I struggled to begin and end this senior (+ coterm) reflection, partially because I framed this as “MY LAST STANFORD ASSIGNMENT, EVER” which really sets the pressure valve to VERY HIGH, but mostly because I cannot sum up six years of Stanford life (with 320 units and 83 official classes) into a single reflection. Drawing on what Ursula K. Le Guin said about her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, “The artist deals with what cannot be said in words,” and “If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written [this novel].” I cannot really synthesize my experience in a “pithy” ~3700 word essay, but I will try, if only to close my Stanford chapter and begin my new post-grad one!
Before this reflection, I spent an hour excavating my files and Figma to make the featured image (a collage of my favorite [game] design projects), brainstormed and drafted two pages of outlines with complete! sentences, and dedicated several special brainstorm showers to reflect on my life choices (cue soundtrack: “my life is a movie”); but when it finally came time to write my senior reflection, I stalled, struggled, and stumbled. With commencement, move-outs and move-ins, and transitions to new adulthood, I allocated some background threads on my mental computer to work on this reflection while I zoomed out and zoned out, but one of my key learnings from college is that I find it hardest to start a project and will usually go on tangents to avoid the subject (here’s one: analysis paralysis also frequently drops by to say hello), but once I begin, I feel duty-bound to carry it out to some level of finish.
Anyway, my life is happening whether I am ready or running away, so I’m happening. I also happen to care about many people, places, and things, but if I had to name a foundational tree on which I will graft my other interests to grow a versatile multifarious Shana, it would be storytelling. So, let’s start with mine.
Directly before (and frankly, during) Stanford, I thought about play, (game) design, and self-expression as a free-floaty nice-to-have with all the fragility of a gossamer jellyfish, at best a necessary outlet for after finishing more controlled pursuits like grinding out code for projects, but usually a luxury that I (a Shana) could not afford until I had Virginia Woolf’s “a room of one’s own” with the money and space to freely stretch out my legs and Shana-splain my projects to myself. Growing up, I had a (still-working!) Nintendo Game Boy Advance, then a DS Lite, where I played games like Harvest Moon, Nintendogs, and Super Princess Peach. I eventually transitioned to a super old computer to play The Sims 3 and 4 and various bite-sized puzzle games like Cut the Rope on my phone. Besides the gendered “design identity” on “who is allowed to game” that I succumbed to, which I could and did give a whole lecture on (caretaking, fragmented time, no multiplayer re: Gamergate), I had other pressures that led to my warped sense of “leisure should be nonexistent until you have that room of your own.”
So I “kept hustling” like a reverse Rapunzel, out in the world to gather resources so I could one day pent myself up in my own studio like a dramatic, mad-by-choice person who could paint the walls with sunflowers and spew hot-takes without fear of a landowner banging on my door.
Stanford and its many contents
At Stanford, a luxurious nest of knowledge and opportunities for this now-adult bird, I aimed to “min-max” my learning and “deep focus energy” by using every in-class project as a prompt for my own personal interests, so I could “feed two birds with one scone.” (This did have the side-effect of viewing all my “play time” as “work time,” which I am working to unravel, but I did succeed in leveling up my skills faster.) Staying true to my storytelling north star, my favorite design and development classes were those where I utilized narrative frameworks to create human-centered experiences, especially when making games and writing fiction.
I paid my dues with the CS core (with genuine thank-yous for the eye-opening education on what computer science can do for the world), and I did enjoy programming my own little shell on my own little Raspberry Pi (CS 107E) and tutorial React websites (CS 142), with SLE (a frosh “Great Books” program) and an English class every quarter to enrich my interdisciplinary wisdom. I learned how to mix both programming logic with narrative principles to create educational interactive explainers in CS 448B (Data Visualization), and I also grudgingly admire Philosophy 80 (Mind, Matter, and Meaning), where I deconstructed theories of mind and constructed my own philosophy of what is good writing. And in my first d.school class BIOE 177 (Inventing the Future), I finally felt affirmed on how storytelling — on the past, the current trends, and the future! — can be used to persuade, just like how I always believed with my love of speculative fiction.
2. Christina design classes
CS 247G (Design for Play), CS 247I (Design for Understanding), CS 377G (Designing Serious Games), and the Read, Write, Play independent study are the most specific examples of dedicated design and discussion classes focusing on games, where I could create a Kandinsky-themed 2D platformer, interactive fiction on intergenerational trauma, and 3D sustainable urban development board game, and develop my academic vocabulary (loops and arcs!) and sketchnoting. Even TA-ing CS 278 (Social Computing), CS 177 (Human-Centered Product Management), and CS 247G, I learned new concepts, design strategies, and ways of just being in the world. Another thank you to Christina and her incredible wisdom, clear-cut teaching, and whole-hearted nurturing that fostered lovely communities of fellow creators and now friends.
