As a wrestler, I never achieved individual success at a high level. In fact, the number of individual accomplishments that I’ve achieved in life is quite small because I’ve just never been that good at any one thing. If I had to pick, I’d say my greatest accomplishments have come in the form of making it onto amazing teams. Of the teams I’ve been a part of, I consider belonging to America’s most elite special operations unit and the Stanford Wrestling program to be greatest accomplishments. Serving my nation as part of a highly-trained commando unit takes the #1 spot, but I would have never made the cut without the lessons I learned as a Stanford wrestler; and I would never have graduated from Stanford, much less attended it, had there been no Stanford wrestling.
If you’re reading this on the Keep Stanford Wrestling website, there should be a picture of me somewhere. Just by looking at it, it’s obvious that I check a lot of boxes and you might even assume that I check a lot of other boxes that can’t be seen--well I check those as well. The boxes that I don’t check are state qualifier and Division I recruit. That context is important because I was not recruited to wrestle for Stanford. If I had been recruited, somewhere during that process I would have discovered that Stanford was a world-renowned academic institution full of dedicated faculty, students, and scholar-athletes. However, being a first-generation college student with parents who considered any college degree to be a step in the right direction, I knew nothing about the university’s reputation. Fortunately, Stanford admissions believes “that the best education can develop only in a vibrant, diverse community that actively affirms both the differences among its members and their numerous points of connection.” Due to this deeply held institutional value, they sent me a voucher for airfare to attend Stanford’s Admit Weekend. Trust me, my parents wanted the best for me, but buying a plane ticket to the west coast for a school visit didn’t make sense to them or their pocketbook.
Long story short, the visit was successful. I was wowed and left determined to attend Stanford. During my trip I was fully impressed by the great weather, palm trees, and being surrounded by other kids who were into nerdy things. As impressive as this combination was, I almost left without plans to come back and become a #ChocolateCardinal. It took going to a party at Ujamaa and getting introduced to a junior named Hyman, now Dr. Hyman Scott, who had walked onto the team for me to change my mind. Without meeting Hyman, I would have never known there was a wrestling team, that it was Division I, and that it was possible to walk-on. This was important because not qualifying for the state tournament in high school had left me feeling that I needed to take care of unfinished business. So, of all the wonderful things I learned about Stanford during my visit, learning that I could be a part of a Division I program and that there were other black wrestlers on the team was the most compelling factor.
It took this set of unique circumstances to convince me, a kid who was never groomed to go to an elite school, to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in order to take a life-changing leap. Moreover, you have to appreciate that this was not happenstance, these unique circumstances were produced by strategic design based on Stanford’s vision for the composition of its student body and their follow-on impact on the world. Soon after getting into Stanford, I faced another obstacle that occasionally impacts kids like me who check a lot of boxes. I had to find a way to stay in school both mentally and financially when my parents separated near the end of my first year. For me, this meant not only dealing with suddenly emotionally-distant parents, it meant losing what little financial support they had been able to provide and losing the source of my direction. I didn’t have any college-educated uncles, aunts, or family friends to fall back on for advice on how to navigate the rest of my education. I didn’t have anyone in my life that I could ask for a loan while Stanford’s financial aid office took its time to adjust to my new level of need. Fortunately, I did have my Stanford wrestling family by this point. I had walked onto the team and managed to make the starting lineup my second-year. Through the ups and downs, the team would be my source of feeling accountable to something, feeling like I belonged at Stanford, and even a source of financial security in the form of a partial scholarship that included books and a Pell grant with clothing-stipend. It took my commitment to the Stanford Wrestling program and its commitment to me to keep me going when I thought about dropping out again and again. Learning how to deal with adversity, to be accountable to teammates, and the lessons in grit that are just ubiquitous in wrestling, led me to special operations--to continue to face adversity, be accountable to something greater than myself, and to fall back on grit when things became hard.
From my perspective, Stanford Wrestling was a critical ingredient in the overall Stanford recipe to attract, retain, and foster diversity. Without the Stanford Wrestling program, I would not have had such an amazing journey, been part of such awesome teams, and had the privilege of serving along some of America’s finest women and men.
- Harold Penson