For seven days, Anthony Hsu ’12 and David Zhang ’12 were not on campus. They left without telling anyone where they had gone.
Rumors quickly spread throughout Lawrance Hall, the students’ dorm: “Some of us in Stiles had heard of Anthony and David’s journey,” David Helene ’12, who lives in the building, said, “but we didn’t really know enough to know what was truth and what was fiction.”
The freshmen had set out on a bus across the country to, in Zhang’s words, “see what it was like living in the real world.”
But within two days of their departure on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 10, University officials — including the Ezra Stiles College master and dean — had contacted the students’ parents, effectively deeming their disappearance an “extraordinary circumstance” as defined by Undergraduate Regulations and informing them of the consequences if they did not return to campus.
Hsu and Zhang returned to Yale last Monday. Still, their weeklong trip — which took them from San Francisco and back — evoked questions of student autonomy alongside the University’s responsibility to watch over its students.
The night of Sunday, Feb. 8, Zhang said the two sat in their Old Campus suite talking about what it would be like to drop out of school and find work in another city.
“We were just joking about it,” Zhang said. “But then that night we started getting excited about it.”
But while many Yale students may have entertained similar fantasies, Zhang and Hsu said they followed through, planning to leave Yale for an indeterminate amount of time in search of housing and employment nearly 3,000 miles away — in San Francisco.
“We wanted to see what it’s like to start from scratch and build our way up,” Zhang said.
While the boys said they thought about formulating more thorough plans before leaving campus, Hsu explained, “We decided that if we waited, our doubts would kill this idea. So we just left.”
Yale College Undergraduate Regulations hold that University officials may disclose information to a student’s parents if the student is claimed as a dependant on the parent’s tax returns. But the regulations say “Yale regards its students as responsible adults, however, capable of managing their own lives and seeking guidance when necessary,” and therefore Yale will only disclose information to parents in “extraordinary circumstances.”
According to Zhang’s father, it was last Thursday — about 48 hours after the freshmen were last seen on campus — when the University made that call.
Before leaving campus, Hsu and Zhang wrote notes addressed to family, suitemates and Yale itself, they said.
“We didn’t want Yale to feel like we left because we hated it here,” Zhang said. “We wanted to tell them this had nothing to do with them.”
The pair said they then went to New York City to buy two Greyhound bus tickets to San Francisco. They said they paid with cash from their savings accounts, a tactic meant to thwart being tracked. Hsu and Zhang said they put their phones on airplane mode — in which the phone cannot make or receive calls — to avoid being traced and to cut themselves off from communication. They also deactivated their Facebook accounts.
“We realized that if we maintained contact, people would get emotional and sentimental,” Zhang said, “And that would detract from our focus of what we want to do on this trip.”
Despite the students’ expressed intention to cut off contact with friends and family, though, officials at the University, upon reports that the students had gone missing, had other plans. During long layovers over the four-day bus trip to the West Coast, the travelers said they used hotels’ Internet to search Craigslist for housing and jobs. Zhang and Hsu said they checked their e-mail for the first time on the evening of Feb. 12, where they found concerned e-mails from their parents, friends and college master and dean. They said they did not reply at the time.
But by that same night University officials had contacted both Zhang’s and Hsu’s parents. Phoned by the News on Saturday, Feb. 14, Zhang’s father said the University had informed him his son “had traveled somewhere.”
Stiles Master Stephen Pitti declined to comment on the decision to contact the students’ parents, but Silliman College Master and Council of Masters Chair Judith Krauss, who said she was not familiar with Hsu and Zhang, said the decision to call parents is a judgement call that is made on a case-by-case basis.
“Obviously, if we think a situation has risen to the level where if it was our son or daughter and we would expect to know something, then we’re likely to pick up the phone and call parents,” Krauss said.
Yale College Dean Mary Miller said that although most students qualify as legal adults, the regulations are vague on purpose so as to allow for context-specific decisions.
“Every emergency situation is going to be a different one,” she said. “And it means that intelligent, caring and responsible people are going to need to make judgment calls.”
THE DECISION TO RETURN
Early on the morning of Feb. 14, the boys said they replied to e-mail messages from both Pitti and Stiles College Dean Jennifer Wood. Pitti told the News later that day that he had been in touch with both Zhang and Hsu.
The freshmen said Pitti and Wood did not try to talk them out of their adventure but wanted to inform the students of the consequences of their actions: If they did not return, the pair would be withdrawn from Yale and could not return until the fall of 2010, they said Pitti told them.
Pitti and Wood would not confirm what they told the students, but, while the Yale College Programs of Study holds that a student may withdraw from Yale College for personal reasons at any time during the year, no mention is made of a mandatory three-term leave requirement. The travelers also said the administrators told them they needed to tell the police that they were both acting independently and neither was being coerced by the other.
The Yale Police Department referred questions for this article to the Office of Public Affairs, which declined to comment about particulars of the students’ travels.
At 1 p.m. Sunday Feb. 15, Wood sent the News an e-mail message from her iPhone: “Anthony and David are returning to Yale.” Fewer than 48 hours after arriving in San Francisco, the students said, they boarded a plane back to Yale and arrived back in New Haven.
Zhang said the barrage of e-mails, voicemails and text messages from administrators, their parents and their friends made them realize how much trouble and worry they had caused.
“We felt it was pretty selfish to put everyone else through it,” Hsu said, “And that’s why we came back.”
Though the boys both said they do not regret taking the seven-day hiatus from Yale — an interval they said felt much longer than a week — they agreed last Monday night, while sitting in their common room, that their decision to leave without telling anyone had been foolish.
“You make mistakes in life,” Hsu said, “and you learn from them.”