Of the few dozen transfer students currently attending Yale College, nine hail from a two-year, 26-person, all-male college located on a ranch in the middle of the Californian desert: Deep Springs.
When people at Yale ask about the college, Deep Springers usually have a couple of short sentences prepared. “It’s a cult on the desert, and we read a lot of books and ride a lot of horses. That’s my description,” says Ben Shaver ’15. “If someone needs a good explanation, I’ll talk more in detail. But most of the time it’s easier to just give a caricature.”
The basic facts do conjure up something of a caricature — brooding cowboy scholars riding horses and reading Nietzsche together in a radical utopian commune. Students spend their days doing labor: milking cows, digging ditches, driving tractors. On Friday nights, they meet in committees to discuss the governance of the school. Students are not allowed to visit the nearest town, which is a 45-minute drive away, except on official school business. Students get most of their entertainment from the outdoors, going for long walks in the desert, swimming in the reservoir, and sliding down 800-foot sand dunes.
Yale welcomed one transfer student from Deep Springs in 2011, four in 2012, and another four last fall. With more and more Deep Springers arriving here to finish their college education, the Deep Springs experience warrants more than just a caricature and a couple of sentences. Last semester, I spoke with four Deep Springers, seeking a more nuanced understanding of who these young men are, why they chose Yale, and what light their experiences might shed on our lifestyle and culture here in New Haven.
Two years ago, Cory Myers ’15 would spend his mornings waking up early to move irrigation lines. At 5:30 a.m. he would watch the sun rise over the White Mountains as he made his way to one of the college’s 11 fields.
Today, at 5:30 a.m., you’d probably find Myers deep in slumber, still hours away from waking for a day of lectures, brisk walks through the bustle of Cross Campus, and email exchanges with the editorial board of the Helicon, Yale’s undergraduate classics journal.
The biggest change between his time at Deep Springs and his time at Yale, Myers says, has been the shift in his sense of community. “I can hold my 25 Deep Springs classmates in my mind at once, but by comparison, I don’t know all of Berkeley by name — and that’s just my own college.”
At Deep Springs, students are united by common purpose, by working together to create something tangible. Responsibility is not optional: neglecting one’s tasks can have direct and even dire consequences on everybody else. People are left waiting for a delayed dinner; neglected crops wither; calves fed the wrong stack of hay bloat to death. If water pipes start leaking at midnight, somebody has to go and fix them. This “ongoing war against entropy,” as Shaver calls it, demands a real and immediate sense of responsibility for the preservation of the Deep Springs community.
The sense of responsibility also translates into academic and intellectual accountability. It is difficult to be flippant in class when the people in your seminar are those with whom you plow the fields and govern the college. It is virtually unheard of that a Deep Springs student doesn’t do his readings.
“In order to take my time at Yale seriously as an education, I want also to be able to take my classmates seriously as people,” says Myers. “And yet I’ve had discussion sections and even seminars in which, at the end of an entire semester, we didn’t all know one another’s name.”
“Discussions at Deep Springs feel humane and committed,” Shaver says, “whereas for the first six classes of [an average Yale seminar], you’re sort of still feeling each other out, establishing a kind of pecking order.”
Myers has found that it takes more time at Yale to build working relationships and find mentors. At Deep Springs, professors live with the students and assume roles in running the community. They leave porch lights on in the evening if they are available to talk, and students wander over to chat. It’s hard to imagine a member of the Yale faculty, at the end of a class in WLH, joining a group of students on Cross Campus for a casual game of ultimate frisbee.
On a weekday afternoon in January, I find Shaver and Brendan Bashin-Sullivan ’15 in the College Street building of the literary society St. Anthony Hall, which Bashin-Sullivan joined in his sophomore year. Sitting in a quiet, warmly lit basement room, I quickly forget that we’ve just come in from a dreary, chilly winter day.
