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Life at Stanford University: Dublin High School’s Jianna So Combines Product Design with Social Impact

June 26, 2018

DUBLIN, CA–Dublin High School Class of 2017 graduate Jianna So is a rising sophomore at Stanford University and our latest Life in College Series profile. While she had initially aspired to become a lawyer and planned to pursue Political Science and Economics as a pre-law program, Jianna is now leaning towards a major in Product Design. “The Product Design major at Stanford is a combination of mechanical engineering, art practice, and psychology,” Jianna says. “This radical shift in my potential field of study entailed countless conversations with professors and a few teary phone calls home.”

Stanford Head Shot - Edited

Despite this shift in her major, Jianna is still deeply committed to upholding justice and doing good on campus. At Stanford, she serves on the 20th Undergraduate Senate, and is also involved with the Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035 (SCoPE 2035) and the Pilipino-American Student Union (PASU).

I recently connected with Jianna to learn more about her experiences at Stanford so far and some of her fondest memories from Dublin High School.

Neha Harpanhalli: Given your strong academic record and long list of accomplishments while in high school, you must have had several options to choose from when it was time to select a college. How did you know Stanford was the right choice for you? 

Jianna So: “Stanford has always been a dream school for me. It is a hub of innovation, and is doing amazing research in every field of study that I am interested in. Additionally, since Stanford students do not have to declare their major until the end of sophomore year, I could spend my first two years exploring fields that I was already interested in and others I had never encountered before. This academic freedom is what appealed to me the most.

“I definitely knew that I wanted to stay in the Bay Area, if possible. Being close to my family was incredibly important to me. I really underestimated how difficult transitioning to college would be, so I am extremely grateful to have had my family close by and act as a support system throughout the year. On top of that, Bay Area weather is definitely a plus. Getting to study outside in 70 degree weather during Winter Quarter definitely made school a lot more enjoyable.”

Neha Harpanhalli: What prompted the shift from law to Product Design? 

Jianna So: “I had never considered majoring in anything STEM-related. I had a rigid view that my interest in activism could only be fulfilled by attending law school. Mentors at Stanford who pursued social impact work through STEM helped me realize that law school wasn’t the only option for me.

“During a social entrepreneurship lecture-series class I took in my first quarter, I heard about Stanford mechanical engineering alums who were making sustainable light sources in developing countries or developing showers on wheels for the homeless in San Francisco. It was through classes like these that I let go of the idea that law was the only way I could pursue social justice. This experience has made me truly regret not exploring engineering sooner, especially with an amazing program like the Engineering Academy at Dublin High.”

Neha Harpanhalli: How have you established yourself at Stanford so far? 

Jianna So: “I spend a majority of my time serving on student government, pursuing on-campus activism, and interning with the Pilipino-American Student Union.

“This past April, I was elected onto the 20th Undergraduate Senate at Stanford. Senate is an amazing opportunity to work with campus administrators to shape policy centered on marginalized groups’ needs. Through increased communication with both administrators and student leaders, we get to facilitate change regarding various on-campus issues, including mental health, supporting the First Generation and Low Income community, and diversity in academic departments. I have worked closely with SEIU Local 2007, the workers’ union on campus, and leaders of Stanford’s Residential and Dining Enterprises to advocate for a fair workload and access to professional development programs for service workers on campus. I will be continuing this project this upcoming school year.

“I am also involved with the Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035 (SCoPE 2035), a student-led group that focuses on keeping Stanford accountable for its impact on the Bay Area housing crisis.

“I have gotten to explore my Pilipinx identity as a part of Stanford’s Pilipino-American Student Union (PASU). As an intern for the Kababayan Committee (a group focused on current issues and political engagement within the Pilipinx community both at home and abroad), I learned how current Pilipinx issues have been shaped by colonialism. Through events such as our annual Culture Night, where I learned traditional dances and the meaning behind them, I have learned more about indigenous history and how it plays into the present. Most importantly, I have made lifelong friends that have shown me the beautiful diversity within the Pilipinx diaspora.”

Stanford Pilipino Cultural Night (1) - Edited

Neha Harpanhalli: What have been some of your best experiences at Stanford so far? What came as a total surprise to you? 

Jianna So: “Coming from what I found to be an academically competitive high school environment, I was surprised to feel welcomed and encouraged by Stanford’s positive intellectual community. When interacting with both my peers and my professors, I was never afraid to ask questions to learn more or challenge ideas.

“One of my favorite memories is from my first week of school. I had enrolled in a seminar on intellectual property law, a field that I was interested in but didn’t know much about. On the first day of class, I found myself in a room full of graduate students, mostly from Stanford’s Law School. I was intimidated, and wasn’t sure if I was meant to be there.

“I approached the professor after class and told him about my concern. He laughed and exclaimed, ‘You are welcome here. I’m excited to have you.’ Surprised, I biked home that day feeling like I could study and do anything. I was filled with this feeling countless times throughout the year. On campus, I was surrounded by individuals who clearly wanted me to succeed.

“Most of my other favorite memories are from outside of the classroom: late night conversations under the stars or over a meal of cup-noodles about the origins of morality, exploring the interaction of art and social justice, or learning how to dance from friends who are seasoned performers. Living around so many people in my freshman dorm meant being surrounded by an amazingly diverse richness of the human experience. Being with friends was always full of wonder and laughter.”

