There is truth universally acknowledged that there are men (and women) in possession of a good fortune here at Yale. A truth less universally acknowledged is that there are many of us for whom a good fortune is a far-off concept. Within the University, there is an awareness of socioeconomic diversity, and even though “we don’t talk about it,” there is some sort of silent respect for people of different backgrounds. But, back home, I will surely be inundated with questions about the swarm of “rich kids” I supposedly go to school with. And while I am not completely immune to the consequences of the economic divides at Yale, I am fiercely defensive of Yale as an inclusive community.
That’s why I don’t talk about it.
I don’t constantly bring up my low-income background, because it shouldn’t really matter. I’m sure my friends would feel just as uncomfortable hearing that I lack some of the things that they have at arm’s length. But I am not ashamed of my low-income status. In fact, I am proud to say that I am the first from my high school to come to Yale. The highest compliment I have ever received was from my deputy head-teacher, who told me I was “honorably lighting the way for other students, showing people that they could achieve anything if they put their mind to it.”
I think the problem with talking about wealth is that it forces us to label each other. I have no problem identifying as being low-income — open discussion and awareness about socioeconomic diversity are vastly important to me. I just don’t want to be defined by it. A friend told me that Yale is the “great equalizer.” Sometimes, the best thing about Yale is that we are all thrown together, and ambiguity about who we “used to be” can help us to coexist and learn from each other.
My first exposure to opera took place this October, when I went to see Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for my freshman seminar. Not only had I never stepped foot in such an elaborately constructed space, I had never had to align myself with the social niceties that are expected at an outing to the New York Metropolitan Opera. Sometimes I pause before I walk through the Old Campus gates, seeing tourists and prospective students taking photos of the grounds that have become my home. In some of them, I see the discomfort that accompanies feeling like an outsider. It was the same feeling I initially had at the opera, but being at Yale means that it doesn’t always have to be this way.
We all made it here. Contrary to what I’ve been told, I’m not just here to fill a “poor people” quota. We all coexist here, and we will all (hopefully) graduate with a Yale degree. I don’t have a job lined up for me after I graduate. I may even end up working at Starbucks, or at my old high school. It’s not what I want, but it is what historical data foretells for me. If you were to look up my area code, you would find young people who have spent more time in police stations than classrooms. My life before Yale wasn’t bleak, but if I hadn’t been so encouraged to love school, indulge in culture and reach for the clichéd stars, I wouldn’t be here.
In a way, Yale is my Oz. It is a multicolored bubble where a person’s worth is not dependent on wealth. While there is truly “no place like home,” I can’t help but cringe at my own indulgence this semester. I’ve been drinking at Starbucks without thinking about the cost, ordering stuff online when I receive my paycheck and buying branded necessities instead of the cheapest option. I’m living a life of luxury here: at home, I have a choice of one knife and one fork — at the welcoming dinner for freshmen, there were at least three of each kind laid out before me. Partaking in such formalities would have once terrified me, but now I can approach them with ease.
Yale has exposed me to culture and diversity in a realm I never knew existed. I just hope that when I return to my black-and-white Kansas, I won’t miss the color of Yale.