Four years ago I arrived in New Haven with a spring in my step and a full beard on my face. My, how things change.
As a guy who did lots of stuff at Yale — and a familiar face around the Yale Daily News building — I’ve been asked to share a bit of advice with the students entering Yale as I depart. Despite being happy to talk at length about nearly any subject and about Yale in particular, I’m a bit hesitant to dispense platitudes to the entire incoming class. Chances are I’m not much smarter than my readers, nor am I in possession of much more worldly wisdom.
I do, however, know a few things about Yale as an institution that might be worth passing on to the youth.
First, you can talk your way into almost anything with enough persistence.
If you’re dying to take a certain seminar outside your major or to see a hot Master’s Tea at another college, don’t fail by not trying. Arrive early, e-mail the professor ahead of time, follow up.
Maybe you’ll show up at the master’s office after the last ticket disappears. Go to the tea anyway, waving a ticket-shaped piece of paper as you slip in with the crowd. Maybe you’re not on the list of students admitted to the seminar that the professor posted on his door after the first meeting. Drop by the second meeting anyway and take the place of some senior in the major who decided to drop the class.
I once shopped a seminar with 80 fellow students, only 15 of whom would be accepted. When the professor asked all non-seniors to leave, I — a junior at the time — stayed put. He eventually had us write short statements about why we wanted to take the course, and mine was good enough to get me in.
Second, due dates are for suckas. Some of you will have residential college deans who leave boxes of blank dean’s excuses — Yale’s “get out of schoolwork free” cards — outside their offices. Others of you will be in Ezra Stiles College. Either way, almost any deadline can be massaged if necessary.
One method is to ask the professor for an extension. This normally works very well. Another method is simply to submit work late. Rare is the professor who actually penalizes lateness. You could, of course, get your work done on time, but things always seem to “just happen” to prevent that.
Speaking of things hindering academic performance, join a bunch of extracurricular activities. Now that you’re into college, those of you who chose activities in high school to impress admissions officers can do what you really like.
I personally found great fulfillment with the Yale Daily News (where I was a reporter, editor and columnist at various times), Sigma Chi fraternity (where I was president, among other things) and the Progressive Party (where I was the guy writing “funny” “whip sheets” one semester). Whatever your own interests may be, don’t pass up the opportunity to really enjoy them.
Try everything that looks fun. The worst that can happen is you’ll quit a thing or two (as I dropped the News’ “Insider’s Guide to Colleges” after freshman year) when you realize what you truly enjoy doing and what wastes your time. If you don’t join things early, you’ll find many of them will be hard to experience fully later. Some organizations take new people at any time, but others — like sports teams, fraternities and sororities, publications, singing and comedy groups, student government, and more — provide much richer options to early joiners.
On to another distraction: booze. Yale’s best liquor store, Quality Wine, lost its lease last year to make room for Urban Outfitters. If you want great selection, low prices and fine service, you now have to drive to Amity Wine on Whalley Avenue. Believe you me, it’s worth the trip.
So I’ve covered academics, extracurriculars and alcohol. What else? Ah, yes. The trite reminder to stop and smell the roses.
Although four years seem long now, your days at Yale have limits. Try not to waste them. I absolutely do not mean you should be busy at all times — running around for some club you don’t enjoy or cramming for a class you don’t care about qualify as major time wasters. Just remember to truly know your friends and to let the occasional classroom epiphany fill the whole next day with wonder.
Try taking responsibility for something — a student activities committee event, a Dwight Hall group, a newspaper, an Old Campus room party, an intramural team, anything — and see how fantastic you can be when you do what you love. That’s what makes Yale great, not the opportunity to wear a fancy class ring one day.
Oh, and when you see that cute, fun Yalie you’d really like to spend some more time with, swallow your fear. This place is full of busy people who somehow can’t find a moment to call or e-mail someone to extend a dinner invitation. Trust me, people will appreciate your interest. There’s no reason to let that potential boyfriend, girlfriend or just plain pleasant dinner companion slip away because you were too lazy to call or rejected yourself in advance.
Ben Trachtenberg ’01 will be in Limerick, Ireland, next year, studying for a master’s degree in international studies and sampling the local whiskeys.