A small community organized around a special location and devoted to intellectual inquiry, St. A’s is in many ways evocative of Deep Springs. “It’s a place where you share a space in a meaningful way, where you get to feel cozy with people, where you can feel safe,” says Bashin-Sullivan. “In Deep Springs, you’re standing in the middle of a circular lawn where nobody can reach you for 45 minutes. So you can be kind of raw, and confident that no one is going to jump out and rub salt all over your wounds — similar sensation with St. A’s. You feel like you are among people you can trust.”
This year, Bashin-Sullivan and Shaver live with Myers and Terrell Carter ’14, another Deep Springs graduate, off-campus on Edgewood Avenue. (Carter declined to be interviewed for this article.) Just as St. A’s provides Bashin-Sullivan with a familiar small-community context, the off-campus house provides the four roommates with an intimate living situation redolent of Deep Springs.
Most mornings, Shaver bumps into the others having breakfast in the kitchen, grabs a coffee and a piece of fruit, then heads to class. During the day, the three disperse across the campus: while Shaver hits the rugby field to train with the club team, Bashin-Sullivan might be working on a model at the architecture studio, and Myers perhaps at a chaplaincy fellows meeting.
As the sun sets, Shaver usually returns to the house to find everyone back home. Myers, the house’s resident musician and an expert in the Renaissance and Baroque music scene, might be practicing the piano in the back room. In the living room, Bashin-Sullivan might be kicking back with a beer on the hideous pink couch, one of the many items inherited from the previous owners that they’ve never gotten around to tossing. A decrepit trumpet, another inheritance, hangs on the wall. It’s a novelty item for bemused guests at the parties the roommates throw at the house every week or so. A small plaque on the jamb of the front door reads: “Built in 1812.”
One might expect that Deep Springs students would gravitate toward their residential colleges, which could provide an approximation of the smaller, more cohesive community that Deep Springs offered. “Given that Deep Springs is a self-governing school,” Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale’s dean of Undergraduate Admissions, told me, “many [Deep Springs] students have a strong sense of community which translates well into Yale’s residential college system.”
But Bashin-Sullivan and Shaver agree that they have enjoyed their experiences at Yale despite, not because of, the residential college system.
“Deep Springers have a really hard time living on campus,” says Shaver. “[Being inside a college] creeps me out because there is a lot of servitude. There are always people cleaning things or trimming bushes. And the dining halls make me really uncomfortable.”
The house on Edgewood has a completely different vibe. The kitchen is the heart of the home, says Shaver — “people are always cooking and feeding each other” — and they are “OK with setting mousetraps occasionally.” Bashin-Sullivan chuckles. “I love the squalor,” he says, glancing at the chairs scattered around the St. A’s basement. “It gives a little bit of reality in the Disneyland atmosphere of Yale.”
Off-campus life echoes not only the hands-on aspect of Deep Springs, but also the spirit of self-governance.
At Deep Springs, the entire student body is split into four committees: applications, curriculum, communications, and review. Every Friday, the student body comes together — in the winter, at the boarding house; in the summer, at a remote campfire spot in the desert. They might elect a treasurer, evaluate a professor, deliberate a motion to ban certain technologies, or just share their general thoughts on the day.
Students at Yale have significantly less control in shaping their academic, intellectual, and social lives. Besides the YCC and the residential college councils, the forums through which students can shape the way their community operates are highly limited, both in number and in power.
Simply by virtue of the difference in population, Yale College students will never have as significant a stake in the path their institution follows as students do at Deep Springs. But in Bashin-Sullivan’s opinion, the potential exists for students to foster a greater spirit of communal responsibility on the Yale campus.
“Obviously, you’re not going to run Yale College,” he says. “But what if, for example, you organized a dorm where people could take care of a communal kitchen? What if we open up more opportunities for Yale students to take care of some function in their lives through self-organization and accountability?”
As Bashin-Sullivan notes, while it is difficult to create a cohesive community on the Yale campus at large, many Deep Springs alumni have nevertheless been able to recreate this spirit of communal belonging and responsibility in the nooks and crannies of the environment that they have come to inhabit. Shaver goes on camping trips with Yale Outdoors; Bashin-Sullivan works as a farm intern for the Yale Sustainable Food Project and enjoys the boons of membership in St. A’s.
