “gate,” this experience of living and studying at Stanford should be compared to.

The challenge of plenty

The first two weeks at Stanford is perhaps closer to “The Gates of Hell,” metaphorically speaking, when you are feeling “temporarily incompetent.” Living in a new house, in a new country and speaking another language 24 hours a day was difficult. When it came to choosing among hundreds of attractive academic courses, I felt completely lost. Which one would be the best? There are so many opportunities! I come from Nicaragua, where you have to struggle and fight for each opportunity.

And when it comes to my goals for improving journalism in my home country, I sometimes see myself in the “ceaseless movement” and “turbulent surface,” words used by former Stanford art professor Albert Elsen to describe Rodin’s imposing bronze gate. I am one of 21 journalists –13 from the United States and eight from other nations — awarded a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship. Each of us comes with an innovation proposal to focus on during this extraordinary year.

I would like to develop a news site and design a training program and digital delivery service to support journalists covering local news in regions outside of Managua, the capital. I have experienced the turbulence Elsen refers to just in asking myself four initial  questions:  What are my challenges? How can this project be economically sustainable?  How can I make it more simple? Where to start?

On the other hand, this “ceaseless movement” I’m experiencing at Stanford has a positive influence, because movement is about action, evolution and change. It is just simply amazing. Every day, through collaboration with my Knight Fellows and former fellows, I get new ideas on ways to modify or transform my original proposal. This experience of mutual collaboration and support and having more than a dozen gifted brains enriching my own ideas, feels more akin with Dante’s original inspiration, “The Gates of Paradise.”

The gate of opportunity

“Stanford is certainly closer to paradise than any other place in Dante’s cosmology,” said one of the fellows. There is “plenty of delicious free food, world-class athletic facilities, enough brainpower to run a sucessful nation-state. Indeed, areas of your own brain that may have lain dormant for years spark back to life.”

Every week is a challenge in the Stanford environment. You have the chance to attend dozens of seminars, symposia, conferences and extracurricular activities. Every day you have to make decisions and prioritize. And after two months, I truly feel that every moment is an awesome opportunity.

After more than 15 years, I am riding a bike again, an experience that inspires a sense of freedom and free thinking. For the next eight months my bike will take me to Stanford University — which is, simply, “The Gate of Opportunity,” where we are able to unlock our potential and creativity, change our mindset, be entrepreneurs and take risks.

Above all it’s a place where you can dare to dream, where everything is possible. If you are persistent and tenacious, you can achieve your professional and personal goals.