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Up Next: An economic poetry slam?

May 24 2018

Gopal Raman works with classmates in an economics class taught by SIEPR Senior Fellow Matthew Gentzkow.

All photos by Ryan Zhang

It’s not rhyme or reason — but rhyme and reason — that drive freshman Gopal Raman.

The nationally recognized 19-year-old poet is navigating new territory as a prospective economics major — drawn by how that field of social science sets a stage for infinite, insightful perspectives.

“Poetry, for me, is a way to look at the world. And econ is a different way for me to look at the world,” Raman says. “I would never think of the world in a quantitative, trade-off kind of way if I didn’t study that.”

Raman moves and speaks with an ease that seems off-rhythm with the intensity of his resume. National Student Poet. Congressional Gold Medal Award. A TEDx talk. A live-streamed poetry reading at the White House before serving a yearlong stint as a literary ambassador.

All of that was during his high school years. Now at Stanford, his pace hasn’t slowed, his explorations haven’t abated.

Raman is also interested in symbolic systems, a demanding interdisciplinary degree that blends computer science with the “science of the mind,” including philosophy and psychology.

The attraction of that major, he explains, is not the process of coding but the ability to create something new.

Raman has award-winning notches on his belt for design work as well and fuels that creative vein by working as a layout designer at MINT, Stanford’s fashion and culture magazine.

And to stoke his passion for teaching, Raman volunteers as an academic tutor at the East Palo Alto Tennis & Tutoring program, which provides educational assistance and free tennis lessons to inner city youths. (Raman played doubles on his high school team.)

His very latest foray? In April, he started working as a marketing intern for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, a publication that seeks to inspire leaders of social change.

He’s unsure of his exact career path, but he envisions a professional life that makes an investment in his community.

“I don’t know what shape that will take — if that’s a teacher, or a poet, full-time. Or someone who works in the economic world but in a non-profit way,” he says. “I just know I want my professional life to have some aspect of service.”

Eyeing Econ

Econ 1 at Stanford was Raman’s first brush with economics. Until then, Raman, like many others, had the common impression that economics is mostly about statistics and data science.

He has since come to realize that economics can sharpen the understanding of how governments, society, and individuals operate. Applied to policy and social issues, economics can help shape priorities and measure whether certain programs work.

“It’s less the ability to crunch the numbers, but what I can study is all out there,” he says. “As an exploratory person, that appeals to me.”

In Econ 47 this spring, Raman is learning how to apply economic tools to study the impact of media on society.  He sits near the front of the lecture hall, dressed in a t-shirt and sweatpants, the day Professor Matthew Gentzkow tells the class: “You need to start exercising these muscles … causal questions are important — what would happen if we did this or did that.”

Though he hasn’t yet studied it, Raman would like to dig into the dynamics of economics and education, an issue close to his heart.

He declares this shortly before rushing off to EPATT to tutor a middle-schooler.

Lessons with Armando

Raman grew up in Plano, Texas and attended a private, all-boys school in Dallas. During his high school years, he clocked hundreds of hours of community service, a vast majority of it spent tutoring and helping to develop curricula at a public elementary school, where more than two-thirds of its students were considered at risk of dropping out.

A poet at heart, Gopal Raman is also exploring econ and symbolic systems classes in his freshman year at Stanford.

The schools were 4.5 miles apart, but their learning outcomes — and graduation rates — couldn’t be farther apart. Raman created a tutoring program to bridge the schools in his freshman year. Armando, a fourth-grader from a low-income family, was Raman’s first pairing. Their Saturday tutoring sessions spanned two years.

“By working with him, I knew what it meant to be a teacher — what it means to be a friend and a teacher, understanding what it’s like when they’re really frustrated, and when you’re tired. I learned the most, how to interact with kids,” Raman says.

The younger of two sons, born to immigrant parents who owned a software consulting business, Raman acknowledges his privileged background but speaks emphatically about how educators and mentors could make a difference. His middle school teachers opened his eyes to photography and poetry — which taught him empathy — while his parents encouraged him to follow his own path.

From his one-on-one tutoring to leading poetry workshops across the United States, Raman found that socio-economic backgrounds do not necessarily define the essence of youths. “They all get bored and they all laugh at the same jokes,” Raman says.

And as a member of the Stanford Social Entrepreneurial Student Association, Raman connects with others who share similar views about the value of service and want to engage with organizations that are building social initiatives.

Unrestrained creativity

His portfolio of poetry and prose sways between nature and human nature, darkness and hope. And his collection of observations and inspirations – notes all tapped into his smartphone — grows weekly, waiting for takeoff.

By age 15, Raman had published a book of his work, “Beyond the Edge,” and donated proceeds from its sale to the Dallas school where he spearheaded the tutoring program. In his junior year, he was named one of five National Student Poets – a prestigious honor that sent him on a year of service projects, speaking engagements and special readings to dignitaries. It also meant VIP treatment at the White House by former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Raman says a seventh-grade teacher helped spark his passion for poetry. All it takes is three words on a page, the teacher told him.

Raman uses poetry to “gouge meaning” out of life and finds his writing style evolving, not unlike his varied interests.

Like many freshmen, he’s undeclared. But no matter where his career lands, he says “poetry will always be with me until the day I die.”

Economics classes have not inspired a poem — at least, not yet.