While most of her classmates prepared for freshman year by buying used textbooks and stocking up at Bed Bath & Beyond, Dorothy Finnigan ’10 traveled the world as a street performer. After deferring her matriculation at Yale, Finnigan made her way from Germany to Japan in 2002 by living off her earnings as a street-side juggler. Life as a performer wasn’t as cushy as life on Old Campus — Finnigan often didn’t speak the local language and sometimes made less than 10 euros a performance — but she says she learned things in her gap year that she never would have learned at Yale.
“I decided I really wanted some life experience,” she said. “I wanted to travel and be able to empathize with the diverse people I knew I was going to encounter at Yale, and I really wanted to earn and be deserving of my place there.”
Whether it was gathering a crowd or timing a show just right, Finnigan recalled street performance as the ultimate test of her ability to listen to people, judge her environment and act on instinct. She loved the real-world experience so much that, after only a year back at Yale, she left again to work on the 2004 presidential campaign in Florida and then took off again just one semester later to write a book about her experiences juggling around the world.
Finnigan and other students who take time off, along with Yalies who transfer in from other colleges and those who study abroad, are taking it upon themselves to redefine the Yale experience. Before he took time off from Yale to work in Cambodia, Eric Vandenbrink ’07 transferred into Yale from Deep Springs College — an all-male, two-year college in rural California. Megan Murphy ’09 is currently studying abroad in Paris in order to experience a different urban environment and gain perspective on her study of political science. While the most obvious road to a Yale diploma is four consecutive years in New Haven, these students pick and choose what they want out of an undergraduate education. Breaking with tradition, they expand the possibilities of what a Yale education can be.
We’ll always have New Haven
Working for a humanitarian aid organization in Cambodia during the fall before his final semester, Eric Vandenbrink ’07 said his semester off gave him the distance he needed to reflect on his experience at Yale and his direction in life.
“Sometimes it’s good to get out of the bubble for a little while,” Vandenbrink said. “If you want to reevaluate what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, taking a semester off can be a very good way to do that.”
A desire to gain perspective and examine how their college and life experiences fit together motivates some Yalies to bid farewell to the Elm City.
Alex Pulst-Korenberg ’08, who spent several months living in India in what would have been her junior spring, said traveling allowed her to come back and make the most of Yale in her senior year.
“I wasn’t completely happy on campus,” she said. “Something was just missing from my life, and I needed to figure out what. It just didn’t feel like I was taking advantage of everything that Yale had to offer.”
Escaping the ivory tower can also complement classes students have taken on campus, giving them an opportunity to round out their academic experience. After using AP credits to accelerate a semester, Anna Dechert ’08 took her junior fall off and worked for the newly-founded King’s Academy in Jordan. The position gave her the chance to learn the local Jordanian dialect, in contrast to the classical Arabic she had studied as a Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations major at Yale.
But Dechert also encountered cultural challenges and bouts of homesickness. She recalls lying on her stomach on her apartment floor one warm November night in Jordan, staring at her laptop screen in the dark as she watched The Game via a live feed online.
“It was the only place in the apartment I could get wireless,” she said. “Every so often, a blurry figure I’d recognize would dart across the screen, and I’d get excited. I think I missed Yale more that night than any other.”
Coming back to campus in the spring, Dechert was unable to obtain on-campus housing, so she lived in an apartment with friends from the ski team. She said life off-campus, while not in her original plans, allowed her to see a different side of Yale.
Dechert also said her experience abroad profoundly changed her aspirations for life after college.
“I know now that I don’t want to just be stuck in an office in New York,” she said. “I want to be abroad and travel and explore.”
For Nicole Fish ’12, putting her Yale education on hold was a question of timing, proving that sometimes the decision to leave Yale has nothing to do with Yale at all. At 19, Fish — who will spend the next three years training on fellowship at the Alvin Ailey Dance School in New York City — is considered relatively old to be launching a dance career.
“I’m kind of nervous to be honest,” Fish said. “There’s no guidance when you diverge from the traditional path. People keep asking me, ‘Don’t you want the security of a degree first?’ But the dance world is for the very young and often doesn’t last very long, and I can always come back to Yale.”
Not in Stanford anymore
Surrounded by the screaming upperclassmen and bewildered freshmen packed onto Beinecke Plaza, Katherine Wells ’08 wasn’t quite sure what to make of the freshman bazaar. She had gone with a group of other transfer students looking for clubs on campus, but she said she found the activities fair — a rite of passage for every first-year student — more jarring than helpful.
“It was so hectic,” Wells said. “I saw one guy standing on a table, waving fliers and shouting something about a cappella, and I realized I wasn’t in Stanford anymore.”
