This week FOOT will reject over a hundred freshmen. They join good company.
If leading a successful outdoors trip is a function of capacity to mentor and outdoors skills, this campus is filled with rejected aces on both counts. I know freshman counselors, serial camp counselors, a college president, a NOLS graduate and, above all, categorically good people who were weeded out by the FOOT application process.
So first, members of 2014, as your chosen peers take victory laps on East Rock, you will face the temptation to feel inadequate. Don’t.
But second, the rejection raises an interesting question. Granted, FOOT cannot make everyone a leader. But does the program need to spurn so many qualified applicants?
Michael Schulson and Michael Liuzzi wrote a great article about FOOT earlier this year in the Herald (“FOOT offers rite of passage for freshmen,” Oct. 8, 2010). To summarize, it said the way to ace an interview is to emphasize concern for the freshmen, and the way to flunk it is to say, “I want to hang out with FOOT leaders.”
But while FOOT leaders are concerned with freshmen, some are also concerned with the “FOOT mystique” — the desire to become affirmed as a successful Yalie, and to become part of the highly visible FOOT culture on campus. FOOT leadership does not simply confer new responsibility. It affirms one’s place at Yale.
Because the reality is that FOOT leaders love to hang out with other leaders. Despite the emphasis on the trips in August, the rest of the year FOOT can seem to have nothing to do with freshmen. FOOT has houses, parties, an active panlist and tap-lines, and acts as an indicator of social success.
One leader even wrote a piece in the News this fall (“Foot Filosophy,” Sept. 3, 2010) discussing how much fun leaders are to be around. In my own freshman FOOT leader information session, a senior leader broke into tears talking about how the community he found as a FOOT leader saved his college experience.
So of course freshmen want to hang out with them, because FOOT is not just a pre-orientation program. It is also a club, and one fortified by its exclusivity, visibility and prestige.
I have no beef with exclusive clubs. Our campus is full of them and oddly better for it. In clubs, exclusivity allows leaders to perpetuate certain norms and control with whom they fraternize. In our lives, exclusivity is a given: either a challenge to be overcome or a fallacy to be dismissed. But in FOOT, it is kind of awkward.
It is awkward that such an exclusive club stakes its identity on the outdoors, stigmatizing on our campus a normally public and egalitarian space. Many, myself once included, feel uncomfortable expressing any interest in the outdoors, fearing the question we are always asked: “So are you a FOOT leader?”
It is awkward for the rejected that FOOT takes so many good people and places them in a community which is both highly insular yet still highly visible.
And above all, it is awkward that the same people who should pour so much unconditional love and support onto incoming freshmen should then coldly and passively reject three-quarters of them when they come and volunteer to help.
Personally, rejection was humiliating. I applied twice. For reasons that were never explained to me and by people I do not know, I was denied the camaraderie of people I do know and was marked as incapable and unworthy of a community I thought of as my own and a project I deeply believe to be both worthwhile and fun.
I can deal with humiliation. That is part of life. And exclusivity and social prestige are part of Yale. But do they need to be part of FOOT?
I know so many leaders to be well-intentioned, good people. They do a stellar job with the actual trips. But I think flawed institutions can be perpetuated by good people, especially when they are shielded from the undesirable effects of their efforts. And frankly, I think that FOOT, as an on-campus organization, is flawed. It verges on hypocritical; antithetical to all it claims to represent and embody.
Does it need to be this way? I hope not. I think the current leaders are capable of reforming FOOT. I think the class of 2014 could refuse to put up with this nonsense.
I write not to complain but to fix, because I really do think we can fix this. Maybe students could re-apply to lead FOOT trips every year, so the focus of the program would rest solely on the freshmen. Or FOOT could expand so that hundreds of students would come back before each year to spend time together in the woods. Other options certainly exist.
We often find ourselves the subjects of our circumstances, but sometimes we forget that we are also their authors.