Once during my freshman year, I saw in the Silliman dining hall a flier that showed the picture of a senior. The senior had, I was told by the flier, gone through some rough times his junior year. He had been expected to find a prestigious summer internship and earn a tap from a secret society, and he had failed to do either thing. He had become depressed, and so he had turned, for comfort, to God.
The flier had been posted by an undergraduate Christian group. Mostly I reacted with the sort of cockiness that comes from being an observer removed from the situation. He was a senior. I was a freshman. I had not, at that point, fully internalized the fact that being a freshman is not a long-term proposition. And, at any rate, I was convinced that I would, as a senior, be tapped for Skull and Bones.
That flier came to mind late last semester when the Bones tap didn’t materialize. I understood then why the senior on the flier had turned to God. That this reasoning fell on the far side of logic also occurred to me at the time.
There is, regarding the four years most of us spend at Yale, a certain set of expectations. As freshmen we are expected to spread ourselves thin across four or five organizations, one of which might prove tolerable enough to warrant membership during sophomore year. By then momentum has taken hold, so as juniors we dedicate ourselves to the organization’s presidency or captaincy or editorship.
The more ambitious among us should at this point have already spent one summer at a Wall Street firm, although the summer between sophomore and junior years is not nearly as important as the summer before senior year. This is the summer that leads to job offers and the promise of two light semesters, which is important because senior year is reserved for the capstone of the Yale life: membership in a secret society.
It’s a testament to the weight of these expectations that the senior on the flier had to turn to God to compensate for his failure to fulfill them. I don’t know how this came to be the standard trajectory of a Yale career, but even as a freshman I knew I was expected to follow this course.
That I say “I was expected to follow this course” is telling. I find it easy, when talking about Yale, to adopt the passive voice, to speak in generalities, to use words like “culture” and “climate,” or to refer to Yale as an entity that is disembodied but somehow capable of coercive action, as in “Yale made me do it.” I do this because when I talk about Yale, I’m generally talking about people, and this is uncomfortable. The passive voice allows me to mask the fact that expectations are always held by people, including myself. When I ask friends what they did this summer, I pay no mind to the assumption behind the question. That something must have been done this summer is to me so self-evident that I fail to see how anyone could have spent a summer doing nothing.
I don’t think this is good. In trying to conform to expectations, you forget that you can fulfill them all and still be unhappy. You can be elected YCC president and tapped for a society and offered a job at Bain after your summer internship, but none of those things will necessarily make you happy. Happiness comes from that cliché piece of advice we occasionally hear and which we halfheartedly offer to others: do what makes you happy.
There are some others: Defy expectations. Tread your own path. Take the road less traveled. That all sounds vague but isn’t. It means accepting that some expectations will go unmet. It means doing things because you want, when you want. For me, it meant joining the News as a second-semester junior when my classmates were already editors. It meant going untapped by secret societies, and it means commuting to New York on Thursdays for an internship instead. It means that though I haven’t found God, I’m also unwilling to say He’s out of the realm of possibility.
Teo Soares is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.