I was recently asked to answer the question, “What is it like to attend Rice?” on Quora. My answer:
There is no better word than “magical” to describe my experience as an undergrad at Rice University. Indeed, Rice often invites comparisons with Hogwarts due to its Residential Colleges (much like being sorted into Hogwarts Houses), its students who take pride in being a little different, and perhaps even its campus (complete with a dungeon-like labyrinth of steam tunnels underneath the “castle” grounds). The magic I found there, though, is much deeper.
Having grown up in the Washington, DC area, I didn’t know what to expect when I first visited Rice: dust, tumbleweeds, and saloons? Cowboys on horseback? I had never really been to Texas before and my impressions were shaped by what I had seen in popular media. Imagine my surprise when I walked through the main entrance for the first time, canopied by beautiful live oaks, and discovered a lush, verdant campus with amazing Byzantine architecture.
It was a 300-acre oasis right in the heart of a thriving metropolis, just down the street from many of the world’s most significant companies and just across the street from the world’s largest medical center. Walking distance from Houston’s Museum District and just a few hops on the light rail from the Theater District and all the major sports arenas, there was always so much going on. And yet the hedges around Rice’s borders seemed to protect it magically from the frenetic energy that surrounded it. It was a place of tranquility, a place where I could see myself reading a book under a tree in the endless green space of quads, courtyards, and grounds.
When I walked into the Computer Science building without an appointment, one of the faculty invited me into his office and chatted with me for some time about the curriculum, their goals for CS grads, and what life as a CS major would be like (more time in computer labs than reading books under trees!). I was surprised by this openness of faculty to engage with students – or even prospective students in my case – but the CS department wasn’t unique. There was a friendliness about Rice that I just didn’t find at any of the other schools I visited. I was hooked. After I received my acceptance letter, I barely even glanced at the letters from the other schools to which I had applied.
When I arrived on campus as a freshman, I quickly realized that most of the other students had been attracted to Rice for the same reasons – it was elite but not elitist. My classmates were absolutely brilliant in all sorts of ways, but everyone was modest, open, and friendly. My residential college quickly became my home away from home as we all worked hard and played hard together.
Academically, I found Rice really challenging. I double-majored in computer science and electrical engineering, so I was already taking a heavy work load – but then I would have been remiss not to take advantage of the amazing course offerings in the humanities, arts, and literature as well. It was a struggle to keep up with it all, but I wasn’t alone. Rice’s achievement-oriented culture meant that many other students were also pushing the boundaries of what was reasonable. Rice let us do it, though, and we banded together to help each other out.
As I labored through my classes, became involved in student government, started some clubs, and founded my first startup (and slept very little) over the course of my undergrad career, one thing that really stuck out to me was the Rice administration’s trust and empowerment of its students. We were really treated like adults. Our classes were taught by faculty, not grad students, we worked on research directly with those faculty, and even dined and socialized together through the residential colleges – some faculty even lived with us on campus (our College Masters, like a Hogwarts Head of House). Students were entrusted to enforce the honor code, which added integrity to our degrees, and numerous times major problems or policy decisions were left to student leadership to solve.
This trust and responsibility made for a unique experiential development environment. I learned an incredible amount in my classes, of course, but my most valuable development happened outside of the classroom: relationships, leadership, teamwork, communication, organization, prioritization, and general find-a-way-to-make-something-happenness. I don’t understand people like Peter Thiel who argue for students to forego a college degree. I think they miss the point of the real value created during one’s time at a university, and I suspect that they didn’t have a magical experience like this one.
Now that it has been 15(!) years since I matriculated as a freshman at Rice, one thing is clear. The bond that was forged between so many smart, different, honest, humble students going through a unique development experience together lasts forever. I have lived around the world and every time I meet another Rice alum there is a warm glow and an instant desire to connect that stems from this bond.
Many others could probably articulate it better (and more concisely) than I have, but I hope you can tell by now that the story of Rice is a love story for me – from falling in love with the campus during that first visit to falling in love with another student who would one day become my spouse, from developing a career in entrepreneurship that I love to being inspired by professors to devote my career to creating social – not just economic – good. So perhaps the comparisons between Rice and Hogwarts aren’t that far off – after all, we learn in the Harry Potter books that Love is the most powerful magic of all.