Neha Harpanhalli: I understand that you interned for Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty during your time at Dublin High School. How did this opportunity come about? What did you learn from this experience? 

Jianna So: “During the summer after my sophomore year, I participated in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Justice Academy (DAJA) under Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, which gave me the opportunity to intern for Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty. I first learned about this opportunity because Tatiana Bouri, who had been Dublin High’s ASB President during my sophomore year, had participated in the program as well. Her final presentation was included in the promotional video on the DAJA website. After hearing her speech and reading about opportunities to learn about law through DAJA, I applied to the program.

“The program was extremely eye-opening. Though I had aspired to become a lawyer, I hadn’t considered the emotional toll of the profession. DAJA gave me a glimpse of this reality through weekly seminars with guest speakers. In one of DAJA’s first sessions, a guest speaker showed us police footage. The sobs of a young woman, attempting to describe the man who had just assaulted her, echoed throughout the room. For the first time, I realized being a lawyer was not the glamorous career I had imagined it to be. While I was intimidated, I was also inspired. Whether we were visiting a Juvenile Detention Center or hearing from a human trafficking lawyer, every speaker shared not only the emotional strain of the case, but also the gratification of delivering long-awaited justice.

“DAJA truly solidified my passion for law and my interest in using it as a mode of pursuing social justice. Working with Supervisor Haggerty, who clearly was dedicated to his work because of the opportunity it gave him to help residents of Alameda County, showed me the change that one can accomplish through local government. I walked away from DAJA knowing that I wanted to follow in the footsteps of these mentors by dedicating my work to making the world a better place. This sentiment is one I still carry with me today and something that continues to inform my interests, even academically.”

Neha Harpanhalli: What are some of the Dublin High courses that were particularly valuable in your preparations for college? Are there any teachers who inspired or impacted you? 

Jianna So: “A class and teacher that truly impacted me was AP Physics, taught by Mrs. Katina Lewis. Mrs. Lewis is a teacher that any student would be lucky to have. She is tough on students when she knows they can do better and has a fierce passion for her job that is sure to inspire any student. I say this because I was one of those students my senior year, completely set on my idea that STEM was not going to be a part of my future. Through both AP Physics and Principles of Engineering, Mrs. Lewis instilled in me a deep appreciation for STEM that I continue to explore in college. I attribute my newfound love for Product Design to her.

“One of my other favorite classes at Dublin High School was AP English Language and Composition, taught by Mr. Sheldon Dance. Through challenging texts and in-class discussions, Mr. Dance shaped me into a better writer and thinker. I still keep his style tips in mind whenever I write.

“I also deeply miss taking AP Statistics with Ms. Anna Kim. Statistics is an interesting subject on its own, but Ms. Kim made every class genuinely enjoyable. Beyond that, she was a teacher that was there for her students in and out of the classroom. She became a friend on campus that I could go to for anything and made Dublin High feel like home.”

Neha Harpanhalli: What was one of your fondest memories as a Dublin High Gael? 

Jianna So: “I will always remember walking down Dublin High’s football field when I was nominated for homecoming court during my senior year. I ugly-cried during the whole thing. Hearing my blurb being read over the stadium speakers with my arm around my dad’s, I was so overcome with a feeling of joy and love for the people around me. It was a moment of simultaneously celebrating my journey at Dublin High and preparing for the next stage of my life. I still remember the most meaningful part of my blurb: ‘No matter where her future takes her, her ultimate goal is to help others and spread happiness. Her topmost motivations to succeed are her amazing parents, who are both her biggest role models and greatest inspirations. She is so grateful to be a Gael.’ All of these statements still hold true today and are sentiments I still hold close to my heart.”


Neha Harpanhalli: Is there anything you learned during your first year at Stanford that will change how you do things next year? 

Jianna So: “It would be to let go of my expectations and assumptions. At Stanford, I learned the most from encounters with people and ideas that were completely foreign to me. From hearing the stories of friends from different backgrounds to conversations with people across the political spectrum, my first year was a continual learning process.

“My academic journey embodies this idea as well. As I mentioned before, I had never considered majoring in anything STEM related before coming to college. Now, thanks to classes that were entirely new to me, I am a potential STEM major.

“Next year, I’ll hold this lesson close to my heart and reach out to a person that I initially didn’t think I’d get along with, or join a group that I had no previous interest in. I will readily welcome new experiences, no matter how unexpected they are.”

Neha Harpanhalli: What advice do you have for students who are just getting ready to go through the college applications process? 

Jianna So: “Number 1: Be true to yourself. Don’t try to be the person you think a certain college is looking for. You will write better essays and create a more honest narrative as a whole if you write about topics that genuinely interest you.

“Number 2: Take the time to truly consider what has shaped you and your passions into what they are today. Why do you want to go into that field of study? What are your goals in life? Who helped you realize that? While it is important to write well thought out essays for your admissions officers, this is also a valuable opportunity for introspection and self-reflection. I learned a lot about myself while filling out college applications.

“Number 3: Remember that college acceptances will not define your life. Don’t get me wrong; college is definitely important. But if you don’t get accepted to that dream school, it isn’t over. Remember: let go of assumptions! You never know what an unexpected opportunity will bring you. Good luck!”

grad_family - Edited

During her senior year at Dublin High School, Jianna So was named a National Merit Semifinalist and a California Scholarship Federation Life Member, received the Presidential Gold and Gael Scholar awards, and was recognized as a member of the National Honor Society. 

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