For some months into my freshman year, I defined Yalie-ness according to my suitemates, and I fell short of the standard they set. I had attended an average public school and so had my roommate, but unlike me, he had taken 19 AP exams, and he also had a favorite viola concerto. Another suitemate, a graduate of a private all-boys school in D.C., decorated our common room with a mishmash of surrealist art and deep-space photography, and when he mentioned the “Pillars of Creation,” I didn’t know whether he was referencing the universe or Dali. (That title in fact belongs to a picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.) My first instinct was to compensate for their cultural capital by carving a certain all-American, Olive-Garden-frequenting, salt-of-the-earth-representing niche for myself, but this proved problematic, not only because I was in fact Brazilian, but also because my fourth suitemate was a Midwestern soccer player who, for most of his Yale career, thumbed away T9 texts on a flip phone.
All of which is to say: I didn’t feel I belonged at first. But then again, I think few Yalies do.
My parents both hold college degrees, and they live well enough in a suburb of Dallas, so I can’t honestly stake a claim in the conversation regarding first-generation and low-income students. But it occurs to me that a consequence of this debate is that it forces us to consider Yale culture writ large.
We understand, tacitly, what is meant when we say students from certain backgrounds struggle to transition to Yale. But what exactly does Yale require that some of us lack? I don’t mean academically — in the classroom, the disadvantages of a subpar high school are clear. What interests me are the subtle markers of Yalie-ness.
For example: Yalies own MacBooks, smartphones, blazers; they wear boat shoes in October and North Face jackets in November; they eat in restaurants that serve neither endless pasta bowls nor specials with names like “Lobsterfest” and “Admiral’s Feast”; they know how to handle chopsticks; they shell out $1.75 for coffee at Starbucks while Atticus, less than 30 yards away, charges a flat buck.
And also: Yalies vacation abroad; they call New York “the city”; they have access to their parents’ credit card; they hold true a geography that includes places like Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard; in short, they show signs of what might be broadly labeled “privilege.”
I mention these stereotypes because I share them. In my head, I conceive a group of students to whom they apply. These are the real Yalies, the people who truly belong — and this is of course a fallacy.
That I weigh my own Yalie-ness against that standard is a defense mechanism, a way of coping with the fact that, even as a second-semester senior, I sometimes feel I don’t belong. Framing my alienation in those terms makes it tangible, and also mendable. It didn’t take long into my freshman year before I bought a pair of Sperrys. The MacBook on which I’m writing this came my sophomore year. That I owned neither Sperrys nor a MacBook when I first came to campus wasn’t the cause of my alienation, but the fact that I could afford them made me feel a little more at home.
I’m cognizant, too, that I was able to buy these things because my parents could foot the bill, and that some students don’t have the same chance. For them, the alienation I describe is not mendable, and is therefore more real. This, in fact, is why we’re having this conversation. Transitioning to Yale — that is, fitting in at Yale — can be challenging if you can’t afford the things that brand you as a Yalie.
I can offer no concrete suggestions — I know too little about the mechanics and politics of financial aid — but I wonder: How did we come to accept iPhones and MacBooks and $1.75 cups of coffee as synonymous with Yalie-ness? Is it possible to conceive of a Yale experience divorced from these things? Can we untangle Yale culture from its cultural markers?
Maybe. And maybe we can hash this out over dinner. Olive Garden is offering a special: three-course meals for two for $25. The breadsticks are freshly baked and unlimited.
Teo Soares is a senior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .