The seemingly free-wheeling task that I have been assigned for this column — imparting some gem of valuable upperclassman advice to the arriving class of 2009 — is no easy feat, if only because at this moment the poor Class of 2009 is being water-hosed with unsolicited advice. As our freshmen attempt to modestly unload their bags and greet their roommates, they inevitably find themselves besieged by parents, siblings, distant relations, freshman counselors, masters, deans and even the Yale Daily News, all bearing special insights, warnings and comfortable warm wishes for the four years that lie ahead.
The truth is that most upperclassmen like to pretend, especially when we’re talking to freshmen, that we’ve figured out more of the great secrets of Yale than we actually have. But as someone who is entering his junior year, I can say one thing for certain: Your time at this school slips by disturbingly quickly. Four years sounds like a decently long time, but it’s really just eight action-packed semesters, each exploding into the next before you have a chance to do more than catch your breath.
My class has already crossed the ominous halfway mark of our Yale tenure, and we are now counting down slowly but surely to the date of our impending graduation and our subsequent release into the wild — or, as it’s so alarmingly called by some, the “real world.” By all accounts, the “real world” is a very unpleasant place, stripped of all the basic civilized niceties of dorm life that we take for granted. Apparently, everyone in the “real world” is expected to work full-time jobs with regular hours. They are expected to wake up well before 9 a.m. and usually go to work in an “office,” typically a vaguely soulless place with cubicles and plastic plants. Instead of going to interesting classes and playing a lot of beer pong, they attend boring meetings that they hate and write memos about them afterward. And they don’t even have dining halls.
I exaggerate, of course. In fact, despite the odds, some people seem to enjoy life after college. But it is undoubtedly true that your time at Yale will be unlike any other time in your life (unless you happen to go to prison or a mental institution): For four years, you will live basically apart from ordinary American society. College students inhabit their own unique world, with its own unique set of expectations. Among the many other more obvious freedoms we enjoy, we are up to a certain point free from responsibility for our actions — how many times has the phrase, “Oh, that’s all right, they were just college kids back then” been used to excuse some past behavioral transgression? I write this not to urge freshmen to binge drink and commit a slew of misdemeanors in their first weeks, but rather to point out that in a larger sense, college is your chance to be someone you simply will not be — cannot afford to be — for the rest of your life.
This brings me, at last, to my small piece of advice, which I offer the incoming freshmen at the risk of sounding hopelessly naive: Above all, whatever else you choose to become at Yale, make yourself an idealist. While you live beneath the elms of this campus, believe that the problems we face in this world are solvable, and that you will end up solving some of them. Use your place at this school, insulated from the everyday pressures most Americans have to face, to exercise the brainpower that got you here in order to imagine how you could make the world better than it is right now. In short, dare to dream dreams so ridiculously bold and far-fetched that they don’t have a prayer of ever becoming reality once you graduate.
Some might complain that I am hopelessly glorifying the Ivory Tower, a world of academic abstraction in which we have lost touch with what life is really like. But is that so bad? Let’s face it: We live in a world in which idealism has great difficulty surviving intact for long beyond these ivory-covered walls. There’s simply too much lasting injustice, too much cut-throat selfishness and too much systemic corruption, even in our own sacred country. Sooner or later, the most cock-eyed optimists among us are liable to leave their poor-paying job at NGOs, advocacy groups, art centers or campaign headquarters and turn into corporate lawyers, I-bankers, lobbyists and middle executives, convinced that it is so frustratingly impossible to effectively help others that they might as well at least help themselves.
But idealism must still exist somewhere, for heaven’s sake! The country needs as much idealism from our generation as it can possibly get, and I’ve found Yale to be one of the few places on Earth where it can really thrive. Let’s not simply use Yale as a fast-track portal into our yuppified careers of choice, gliding smoothly through our stately campus collecting good grades and good resume items. Let’s savor the eight semesters we spend here and seize this moment, the only moment in our lives when we can dream about the way the world should be before we get caught up in the way it actually is. Because there’s always the chance that if we think we’re going change the world now, we might, against all the incredibly high odds, end up changing some of it. Surely, that is infinitely better than already resigning ourselves to a future of cubicles and plastic office plants.
Roger Low is a junior in Branford College.