STEPHENSON: Finding Yale’s promise

commencement
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

This column was published as part of the special Commencement Issue for the Class of 2014.

At 4 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, I walked out of the Yale Daily News building, holding a nerf football. Two friends followed me, and we lazily threw the ball back and forth, occasionally sipping from a bottle of Jim Beam we had left near the door. We had just finished a year of editing the News — filled with 10-hour production cycles, deflated GPAs and menacing deadlines from our printer in Waterbury. But on that night, the final edition had been sent to the printer, and we could finally rest.

But we didn’t go to bed just yet. It didn’t feel right to immediately leave an entire year of late-nights-turned-early-mornings, so the ball went back and forth. It wasn’t quite dusk, but the black sky over East Rock was just barely turning blue, and the road outside 202 York St. was eerily silent. Aside from a few lighted rooms across the street in Jonathan Edwards, we were alone and at peace in New Haven.

After about an hour of not-quite-spirals, one of us looked around and asked, “Why are we even still here?”

“Why did we even do this paper?”

We all shrugged and went back to throwing the ball.

I like the idea of finding the promise of things — the idea that some experiences have the unique potential to help us grow. And while I’m still not entirely sure where the promise of Yale lies, I think it was outside the News that night.

The promise can be found in other places as well. In the computer scientist who spends his evenings teaching humanities majors how to code. In the a capella singer who spends a cult-like amount of time singing in a semi-circle. In whatever random activity on which some random Yalie spends all of his random time.

Of course, all students here spend a great deal of time in their classes as well, but this isn’t entirely unique to Yale. Most of the courses we took over the past four years could have been found at Harvard, Princeton or maybe even Brown. Maybe. The textbooks are the same, and the professors are likely to be equally qualified.
But Yale still holds a promise in academia. It occurs when a student takes his love of Whitman out of his ENGL 127 class and starts a quarterly journal on mid-nineteenth century American poetry. It occurs when a star professor invites her students to lunch at her house in western Massachusetts, rather than simply lose herself in the expanse of a research university.

For many of us, the most memorable and influential experiences of the last four years happened without the promises of academic honors. They happened at the times when we found ourselves motivated by curiosities that pushed us beyond hobbies and towards the reckless pursuit of our interests.

I think the risk of graduating is losing the impulsive immersion that seems so innate to this place. I worry that while we may have experienced Yale, we may not truly know the promise of Yale. I worry that we may not carry this promise with us.

As we spend our time in pursuit of advanced degrees, paychecks or promotions, we may find ourselves either too tired or too distracted to overcommit to our interests. We might find ourselves so motivated by pay or prestige that we lose the feeling we had at Yale, that need to throw ourselves at our interests without a guaranteed reward.
We might never ask, “Why are we even doing this?”

Motivation should never have a clear explanation. I don’t want to justify my next job with a detailed annual sum. I don’t want to justify my next degree with the guarantee of social approval. I don’t want to justify anything I do with an easy explanation.

I want to see our class recklessly and inexplicably pursue experiences — in acting, investment banking, academia, the military or some other random field. Because that’s what we did at Yale. That was the promise of this place.

Sometime in my adult life, I hope to again find myself staying late and throwing a football back and forth, certain of why I’m spending so much time on something I enjoy, but uncertain of the reward I’ll earn. When that early morning arrives, I’ll know I’m doing something right. I’ll still have the promise of Yale.

TAPLEY STEPHENSON is a senior in Saybrook College. He was the editor-in-chief of the Managing Board of 2014.

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