Stanford University

Reflections - Stanford’s First Year Reflection Seminar provides an opportunity for new undergraduates come together to pause and reflect upon who they are and what they want out of their lives and to assist them in making choices more thoughtfully and intentionally in their time as undergraduates at Stanford. 

Designing your Stanford – A class offered for Stanford students, which will have students on their feet participating in large group activities, listening to mini-lectures, sharing personal reflections with a partner, and discussing provocative ideas about the purpose of college in small, facilitated groups. 

Education as Self-Fashioning - ESF is a program in which students consider writings about education by intellectuals working in various fields, with the aim of articulating the ways that education can be used to structure one’s thinking, one’s self, and ultimately one’s life as a whole.


  • Audience: Reflections is for first-year undergraduates. Designing your Stanford is a class that is available to freshmen and sophomore students at Stanford. Education as Self-Fashioning is for first-year students. 
  • When: The First Year Reflections Seminars are offered Weeks 4, 5, and 6 of Winter Quarter (end of January and February). Designing Your Stanford is offered each quarter, one day a week, for the full 9-10 weeks in a quarter. Education as Self-Fashioning is offered only during Autumn quarter. 
  • Frequency: In its first three years, Reflections seminars met for three 90-minute sessions. In Year Four, three 5-hour sessions were offered on Saturdays in addition to the traditional offerings of three 90-minute sessions over three weeks. In Years Three and Four the Reflections Seminars were offered for one unit of course credit as “EDUC 155X: First Year Reflections Seminar.” Designing Your Stanford is offered each quarter, one day a week, for 1 hour and 50 minutes.  In the Education as Self-Fashioning program, each week throughout the quarter, students attend a 75-minute seminar with faculty, two 110-minute writing sections, and a lecture featuring prominent intellectuals that broadens the conversation about the aims of a liberal education. 
  • Approximate Number of Participants: Participation for Reflections has been as follows of each of its four years: Year One: 50, Year Two: 135, Year Three: 198, and Year Four: 115. Designing your Stanford is available to freshmen and sophomores students at Stanford. The class typically enrolls 50-60 students. Education as Self-Fashioning (ESF) drew 144 students who were enrolled in the program in 2014; in 2013, there were a 137 students. 

Funding and Operations

  • Reflections receives no external funding.
  • Operations: $15,000.  For ESF, the operating costs were $50,295 in 2014.


Stanford’s First Year Reflection Seminar provides an opportunity for new undergraduates come together to pause and reflect upon who they are and what they want out of their lives and to assist them in making choices more thoughtfully and intentionally in their time as undergraduates at Stanford. The Seminar promotes in students a sense of ownership over their education and provides a community of peers and tools in support of self-authorship. The Seminar seeks to develop the following behaviors and competencies in the students: the recognition of how their choices impact their own formation, the ability to articulate rationale for choices to self and others, a willingness to take risks, a focus on learning more than grades, the ability to put experiences in perspective, and resilience (i.e., the ability to situate setbacks as opportunities for growth). Seminars are co-facilitated by a team consisting of a faculty member, administrator, and upperclassman.

Designing Your Stanford is a class that helps students craft a more satisfying college experience. This 2-unit class meets weekly and is graded on credit/no credit basis. During Fall quarter, the class is open to sophomores only. During Winter and Spring quarters, the class is open to both freshmen and sophomores. Many students arrive freshman year having heard that the next four years will represent the best of their lives. But as wonderful as the Stanford experience often proves to be, it almost always presents a slew of difficult decisions and stressful tradeoffs. How do you choose a single major given the disparate interests you have? How do you discover all of the exciting opportunities Stanford has to offer? And once you’ve discovered them, how do you possibly choose among them? Most critically, how do you leave Stanford after four years feelings satisfied with the experience? Designing Your Stanford aims to help students navigate these thorny questions. Using a process rooted in Design Thinking, the course equips students with tools to design a college experience that better aligns with who they are and what they hope to get from Stanford.

