I’ve landed on Mars.
Well, it’s New Haven, but it feels like the Red Planet to me, so far away is it from my life before Yale.
Three months ago, I was smack in the middle of an outbreak of violence against foreigners in South Africa, in which thousands of people were chased out of their homes and piled into refugee camps. My colleagues and I established a spontaneous relief effort and battled with the government to stop the carnage and to take care of those in need.
Two month ago, I was still working in Southern Africa for a health and human rights organization, teaching ordinary people about the science and medicine of HIV and tuberculosis; battling with governments about treatment for both diseases; and bringing to light these governments’ treatment of women, drug users, gay men, prisoners and other marginalized populations in some of the poorest places on Earth.
A month ago, I was in Mexico City giving a plenary on the state of access to AIDS treatment at the International AIDS Conference; plotting with colleagues how to reinvigorate and grow the movement of people living with AIDS and their allies to push for better prevention, care and treatment; arguing with the so-called experts who are trying to roll-back successes in fighting AIDS by pushing for AIDS-specific funding to be withdrawn globally in favor of supporting overall investments in health.
Now I am sitting at a desk solving chemistry problem sets, running simple biology experiments in labs on Science Hill, and reading about the birth of the U.S. Constitution and American democracy.
After my first month, Yale still proves to be a series of culture shocks.
I’ve gone from destitute urban townships and failed states to a preserve of mind-boggling privilege. I’ve gone from working for 20 years to walking to class and back home each day. I’ve gone from being a leader in my field to one of 5000-plus faceless undergraduates. I’ve gone from being assessed on my progress in the fight against AIDS and TB to being graded by 50-minute exams and lab reports. I’ve gone from the warm embrace of dozens of longtime friends and colleagues to the start of winter alone in a new place far away from home.
Don’t get me wrong. I am glad I am at Yale. The Eli Whitney Students Program, which most Yalies probably have no idea exists, is wonderful. Most schools of Yale’s calibre don’t give what are called non-traditional undergraduates, a traditional undergraduate experience; often, they are pushed to adult or continuing education divisions. The 15 of us in the program have been fully integrated into Yale College, but as older and occasionally younger students (one of my peers is a teenage math prodigy), integration into our new lives at Yale is probably a bit more of a struggle for us than it is for most of our fellow students.
Eli Whitney students by and large didn’t leap from high school straight into college or if they did, they didn’t last long — frequently, they have been taken in another direction in their lives before they decided to apply to Yale.
The undergraduate body at Yale is diverse, but we make it even more so. We’re NHL hockey players, cancer survivors, DC lobbyists, Purple-Hearted Iraq war veterans, jazz musicians, denizens of Buddhist monasteries, computer entrepreneurs, AIDS activists.
For us, life as a Yale student is different in many ways: We don’t live on campus, some of us work and go to school, some juggle families with homework; we all try to keep some semblance of our old lives in tact while making new ones in New Haven and, until this past year, most of us paid for our Yale education out of our own pockets.
So, if you’re keen enough to recognize one of us walking up Prospect Street, or see a middle-aged man in your chemistry class furiously taking notes, or, if you happen to be the deans that I barked at this week about rescheduling a biology exam due to another commitment at work (yes, I know, no special treatment), have some sympathy. We’ve just landed among you — the scenery is new. You might even say hello. The air here is a little thin, but for those of us who just got here, we’ll soon get used to the atmosphere and figure out how to walk with the gravity of the Yale experience.
Gregg Gonsalves is an Eli Whitney student in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.