OSBORN: Seek values over groups

Some of my closest friends at Yale are juniors. I have grown through knowing these people, and I care about their well-being. It seems silly to me that while many of my junior friends are experiencing anxiety about how they want to spend part of their senior year, we seniors are supposed to clam up. I would rather not have wonderful people doubting their self-worth or worrying about which seniors they need to be impressing at any given moment.

The society tap process is not secret; it’s sort of two-thirds secret in a way that fuels a rumor mill about who got in where and how. I’m writing to divorce two elements of senior societies that are often conflated. The first is the aura of exclusivity and intimidation that surrounds the tap process. The second is the experience of participating in a society’s weekly activities. The first can be very negative, and the second can be very positive.

It’s worth remembering that admission to a senior society is far from a holistic evaluation of your merit relative to your classmates. It can’t be boiled down to simple arithmetic. I am in my society because a former senior in it knew me well and saw qualities in me that are shared by many, many peers whom she did not know as well. The vast majority of senior societies select their next class based on people whom they already know. You are not better or worse than the next person. Let the measure of your worth come from you — or, even better, from that kid you tutor, or the way you make your family laugh. Let it be from somewhere other than a group of seniors and alums who don’t know you.

Frank dialogue between seniors and juniors about the purpose and expectations of society is important, especially before juniors sign away hundreds of hours on the dotted line. During your senior year, you will have strong opinions about how you want to spend your time. It is the time when you can express what you value most and best channel Yale’s resources. The people whom I admire most in the senior class have started clean energy companies, devoted full courseloads’ worth of time to public service in New Haven and are preparing for master’s degrees in history at Cambridge. Some are in societies; others are not.

Furthermore, be aware of the salesmanship that surrounds the tap process. Seniors want to make their society sound extra special to you. Many societies offer wonderful experiences. The experience depends quite a bit on the composition of the group of rising seniors. Last year, a senior friend who had never spoken critically of her society experience told me she respected me more for turning down an offer to join her group than she would have if I had taken it.

As I suspect many others did, I came to Yale for the people I was going to meet here. I hope that when we indulge in self-reflection, we value other students for the qualities they have — dedication to a cause, sense of humor, humility — and not for the groups to which they belong. The real value many societies offer is the opportunity for self-reflection, meeting new people and having meaningful conversations. You do not need to have a society set this up for you!

This week, my conversations with my suitemate, who I first met on FOOT, ranged from discussing the ways we might change due to living abroad next year to how to cure an overdose on gummy calcium chews. We’re like Britain and the U.S., she is fond of saying — we have a special relationship. Another highlight of this week was hearing a freshman suitemate’s thesis presentation on the history of HIV discrimination law and thinking back on how she became interested in public health. The stuff that makes senior year special for me is what makes Yale special: relationships that make you grow both personally and intellectually. How you cultivate those relationships is up to you.

Catherine Osborn is a senior in Pierson College. Contact her at catherine.osborn@yale.edu.