DEFIESTA: Where we belong

On Aug. 17, three days before I was to leave Seattle for New Haven, my 16-year-old brother died.

The week that followed seemed to last both forever and but an instant: sob-filled phone calls, flowers and food, a never-ending revolving door of well-wishers. I made a mental list of things I came across, like the Japanese maple in front of our house and my 13-year-old dog Shady, which had, somehow, outlived my brother. Visions of Christmases with my two siblings and their kids became wishful thinking, glimpses at a future that would never come to pass. I don’t know how to answer when asked how many people are in my family.

Everything about my relationships felt more significant, from hugs that lasted a few extra seconds to words chosen carefully to talk about what had happened. The biggest change of all, having been so recently reminded of life’s fragility, was in the way I said my goodbyes. On Aug. 23, my parents drove me to the airport and bid me my hardest farewell as I began my final year at Yale.

Nearly three years before that flight, I had left my beloved Seattle, four family members in tow, to start my bright college years with a FOOT trip. Shortly afterwards, my class crammed into Woolsey Hall for our convocation ceremony.

I don’t remember much from the proceedings — Dean Mary Miller taught us something about art history, and I might have been seated beside my suitemate Jack — but one moment has resonated with me over the past three years. Delivering the keynote address, law professor Akhil Amar told the assembled group not to fear: “You are where you’re supposed to be.”

At that moment, I involuntarily shuddered in relief. Even after a few days, I had already started to feel a little out of place at my new home. Most of the people around me seemed like they had dressed up fairly regularly before college; I owned a total of one dress shirt. In the moment, it was comforting to know that my seat at Yale was not an accident.

But Amar’s words were precisely the wrong thing to hear.

While I left convocation feeling consoled by what Amar said, his assurance was of little help weeks later when the realities of freshman year set in. As I watched new friends find their homes by rushing a cappella or joining theater productions, I struggled with homesickness and navigating the halls of an elite university. In a seminar with a professor known to reach out to struggling students, I felt ignored compared to those who had a better handle on the material. My favorite memory from the first months of freshman year was when I visited my high school friend at Northeastern University.

In other words, it was very easy to feel that Yale was not, in fact, where I was supposed to be. Everybody else, so seemingly happy and at home, appeared a better fit for Yale. It was hard not to think I should have attended school with my friends at the University of Washington.

This sentiment is nothing new — many college students feel this way at some point. University resources, from residential college deans on down, are there to help us face this reality, which is decidedly less shiny than University literature makes it out to be. But being told that Yale was where I was supposed to be only increased the pressure to fit in. Instead, I wish someone had told me: “You don’t belong here. Not yet.”

As it turns out, the speech I needed to hear was similar to one recently suggested by Kevin Carey in the Chronicle of Higher Education. After witnessing a Stanford convocation address that told new students they all deserved to be on campus, Carey proposed an alternative: “Welcome, Freshmen. You Don’t Deserve to Be Here.” In it, he argues that Stanford students don’t deserve their spots until they’ve been earned, through service and self-discovery.

I wish we had heard a message along these lines as we were welcomed to Yale. College is meant to be a place for all of us to discover ourselves, build our own homes and grapple with life’s challenges. Feeling like we’re in the wrong place is normal, an inherent part of the process.

Three years after being overwhelmed by homesickness, I began my final year with hugs, kind words, a dinner held in my brother’s honor by my roommate. Had I lost Lukas at the start of freshman year I might have been set adrift. But this summer, as I stepped onto Yale’s campus, I realized Amar’s words finally ring true.

It took me three years to reach this point, and that’s OK: I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Nick Defiesta is a senior in Berkeley College and a former city editor for the News. Contact him at nick.defiesta@yale.edu.

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