Reflections on Founding ‘Adopted Yalies’

Navigating the slippery, mossy rocks of youth as an adopted kid.

I remember Bulldog Days 2010: As a prospective student, I wedged my way in between bodies at the extracurricular bazaar while wondering, “Where IS it?” Surrounded by singing groups, sports clubs and cultural societies, it seemed there were Yalies of every identity and every interest, but something was missing. I found posters representing every interest and part of my identity, except for one part — my adoption.

My name is Jenna Cook. I was born in China at an unknown time in the winter of 1992, and my American mother adopted me on June 9, 1992. I believe adoption is more than a singular event — more than what happened to me when I changed hands on June 9th. For me, being adopted is an identity category — just like student, scientist, Chinese-American, daughter, sister. I am also adopted. It is a constantly evolving, lived experience.

I believe that adopted people share an unspoken understanding with each other. Many of us know what it’s like to have a doctor ask about our genes, our DNA, our family history — and to know nothing. Our lives serve as evidence that there are many ways of making families, and we wonder if someday we will adopt and/or have biological children. Many of us question if we should search for our biological parents, and how our web of family relationships might change if we find them.

For those of us who were adopted across borders (international adoption) or across races (transracial adoption), our adoption also makes us wonder, “What does it mean to be X race?” and “To what country do I really belong?”

These big questions manifest themselves in my daily life at Yale: a dining hall worker swipes my card and asks, “How are you Asian with a last name like Cook?” My white mother visits for Parents’ Weekend and looks nothing like me. I struggle to navigate interracial dating, when my own race is so fluid and slippery.

In the winter of my freshman year, the loss of a dear friend provoked deeper reflection about the loss of my biological family. As I became more confused about this issue, I thought more about the need for a supportive adoption community on campus. More than anything, the club I founded, Adopted Yalies, sprung out of a selfish desire for an adopted role model who might understand me in this way — like my FroCo, but also adopted! Although there was no guarantee that by starting this club I would find such a person, I found purpose knowing that at least maybe I could be that person for someone else.

I needed five people in order to register a new undergraduate organization, so I made it my mission to find more adopted people on campus. I asked everyone I knew in every freshman suite, every club and every class. When that didn’t work, I sent out blurbs in the Peer Liaison, cultural center, residential college and Women’s Center newsletters. My first time hosting an “event” consisted of me sobbing to my Asian American Cultural Center peer liaison because nobody showed up besides the two of us.

After that, I tabled the idea of this new adoption club, but I kept wondering, “How are there six million people adopted in America, and I am the only one at Yale?!!” It just made no sense.

With encouragement from my freshman advisor Kelly McLaughlin and Professor Margaret Homans, who teaches the course “Adoption Narratives,” I returned from spring break of freshman year ready to begin again. I became so determined (or desperate) that I began asking random people on paths and in the dining halls if they were adopted. Finally, in the Silliman dining hall I met Bo Reynolds ’13. I couldn’t sleep that night — I was so happy.

Then, in fall of my sophomore year, I met a freshman, Hannah Leo ’15, at a Chinese Adopted Siblings Program for Youth (CASPY) meeting. Hannah, like Bo and me, was adopted from China. In the winter of 2011, we registered as an official undergraduate organization. I served as president, with Bo as Treasurer and Hannah as Secretary. CASPY leaders Brian Chang ’13 and Patricia Lan ’14 co-signed. To my knowledge, “Adopted Yalies” is the first group in Yale’s history for adopted students.

Currently, we have 40 members who receive email updates from us. About 10 of these members attend meetings regularly. Reflecting on how Adopted Yalies changed her, Cassie Tarleton ’15 wrote, “As someone who knows very few other adopted people, meeting adopted people here at Yale was amazing for me!”

Adopted Yalies is for anyone whose life has been touched by adoption. You don’t have to be adopted! (In fact, many of our members are not.) We welcome people with adopted parents, siblings or friends, people who may want to adopt someday and anybody who is interested in learning more about adoption and meeting adopted people.

Our mission is trifold: first, to create a supportive social community for students interested in or influenced by adoption, second, to organize educational events on campus to normalize discourse about adoption and third, to engage in community service by mentoring younger adopted people and fundraising for orphanages.

Currently, we are involved in a number of exciting collaborations with other campus groups, including CASPY, A Learning Interactive Vietnamese Experience (ALIVE), Adopted Friends, World Wide Orphans Foundation at Yale, Yale International Relations Association and UNICEF. We hope to ally with the LGBTQ community on campus to host an event about the process of adopting from the adoptive parent’s perspective.

This fall, I felt an enormous sense of pride holding up the Adopted Yalies poster with Hannah at the extracurricular bazaar. I hope that when students touched by adoption passed by, they thought to themselves, “We are represented at Yale. We have a place here. This part of our identity matters.”

November is National Adoption Month! Adopted Yalies meets every week. To get involved, please email me or adoptedyalies@gmail.com.

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