I remember entering Yale College with the desire for a much-needed intersection, however minimal, between life as I want it to be and life as it can be. A little over a month later, I realized that I wanted life as it is, not necessarily just at Yale itself, but also in the broader New Haven community.
Sure, I might sometimes mention in passing how “sketchy” this or that street looks at night, and I always glance over Chief Higgins’ frequent email notifications. Like most Yalies, however, at the end of the day, I take refuge from anything unfamiliar in the familiarity of my suitemates’ friendly faces, most of my non-Yale thoughts pleasantly (or unpleasantly) drowned in my Aristotle reading.
The “Yale Bubble” is a concept whose real impact I felt only after pursuing an activity away from our campus — a decision I now consider crucial to my emerging identity as a Yale student. In fact, joining the Yale Refugee Project broadened my college experience in a way no other extracurricular activity ever could — it exposed me to the reality of living on the edge, compelling me to reevaluate entirely my priorities as a college student.
I guess every Yalie has his own way of realizing that our school is anything but an isolated community; everyone has his own version of the Yale Refugee Project. The challenge arises when the time comes for each of us to decide how to embody this discovery.
Students here should consider it their duty — as Yalies, as citizens of New Haven and as real, whole people — to leave their comfort zones by engaging in activities unrelated to Yale. There is just so much life outside of the gates of Old Campus and the gates of our residential colleges — life so exceptionally different from whatever we experience at Yale — and it pleases me when I see people trying to turn our campus into a microcosm of what is happening in New Haven as well as venturing out to disperse our Yale culture. Because along with our admissions letters, what all of us also got were responsibilities — responsibilities that inevitably attach themselves to any young person whose goal is to develop intellectually, emotionally, culturally.
And fortunately, students here have plenty of opportunities to embody these responsibilities in ways that matter.
Despite its relatively small size, New Haven annually welcomes more than a hundred refugees from countries spanning Afghanistan to Ethiopia — people who, after making the brave decision to forsake their old ways of life, seek to reinvent themselves in a new setting. Most of them come with not only no knowledge of what life in the United States entails, but also with little to no knowledge of the English language.
So at the same time that Yale College was welcoming its new freshman class this year, refugee families were resettling into distant New Haven neighborhoods. And now, while Yale students might fuss over the correct word choice for their English 120 essays, a couple of blocks away, refugee children are expected to acquire a new linguistic identity in a matter of weeks. It is astounding — if not problematic — how two such polarized realities can coexist within the same part of town.
Perhaps the relevance of these people’s transitions strikes me this profoundly because I can vaguely relate to their attempts at acculturation. Granted the absence of a language barrier and a problematic home environment, moving from a 12-story building in Skopje, Macedonia to the second floor of Lanman-Wright Hall had its difficulties. Having had to heavily adjust the framework and ramifications of my distinctly Balkan identity to the demands of my new environment, I share with the refugee family I work with an unspoken understanding of the acculturation process.
But there is one thing that Yale students share with these refugee families — an intense passion for learning. Although the knowledge each party seeks is of a different nature — for Yale students, academic; for the refugees, cultural — their aspirations are equally strong. This applies not only to this specific community service program, but also to community service at Yale in general: The fact that we are Yale students does not and should not completely cut us off from all the broader contexts we partake in; we can always find a connecting point.
Along with rendering us privileged, the fact that we are Yale students definitely brings along the obligation to sometimes transcend this privilege and exit our comfort zone.
Because ultimately, Yale is not just a prestigious institution of higher learning — it is a mindset, a lively campus and an off-campus culture. That is why the memories we will make during our four years here should not come only in the form of things we did on campus — they should also come in the form of life experience and character building, on levels profound, ethical, and interpersonal.
Aleksandra Gjorgievska is a freshman in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.