You can, actually, go your own way

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“This panlist is going to be crazy. Literally. I want so many signups Yale’s servers won’t even be able to deal with my recruitment emails and eager freshmen. God, I’m pumped.”

A friend of mine breathlessly made the above declaration to me as we malingered in Payne Whitney before the chaos of the extracurricular bazaar. Each of us was entrusted with a sacred and time-honored duty: winning new members for our organizations. Our instructions were simple — more is better; most is best. “We want freshman excitement. We want new enthusiasm. We want signups. And we will let nothing stand in our way,” was a veritable mantra.

So there we stood. And we laid in to our prey with three solid hours of yelling and brochure-brandishing.

But what matters most was not how much effort we were willing to put in. It was, it is, whether any of that had any effect.

Freshman Yalies are a group of intelligent people with diverse interests. A booth and a couple of emails with inordinate amounts of exclamation marks and mentions of “great opportunities” are unlikely to faze them. And what in-depth conversations with many of them about how they choose their extracurriculars reveals is that more and more frosh are relying on their skills, knowledge and drive to guide them to the right organization.

CHOOSING THEIR OWN PATH

A number of freshmen in the class of 2015 did not wait til the extracurricular bazaar to identify what they think they would like to be involved with.

Jordan Moore ’15 exemplifies this decision. She knew she wanted to join the ballroom dance team thanks to online research before she arrived on campus.

“So, I just emailed [team captain] Allen Granzberg ’12 and told him I was interested,” a calm Moore explained on a lazy afternoon in the L-Dub courtyard. Granzberg explained the process of joining to her, and Moore now actively “looks forward” to her weekly practices.

Taking that initiative with ballroom enabled her to get exactly what she wanted. Indeed, Moore said that it meant that she didn’t even go the extracurricular bazaar, because she thinks “one extracurricular is about [her] limit right now.”

Other students speak of different ways of identifying a passion. Lincoln Mitchell ’15 and Kenneth Gunasekera ’15 were both intent on continuing with sports they had been involved with in high school, soccer and swimming respectively. Meanwhile, one of their peers said she knew she wanted to be part of the Yale Political Union after being impressed with their Bulldog Days debate, which she felt showed “who [they] are … a little bit formal, but very interesting.”

The question this begs is what, if anything, freshmen gain from the much-heralded extracurricular bazaar. Some did not even attend the event, and spoke of whole suites of their friends avoiding the big mass of desperate recruiters as well.

Much of this aversion to the bazaar seems to stem from its being seen in a negative light. Mitchell, who did attend, pointed out that “recruiters can just be way too pushy.”

“If someone asks you, ‘Do you want to save a kid’s life?’ what are you going to say?” he said.

Also key, Moore said, was the fact that, since the bazaar was postponed a week this year because of Hurricane Irene, many in the class of 2015 had already taken their first steps towards adjusting to life at Yale and getting a feel for out-of-classroom opportunities on campus.

Thus, Irene gave freshmen a grace period to look through the offerings that would be on display at the bazaar itself. And that, according to Rod Cuestas ’15, endowed them with enough decisiveness, at least, to “sign up for 10 mailing lists instead of 20.” Turns out Yale’s administrative nightmare might just have been a blessing in disguise for the class of 2015.

THE OUTLIERS AND THE JUDGE-Y KIDS

Even with this added time, though, some new Yalies simply choose not to be involved with any extracurriculars, or to pick one at most. Other priorities take precedence for this group no matter how hard recruiters pitch.

These vary: Forrest Maddox ’15 is “more focused on getting a job right now,” Dure Aziz Amna ’15 sought to prioritize “making an effort with school,” and others cited a desire for personal time both to adjust and reflect with leisure activities like reading. One freshman who did not wish to be identified stated that a major impediment to her joining an organization was simply that “as a first-semester freshman, it’s just too scary to go to a whole bunch of mixers and be all charming and witty and ‘let me in!’”

Yale is a fine school that embraces everyone equally. But its students, as much as we try to deny it, have a bit of a thing with achievement. Yalies strive to shine the brightest and be the best. Part of that is doing it all — and those who don’t seem to be working towards that goal could unfairly face prejudice.

Most students said that they “respect” the low-extracurricular brigade. But more than one freshman questioned “if [their peers who limit their extracurricular involvement] are missing out on something.”

At the other end of the judgment spectrum comes another species: the kid who does a multitude of activities, and still seems on top of their academics. Views on those differ, but are generally a variant of contempt or, in an unsurprising development for the high-achievement set, envy.

“Some people are just trying to do too much,” one freshman, whom we can call B., said. “I think that just makes them stressed out and leaves them with too little sleep.” She was clear about what she thought of this strategy: “That is NOT how you should be juggling your first semester at college.”

Yet what might be the cause of some of her discomfort was clarified by Cuestas, who said that “people just get competitive about extracurriculars here.”

He cited an instance of “two girls trying to outdo each other. I think each ended up with about eight things to balance.” Both, he went on to say, eventually dropped the majority of their commitments.

I managed to hunt down one of these elusive do-it-all frosh. Kirsten Adair ’15 is part of five extracurricular organizations. And she evinced that some in the much-maligned group she represents are struggling to find a balance just like any other ’15-er.

What Adair had to do was purposefully “choose a courseload [she] know[s] [she] can manage” while being active in various organizations. The striking part for the critics is that she seems to not be cutthroat as much as hold a different set of priorities. Granted, she “maybe loses some sleep.” But based on what she values, this is acceptable and appropriate.

That freshmen are consciously making decisions based on their priorities is a good sign. But one wonders, to what exent will this be based on subtle understandings of what’s socially acceptable? Do kids have the guts to stand up and say no? Some members of this freshman class would answer in the affirmative. Others would (and did) say that motivation comes from within, rather than from external social expectations.

But they might be surprised by what happens to their peers next fall. Sara Hendel ’14 told me she “wants to limit her extracurriculars so that she can devote more time to school” sophomore year. Meanwhile, another sophomore expressed his desire to “branch out — I only did one extracurricular each semester last year.” He’s now looking for a long-term commitment. So maybe what Yalies, young or old, are really searching for is just the right balance that all those interviewed for this piece emphasized.

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