Bashin-Sullivan and Shaver seem at ease in the St. A’s basement, as if they could go on talking long into the evening. But an hour has passed, and we all have things to do, appointments to keep. Bashin-Sullivan turns off the lights, and we head up the spiral staircase, back out into the cold.
Despite the difficulties of transitioning from the warm heart of the California desert to New Haven, Yale clearly has a lot to offer Deep Springs graduates.
The large size and diversity of the Yale community, and the rich variety of available opportunities, appear to be among the prime motivations for many Deep Springers who decide to finish their studies here. Yale’s diversity — in activities, in friends and aspirations, in the vast wealth of resources, and in what Myers calls the university’s “luxuriously sprawling curriculum” — makes for a stark contrast with the sparse selection available to students at Deep Springs.
Rhys Dubin ’16, an avid scholar of continental political theory, ultimately decided to come to Yale in order to take classes with Seyla Behnabib, whose works he read and loved while studying at Deep Springs.
Although a general feeling among Deep Springs alumni is that Deep Springs was the high point of their academic experience, another general feeling is that it led them towards what Bashin-Sullivan calls “un-employability.” Yale boasts broad and vibrant networks among students and alumni that Deep Springs simply can’t match. “Before, I never had connections,” Bashin-Sullivan says. “I didn’t understand what connections were. Now I could look in my phone and find people who could give me work or point me towards work.”
Yale also has actual, tangible service opportunities. Despite Deep Springs’s slightly “grandiose and enigmatic” mission statement — “to help young men prepare themselves for lives of service to humanity” — Dubin attests that “in reality, there were not many opportunities to serve a community other than the one we were existing in.” He currently works for the Roosevelt Institute at Yale, a student-run policy think tank, and is a member of the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project.
All in all, Yale has built up a fine reputation within the Deep Springs community. From speaking with fellow alumni who’ve proceeded to various “elite” schools, Shaver has found that the institutions all “seem to have a reputation.” Harvard is seen as “soulless and crazy-ambitious”; at U. Chicago, Deep Springers have been “intellectually satisfied but not happy,” while at Brown, they have been happy but not intellectually satisfied. At Yale, he says, “they have both — somewhere in between, relatively satisfied on both fronts.”
The Deep Springs experience, though in many ways ideal, is also incredibly taxing. “You have to intellectually justify everything that you do,” Shaver says. “It’s completely, emotionally exhausting.”
After Deep Springs, Yale can feel like a breather. “At DS,” Shaver says, “there’s this sense that if someone else cares about something, you have to care about it, too, because you care about them. Here, we do support each other — Cory is involved in music and we go to his concerts. But we don’t feel like we have to go.” Your intensity, according to Bashin-Sullivan, “goes into remission” when you leave the desert valley.
Still, the Deep Springs spirit, though perhaps constrained by the demands of the “real world,” remains with the college’s graduates. A large percentage of Deep Springs alumni end up working in public service. Dubin intends to go into diplomacy; Shaver hopes to work for a nonprofit intelligence agency.
Bashin-Sullivan, for his part, has a less conventional plan for his post-Yale future: he’s going to “hitchhike” on container ships and take notes for what will ideally turn into a project on port cities. He wants to do some kind of work that allows him to “go dirty, go places, and keep a notebook of stellar observations.” He is not the first Deep Springs graduate, he says, to make such a plan.
For Deep Springers, Shaver says, “some kind of adventure is necessary” in a career path. He emphasizes that you won’t find any of them doing an internship at McKinsey.
For the foreseeable future, however, you will find plenty of Deep Springs graduates getting Yale degrees. Whatever adventures they might eventually pursue after leaving New Haven, they keep applying and keep coming to Yale, tempering their ideals in the complex realities of this somewhere-in-between.