Wells chose to transfer to Yale following her sophomore year at Stanford because she felt the West Coast university wasn’t a perfect fit for her. Transfers come to New Haven from countless different universities for one main reason: They want more from their undergraduate education and believe they can find what they’re missing at Yale.
According to Jill Cutler, the assistant dean of academic affairs responsible for overseeing Yale’s transfer program, Yale accepts 24 transfer students each year — a relatively small number in comparison to the more than 5,000 undergraduate students on campus. But despite their small numbers, Cutler said, transfer students have unique contributions to make to the Yale community.
“You find all kinds of really interesting people who haven’t done things in the usual way,” Cutler said. “For a tiny group of individuals, they’re often a very exciting group of people well worth having at Yale.”
Morgan Robinson ’08, who transferred to Yale after her freshman year at George Washington University, said she was happy playing varsity soccer and loved being in Washington, D.C., but felt that most of her peers were just using the school as a stepping stone to grad school rather than making the most of their time as undergrads.
Robinson waited to break the news to her soccer coach until after she’d left campus for the semester, and Wells found telling friends she was leaving Stanford to be the most difficult part of transferring.
“I waited until the last minute to tell them I was leaving, and I think they were honestly shocked and upset,” Wells said. “You don’t necessarily lose your friends, but it’s hard to explain to people you care about that it’s just not working for you where you are.”
For Robinson, coming into a residential college without a year of class bonding on Old Campus made for a rocky start at Yale.
“Everyone in Trumbull had really connected freshman year and still had all these inside jokes about Bingham, and here I am a senior, and I still don’t know which building is which on Old Campus,” Robinson said.
Chris Day ’07, a junior transfer from Rockland Community College, became involved with political organizations like the Conservative Party and the Yale College Republicans not only to carve a niche in Yale’s social scene but also to meet others who shared his interests.
“I didn’t want to hang out with the other transfer students and be known as the transfer who only hung out with other transfers,” Day said. “I wanted to integrate as a regular student.”
Other students struggled to understand the sheer intensity of their Yale classmates. Wells said her classmates were driven in virtually every respect — academically, socially, extracurricularly — to the point of being almost manic about their activities.
“I had a hard time adjusting to how busy and into everything Yalies are,” Wells said. “At Stanford there was this really relaxed culture; people would always be playing Frisbee and sunning in their bikinis.”
Teaching an old bulldog new tricks
When she wanted a second opinion on her idea to study abroad in France, Meghan Murphy ’09 went to meet her adviser, political science professor David Cameron, in his office. She recalled him gesturing toward the Collegiate Gothic buildings outside his office window and telling her the choice was between staying in New Haven or wandering the streets of Paris for a semester.
Murphy knew then that going to Paris was something she had to do, but there were still moments this summer when she would have reversed her decision if she could.
“I started thinking about missing out on traditional Yale experiences, like being thousands of miles away while other people are at the Safety Dance or liquor-treating,” Murphy said. “Even if you do go away and have all these incredible experiences, what happens if you come back and nobody can understand what you’ve been through?”
Lissa Yu ’08 spent last summer at the Yale-PKU program in Beijing, and something was missing from campus when she returned: the class of 2007. Hearing inside jokes about Spring Fling reminded her that she missed out on a semester of bonding with her class particularly because, as a freshman counselor in L-Dub, she is no longer living in Pierson.
While the reasons for staying at Yale are perfectly clear to most students, Murphy and the other students who have forged their own paths outside New Haven find themselves having to justify their decisions to themselves and others. Study abroad can interfere with requirements for majors and leadership roles in extracurricular organizations, which are large parts of the Yale experience for many students.
Because these informal academic and social challenges deter so many students, Murphy said she wishes there was more institutional and faculty support for study abroad.
“There is money and encouragement for it, but I have friends whose academic advisers openly discouraged them from leaving for a semester, telling them they were only at Yale for four years and that they’d be crazy to leave a school that other people would kill to get into,” Murphy said.
Transfer students, on the other hand, have experienced other colleges and are particularly aware of not only the advantages available to Yale students, but also the peculiarities of life in the Elm City. While students who stay in New Haven may get more attention because they are participating in the on-campus community, Cutler explained the University is always interested in students who have made their way through college and life in an unusual way.
As for Finnigan, who returns to Yale this fall as a sophomore a full four years after matriculating, she plans to shelve the first draft of her memoirs and devote herself to full-time academic study again.
“I could pursue publishing it now, but I think stepping back from the work and looking back at it again later when you’ve gotten some more distance can be a helpful step in the creative and editing process — and that’s definitely true of education as well,” Finnigan said. “Having four consecutive Bright College Years is just one experience, and I understand most Yale students’ fear of taking the non-traditional path because it is a trade-off, but for me that experience and that trade-off have been more than worth it.”