3. My “other” major (English)
I am grateful to my past self who insisted on tacking on the additional 80+ units of English courses to the 110+ unit CS major. I especially enjoyed my Oxford tutorials in the vaulted halls of history, AI in Fiction (ironically, the class where we actually discussed fundamental CS history like Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace’s work), The Pleasure and Politics of Reading (Writing in the Major), and Speculative Fiction and Social Justice. My senior Honors in the Arts thesis e.l.i.z.a., and my amazing fellow thesis creators and advisors, motivates me to this day, and I still aim to revise and publish the alternate history, futuristic story of cyborg celebrities, NLP-generated legislation, and media-constructed personal realities.
4. Real-world experience
Besides the two-quarter CS 210 (Software Project Experience with Corporate Partners), where my dramatically downsized group worked with Meta VR for Education for a Stonehenge-themed history experience set in virtual reality, my real-world internships in the private, academic, and public sectors (especially at The Washington Post’s election newsroom engineering team and Amazon’s device design technology team) were standouts for showing the full product cycle from user needfinding to roll-outs. I will never forget how strongly I felt the importance of human-centered design and a commitment to (journalistic) integrity, which I will continue to have for the rest of my career. When I sat in a WaPo Zoom war room during election night and waited for results to trickle in with little spots of color on a map of the US, I finally understood what “using technology responsibly” could mean on a national level.
The lengthy list of lasting lessons
My whole education will hopefully stay with me, in bits and late-night recollections of what some professor exclaimed about some detail about some project, but if my BS and BA undergraduate experience laid the seeds of what was possible with some skill specialization, my extra two years pursuing an MS (especially while teaching) helped me actually grow my skills into sprouted seedlings through portfolio-worthy work. I had a really crammed undergraduate experience with my double major and honors thesis that required regular petitions for extra units (and hello, pandemic, you deserve your own essay), but my MS was my opportunity to teach and reapply the concepts that I blearily heard during my first few years, and really contend with the challenges of group projects, especially because by years 5 and 6, I would often be the oldest or most experienced design and programming student, and the call of responsibility met my own push to excel.
1. Start with the user
I have seen the 5-step hexagonal d.school diagram in nigh every design class (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test), and while my design process flowchart usually resembles messy honeycomb by the end of a large-scale project, having empathy for your user and what they actually need is where everything should always begin. My journalism interests (using direct quotes and finding “telling details” that will reveal a person’s backstory) then meets the practice of crafting archetypal personas, so that I always design for a real use-case and make the most of my always limited time. And heck, if the user is me, or the need is “an entertaining game,” “me-search” user research and artistic self-expression is just as valid.
2. Journalistic integrity
An unfortunate belief that I keep running into at Stanford and other tech-heavy places is that what we make will not directly impact people’s lives (unless you are explicitly working in healthcare, security, or related fields). While this belief is slowly dying out (hello, techlash), even if you are in a corporate glass tower responsible for increasing advertisement clicks through alternating background color palettes, you are still shaping the interaction, the user’s experience with the product, and potentially their larger relationship with digital technology. I think we have a responsibility in every context to reflect on the first-order to fifth-order consequences of our actions, whether it is for a game that could affect a player’s understanding of their own agency (for what purpose?) or a social media app that promises to bring people together (in what way?).
3. Value and goal alignment
To make sure my design groups agree on our design vision (“what must always be in the project’s soul”), I start with design values (“noncompetitive” and “healing”) and key goals explaining why these matter (“feel handcrafted and cozy to encourage self-reflection and 1:1 discussion”), to help us stay on the right path and prune down features that ultimately do not align (especially important in my CS 247I “The History of You” team, which focused on empathetically exploring intergenerational trauma). This meshes neatly with OKRs (objectives and key results) measured by KPIs (key performance indicators), but I usually apply them more haphazardly during short projects where we just need “something” compared to “something tested and good.” When it comes to my personal creative work, I find it very challenging to set personal OKRs and KPIs (my muse dislikes such explicit accountability and becomes disinclined to improvise), but I currently find it useful for setting healthy art practice habits (“write every day,” measured by a sticker on my calendar) rather than for the art itself (“include this plot point and achieve this emotional effect”). Perhaps this will change!