Education as Self-Fashioning is predicated on these key premises: (1) that students who have reflected on the purpose and nature of a liberal arts education and thought deeply about their own values and ambitions will be better prepared to make wise choices during their four years at Stanford; (2) that creating a community of such students within any given class might, in time, create spill-over effects that will extend beyond the actual community of ESF alumni; (3) that introducing freshmen to a tenure-track member of the faculty is a valuable and organic way of providing advising; (4) that, by linking a syllabus of reading with discussion seminars and co-ordinated writing sections, the course can create synergies between reading, discussing, writing, and revising; and (5) that seminars ought to reflect ways of thinking peculiar to the academic specialty of their faculty leaders, but that all of the seminars ought to be able to convene for common discussion in the best tradition of the liberal arts. Many alumni of the course have reported that it was the most important course they took at Stanford. 


In August 2010 Julie Lythcott-Haims, Stanford’s then Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising, initiated a series of conversations about creating “Stanford 101” – a placeholder term for a particular type of content and pedagogy that might enhance the first year of Stanford’s undergraduate experience – which resulted in 18 months of collaborative discussion among persons drawn from all over campus. One clear need identified by the group was a space for freshmen to consider questions about personal values and the purposes of education, about balancing individual aspirations with responsibilities to others, about the different ways in which people find and make meaning in their lives.  At this same time, Thomas Ehrlich, Visiting Professor in Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, shared with the committee a ”Reflecting on Your Life” curriculum designed at Harvard by Professors Richard Light and Howard Gardner, and Dean of Freshmen Thomas Dingman. It was quickly apparent that Stanford’s version of this curriculum could be one answer to what campus partners were seeking from the Stanford 101 concept. In its report of January 2012, the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) committee cited the need to “encourage students to take ownership of their own educations” and to support students’ capacity building for doing so. The report specifically mentioned the efforts underway to pilot the First Year Reflections Seminar.

Designing Your Stanford has been a course since Spring Quarter, 2013, and development began in Fall 2012. Over the past several years, we’ve been teaching a popular class for juniors and seniors called Designing Your Life, which offers students the chance to develop a point of view about their careers. But while the course helped students launch into their post-college lives, it wasn’t helping them figure out how to navigate the crazy, exciting world of undergraduate education. With support from the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, we set out to develop a course that would support freshmen and sophomores in deriving more meaning from their college experience. We ran our first pilot of the course in the spring of 2013, and we’ve been teaching it every quarter since. Our approach to course development is rooted in the iterative process of Design Thinking, and as such, we’re constantly scrapping, adding, and tweaking content based on the feedback we get from students. 

Education as Self-Fashioning grew out of the 2010 Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), a university wide report that examined the overall structure and fabric of undergraduate education at Stanford. Although we have experimented each year with the format of the Friday plenary lectures, the course model has been essentially stable.

Recommended Resources

In Year One, the co-facilitators generated their own activities and discussion prompts (in some instances informed by materials provided by Harvard’s Reflecting On Your Life program). In Years Two through Four, sample activities and prompts were compiled in a Facilitators’ Guide.

For Designing your Stanford, our students continue to be the most useful resource we have in developing the course. Any new content we develop comes out of conversations with or observations of our students.


Reflections receives no external funding. Operationally, the program costs $15,000. For ESF, the operating costs were $50,295 in 2014.


For the Reflections program, we have used a combination of quantitative surveys and focus-group interviews to evaluate the seminars.  Both have been effective.

For the Designing your Stanford program, we administer a pre/post-class survey to both students in the class and, as a control, to students who initially signed up for the course but subsequently dropped before the first class. The questions we ask get at either attitudes or behaviors related to how their thinking about or going about their Stanford careers. 

For the Education as Self-Fashioning program, we review course evaluations. We conducted an extensive survey of every student who had taken the course after two years, which was very revealing. And we also ask every student to write a reflection about what he or she wants to get out of Stanford. We ask them to write one before taking the course and another one afterwards: the difference is remarkable.