While in New York City during the August before his sophomore year, Jeff Lichtenstein ’08 met a girl. Hanging out on a friend’s roof, Lichtenstein first noticed her when she changed into a skimpy black dress.
“Damn, she’s hot,” he remembers thinking.
The rest of the relationship went as such things do — spending time with friends led to spending time alone and, by September, Lichtenstein and Samantha* were dating.
Like Lichtenstein, Samantha was visiting New York for the summer. But while he had journeyed east from Illinois, she had ventured west from New Haven. When they met, Samantha was just another kid spending the summer in New York. But Lichtenstein knew that her status as a New Haven resident would, in the eyes of many around him, classify her as a “townie,” with its connotations of amorphous accents and coffee-shop grunge.
“We started dating just as the school year began,” Lichtenstein said. “But if we had met later on, I don’t think it would have gone anywhere.”
A romance like Lichtenstein’s and Samantha’s — one that pierces the college bubble — might only be able to germinate easily away from campus, as if the Yale microcosm is too overwhelming to allow for personal interaction with anyone not affiliated with the University. Even among those who look beyond campus for a relationship, a hush surrounds the issue. Of the 11 students who had been involved in such relationships and were approached for this article, two did not respond and five declined comment. Of the four who spoke about their relationships and the issues involved, only two were willing to have their names included in the story.
A ‘two-dimensional misconception’
According to one student who was previously involved with a New Haven resident, this hush is due to an inherited urban legend about the relationship between Yale and New Haven.
“The Yale-New Haven environment creates political correctness issues and stigmas that don’t necessarily exist in general human-to-human relations,” the student, who wished to remain anonymous, said in an e-mail. “But thanks to a two-dimensional misconception of New Haven as a community in full contrast with the Yale community, and moreover the misconception of people’s characters based on their appearances, this article is deemed newsworthy.”
As a result, students involved in such relationships often feel the need to clarify their significant other of choice in order to appease those around them. Kathleen, a student who is currently dating an engineer living in nearby Meriden, Conn., said she often thinks twice before mentioning that her boyfriend lives locally, and, even then, she always adds that he has graduated from college and works in a professional field.
“As soon as you say you’re dating someone who doesn’t go to Yale, assuming it’s someone who isn’t from home, it’s automatically assumed that he’s some sketchy townie — which isn’t fair,” she said.
Busy is just the beginning
Acting as a counterpoint to this “sketchy townie” stereotype is that of the “overachieving Yalie.” Chiara Scully ’09, who dated “a townie from another town,” said Yalies lead busy lives, with days filled with classes and activities all related in some way to the University. It would be difficult to be in an intimate relationship with someone who is not caught up in this high-stress environment to the degree to which we are as students, Scully said.
“Our own lives are so high-strung and frenetic, with us constantly having to keep up with this manic work pace,” she said. “A lot of Yalies can only maintain friendships with those people they live around because it takes a lot of effort to reach outside oneself.”
Lichtenstein also suggested that dating someone who doesn’t go to Yale is a “logistical headache.” It was often difficult for him to find the time to spend with his girlfriend, he said, and their time together was often limited to late at night when they were both free.
Though Kathleen would not describe her current relationship as a logistical headache, she does recognize the difficulty of dating someone outside the community. Everything from meals to nights out have to be decided on beforehand: When she and her boyfriend want to be alone, it is easier to go to his house, but they make an effort to eat in Yale’s dining halls and attend plays on campus so that Kathleen is still tied to the college community.
“Some things we do in my sphere, others in his sphere,” Kathleen said. “We’ve had the conversation that I don’t want to miss out on college and he understands that, so he will either be a part of it or he won’t.”
Beyond ‘Yale boys’ and ‘prom girls’
It’s obvious that we do not go to the University of Cole Porter, where men aspired to be “Yale boys” and women “prom girls.” Yalies’ dating rituals are no longer carefully scripted, so when we’re bored with the selection that surrounds us, if our only limitations are the hours we’re awake and the months we’re in town, it only seems natural that we’ll look beyond Yale for someone to cuddle with in the cold.
On the other hand, the Yale social scene is still constructed in such a way that the interactions between students and residents of the New Haven community are constricted, Scully said.
“There is such strong internal focus to work and live in this high-paced environment,” she said. “It does seem like a very different world outside of Yale, and it’s a distance many students don’t even consider crossing just because of the work involved.”
Rich Joseph ’09, a Yale student and Hamden resident, said that the extremely insular nature of the University is directly responsible for this lack of intermingling. When a Yale student’s routine revolves around the residential college, an intrinsically exclusive construction, it is difficult to integrate the New Haven scene seamlessly into one’s life.
Others disagree. Suzy, a New Haven resident who previously dated an Eli, said that there are many on-campus activities that connect the two communities. The Yale theater community, for instance, provides opportunities for interaction between students and New Haven residents, whether they are backstage or in the audience, she said.
But both Lichtenstein and Kathleen met their significant others through the typical convoluted web of acquaintances and classmates, rather than at one of New Haven’s many student-resident intersection points. Lichtenstein met Samantha through mutual friends in New York; Kathleen’s boyfriend is the best friend of the cousin of her best friend at school.
And sometimes, it takes not being entrenched in the Yale gulag for a relationship to be successful, Lichtenstein said. When he began dating Samantha at the beginning of the school year, he was able to easily make the transition because the relationship was born apart from the context and paradigm of Yale.
“It was a relationship because it started outside and then I was able to pull it in, but it most likely wouldn’t have happened if I had been deeply involved with Yale when we met,” he said.
*Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identity of the source.