4. We bring ourselves into everything we do
Speaking of which, just like how this essay and the key concepts that I am curating are framed by my perspective, I firmly believe that especially for solo projects, whatever you create will reflect your values, interests, personality quirks, and more, and who you are will always bleed into your work. This is true for all kinds of creations, whether a personal essay or game, and still true to some extent for projects where you share creatorhood under corporate branding. I used to think that I could “take a break” from art while I was coding, or close my laptop and write in my journal, but similar to how I thought I could keep my CS and English degrees completely separate (I liked the imagery of a dual degree and dual life, like dueling dragons tangling their tails around me), the ideas will continue to intertwine in my subconscious mind and lead to tech-themed fiction or programming projects with a literary bent. If my brain wants to draw inspiration from multiple fields, maybe… let it happen? Anyway, that bubble of ignorance has burst and now in the spirit of self-reclamation, all I have to do is make sure my projects wholeheartedly reflect me.
5. When in doubt, work with your hands
Analysis paralysis is my biggest crippling factor, and this becomes worse when I have nothing to fiddle with besides the list of intangible memory leaks in my systems project, or words in a sentence that are almost right but lack resonance. When I was first introduced to paper prototyping in the Intro to HCI Design (CS 147), a new world opened up to me, because I already loved paper origami and nice stationery (along with the rich scent of old books, bibliosmia), and now I could affirmatively design with paper prototypes, post-its on the walls with bright colors, and messily drawn sketches? Sign me up! During my MS years I also took intro-level product design classes for fun (and finally got access to the Product Realization Lab), and leveling up with CAD software, wood and acrylic laser-cutting (kerf is my new friend), and fancy real-world processes (including sandcasting) further emboldened my self-efficacy. Awakening that sense of childlike wonder and creativity becomes much easier when I can scribble and play with blocks like a little kid again.
6. Modular decomposition and snowflake outlining
Haha. Ha. In early programming classes they teach us to decompose our functions so that we have more reusable components and not have giant functions of 40+ lines that do our entire program, but… let’s just say I learned and solidified some bad habits, and I continue to overscope in the hopes of achieving grand artistic delusions, forgetting that it is a miracle that anything works at all, so perhaps let’s start small, prototype, and test! My more complex stories (and projects) tend to spiral away from me, but returning to pencil and paper and outlining a basic plot structure (hello, seven basic plots and the snowflake method: we are talking “write EXACTLY one sentence for each of the seven key events”) helps more often than not. As does having a deadline, with real people for accountability.
7. 20% of the work time for 80% of the results
Pareto originated this principle, but as evidenced by the sheer number of school projects that are “good enough” even when done in the twelve hours before the deadline (and the “hail Mary” Slack messages I received late in the night as a TA), many projects can be rushed and still contribute value, perhaps even shifting larger conversations in the field and wider world. In some areas (particularly those that directly impact people’s lives, like healthcare) 20% of wiggle room can be devastating and thus the 100% of extended work time is necessary for full polish and error-checking (which is what I tell myself when government bureaucracy takes it slow, leisurely pace), but otherwise, why not throw seeds in the ground and see what grows? (And of course dedicate the remaining 80% of time to revise and polish your darling art pieces if you can, but I have the problem of being overwhelmed with finishing projects to a Shana-approved level, so I need scheduled breaks to relieve pressure. And yes, playing Stardew Valley clearly counts as “part of the design process.”)
8. The labor of love: do it for yourself first, and maybe for other people
One of my most bittersweet memories is visiting a beloved former teacher who influenced major Shana life threads (my Stanford application, the first writing competition I “won,” my enthusiasm for history and worldbuilding) and seeing them scrunch their face and run through a series of confused expressions, before finally, and congenially, saying it was lovely to see me again and making generic smalltalk without ever using my name. I am using this example because when we create projects for an external audience (such as finishing a class project where the only maybe viewer is your TA, submitting a piece “into the void” of a journal’s slush pile, or uploading something to a website that is just a row in a faraway database), the project will almost undoubtedly matter very little to them and they will forget the work, and forget you. You are your only guaranteed audience. Perhaps you can share your work with your long-suffering friends, perhaps you already have a fanbase, perhaps your work will go viral, perhaps you will be the next society-shaping visionary; but in line with value alignment and journalistic integrity, I hope you stand by your work and love it even if no one else does.
9. Creative confidence and brave space
A reminder that I am a work-in-progress that has one beginning and one end, but a very tangled middle, so go out and try new things and give yourself permission to change, because that is life. : )
I am my worst enemy — and my best ally!
