Student 'letters home' uncover lingering tenderness of new adults

Letters Home

Longtime Los Altos resident Carol Stearns wrote letters to her mother nearly every day during the war years on Stanford University’s campus.

Stearns, who died in 2009, described being a new student at The Farm when she first drove up from Southern California in 1943. Chuffed to have been asked on a date her first day on campus, she also described a rough arrival the night before. After locating her residence hall, Roble, with some travail, Stearns found the upperclassmen lounging around within less than warm.

She walked in “looking as green as any new freshman just out from the sticks,” Stearns wrote to her mother. “About then I was most rattled – mad, wanted to cry, & go home – I’ll continue in the a.m. – cause it’s late & I’m dead.”

Stearns’ story is one of the many that Stanford alumna Alison Carpenter Davis gathered in partnership with Stanford’s archivists for the new book “Letters Home from Stanford” (Reedy Press, 2017). Davis, who lives in Los Gatos, gathered 125 years’ worth of correspondence, ranging from handwritten missives from the late 1800s to texts from the modern day. She is chatting about the epistolary project 6-8 p.m. Thursday at Stanford’s bookstore, 519 Lasuen Mall.

Written word shows connections across time

When Davis’ mother went to Stanford, she was informed (lovingly) that her tuition was dependent on twice weekly letters home.

“My grandmother had the foresight to save all her letters, so we have a volume from each of her four years at Stanford,” Davis said, adding that as she read her mother’s youthful missives, she found some of the sentiments within so relatable that she could have written them herself. “I didn’t think I had that much in common with my mom when I was younger, but you realize that a lot of what she was thinking about and going through spans generations.”

When Davis first started working with Stanford’s archives, they had already gathered letters from 1891, when the school opened, through the 1960s. They sent out a request to students and alumni to fill in the gap and submit correspondence reflecting classes up to the present.

“We started dipping into email and text territory,” Davis said, “because as we know, college students don’t write letters these days.”

She hopes that the book encourages families with young students preparing to head to school to consider making a sustained effort to save some of their correspondence.

Students seek emotional support

The letters capture the charming details of Bay Area student life over time, but they also provide a lingering testament to how student communiques provide crucial emotional outlets.

Whether it’s hinted at in plangent postcards from a summer program or mundane texts in the middle of a school day, parents often observe that their children seek more emotional attention and support, not less, as they grow up and start striking out on their own.

The opt-in nature of the parent/child relationship in college – the privacy and intimacy of having parents only when you need them, and having your own space to grow – can make communication more fluid and free ranging. Davis’ book challenges families to ask what they are saving for posterity.

“We’d talk to alums and they’d say, ‘It’s not that interesting’ – but it is interesting to other people, when you put a larger scope on it,” she said.

Davis also came to believe that the practice of written communication allows for a form of reflection that doesn’t come out in conversations.

“I got a view into what I call an ‘interior Stanford.’ People write about things that they don’t talk about,” she said, describing one young woman in the 1970s who was pretty depressed her freshman year, traveling far from home and worrying whether she was going to make it in college after flunking an economics test and feeling a distinct lack of belonging. “She told no one on campus, but she wrote about it to her parents – this is what they may not be telling their roommate, or anyone.”

For more information on Davis’ author event at the bookstore, visit

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