My biggest challenge is my self-doubt and learned helplessness, and my most significant lesson-in-progress is setting healthy expectations and habits. I often must fight my tendency to “save my Bestest, Most Good, Award-Winning Visionary ideas” for “later” (when I have more experience, free time, and energy), but “later” often means never, because my perspective and interests change and evolve as I get older, and I have new and fresh free-floaty ideas pop up that interest me even more, especially in response to current events, a new book release, or a wild conversation. I find that taking too long to finish a work means that a particular conviction or obsession will change so that I am no longer the best version of myself to complete the detailed outline of a project that my past self made. But finishing a project to the Shana-approved level means working consistently and NOT GETTING BURNED OUT.
For more detail, I really love my honors in the arts thesis (a speculative fiction novela with cyborgs and NLP-generated legislation), and I still write occasional stories within the world, but the topics of election manipulation and celebrity presidential candidates felt much more salient during Election 2020 than right now. Using the principle of 20% of the work time for 80% of the results, then the inverse is that I need another 80% of time to really shift my quasi-decent novela into the extra 20% of polish that differentiates “good” and “genuinely novel.” But procrastinating and then finishing the bulk of a capstone honors project (37,700 words) the few weeks before graduation is a one-way ticket to burnout. And because I put this project on hiatus, my activation energy to return is even higher now. Perhaps my extra years thinking about the topics will result in an even stronger piece (on reflection, my first draft was too timid and I want to fly more fiercely into the sun), but I now have other exciting projects that will make the decision to return to e.l.i.z.a. harder.
Essentially, the lesson here is “the only time that exists is now,” and “maintain the energy you need to do X through consistent HEALTHY habits” so you can avoid burnout (from crunch working to meet a deadline) and skip the need for activation energy after a long hiatus. Perhaps that is why the most prolific authors treat their work as a day job, and have accountability systems where they work consistently (not necessarily writing bestselling novels in three days, though it has been done before by powerhouses like Stephen King). Tiny Habits affirmed that my most productive periods, and frankly my most polished projects, were those where I made tangible (even if small) contributions to my project every day. It was okay if I eventually threw out the scribbles or decided to go in a completely different direction; what mattered was that I showed up and completed something EVERY DAY.
What will I do next? Give myself permission to “let the winds of freedom blow”
You might be familiar with the saying, “a plan never survives first contact with the enemy,” but I want to add the following: “you will not survive first contact without a plan.” I had the overarching plan of 1) “get skills, degrees, and savings,” and 2) finalize my lifetime goals later. If we interpret “enemy” as “life gets in the way,” to put it succinctly, many things happened between 2013 and 2023, but Shana still achieved the first part because she had a four-, then eight-, then ten-year plan.
Anyway, I am now at that “later.” By now, I have graduated. I am a “new adult” who feels like a baby bird who was PUSHED out of the nest, because they are actually a full-grown bird who should be flying into the world and making space for new hatchlings. I briefly pondered the idea of staying for an even cushier third year of my master’s degree (thank you, TAships), finally deciding that besides limited housing options and few folks from my original class year, it was time to go launching into a new, unknown, scary next life chapter. (Also, I already received my diplomas from commencement, so it is very late to turn back.) Honestly, I am genuinely pleased I made it this far, and that the Stanford admissions office did not suddenly realize six years later that they accepted the wrong Shana, and then I would have to weep in despair at this knowledge, then stoically proceed to graduate (I was going to finish earning my fancy pieces of paper, mistake or not).
I used to believe I could be good at everything I wanted, but now I realize that unless I am playing The Sims (with an infinite lifetime, motherlode money cheat, and never-decaying needs), my most limited resource is my time, and I need to achieve my lifetime goals within the constraints of my own needs and life pressures. I cannot afford to wait for the “best time” to do a project because… I only have so much life. Heck, I pondered adding even more to this personal reflection (a series of sketchnote-esque comics, more poetic subheaders, a matching soundtrack), but once again, time.
I have some structured opportunities lined up for the next year, but I am tired of chasing a moving goal post of “get enough cushion” before finally giving myself “permission to fly toward my dreams.” I am very grateful for the privileges I have been blessed with and those that I earned, and I want to make the most of these luxuries by being of use to the world, by being me and honoring what those dreams entail. I want to live the Stanford motto, stop resisting the call of the wind, and fly with the spirit of freedom. Heck, even in my Stanford application, I described myself as “she flies with her own wings.” It is time to leave the nest.
If anyone is reading this, please feel free to say hello (perhaps we can talk about or create some games together!). My younger self had some very lofty dreams (become one of the most cited artists influencing conversations about speculative fiction, technology, and society), but my current self says, well, why not try?
Thank you, Stanford. Thank you for all the classes, people, memories, and more. Thank you for helping me become a super-Shana. I would say that I already miss you, but the most important parts of my Stanford experience have already shaped my soul.