As we usher in the season of over-priced pumpkin spice lattés and chilly noses, the collegiate “Y” sweater is as common a backdrop to our campus as the Gothic architecture. These sweaters lend us a new lens through which we can understand our community ideals. While we might hesitate to express school pride, wearing a Y sweater gives us a sense of ownership of our University.
In order to build a campus community, particularly when we first arrive as freshmen, we have to discover how to love Yale and how to function within it.
Our communal wellbeing is contingent on our individual commitments to a shared endeavor of accepting our membership in the Yale community.
If we understand what it means to accept this community, then we can begin to understand how feelings of identity originate in the other communities we belong to — communities defined by geography, ethnicity or other criteria. Likewise, we garner a greater understanding of how identities develop more generally.
Standard conversations on school pride are usually framed by the idea of our simultaneous diversity and shared identity. Worth focusing on, and often overlooked, is the component of school pride where we demand authentic ownership of who and what we are as individual Yalies.
Is it redundant to wear something that communicates an obvious truth? Yes. Is it unnecessary to remind the people in our classes that we are Yale undergraduates? Probably.
The Yale sweater cannot be comprehensively demystified in this column, and it would be naïve to suggest that wearing a sweater is the only way to uphold community values. But, worn with authenticity, the meaning of the Y sweater becomes compelling by its own force. The sense of school pride generated by wearing the sweater is later manifested in other ways.
That force needs to be accepted whole-heartedly, but not blindly. That force does not excuse us of our responsibility to check our school pride and the way we talk about the opportunities Yale affords us. Likewise, using the prevalence of the Y sweater as a unique metric of community ownership does not mean that our identity as Yale students consumes us or demeans other aspects of ourselves.
Initially, these sweaters intrigued me because I was uncomfortable admitting that I went to Yale.
Over the summer I was asked where I was going to college while getting a haircut. “You must be one of those smart kids then,” the woman cutting my hair said in response, scrutinizing my split ends. I shifted uncomfortably in the chair, nervous not only about my haircut, but also about the association being made based on where I was headed to school.
What was probably meant as a compliment felt undeserved. What had I done to demonstrate this smartness? How could I grapple with these situations where my merit was reduced to a brand — Yale?
It is a difficult and important task to reconcile the abstract Yales — those built by the media, rankings or our hairdressers — with our daily experiences of the real Yale. The trouble with associations is that they often rely on the admissions view book edition of our University. In reality, the sublime elements of my time at Yale cannot be encapsulated in a marketing scheme.
Going to Yale does not mean, among other things, an automatic six-figure job after graduation, a flawless undergraduate experience or a designation as “one of those smart kids.”
It took me a while to view my identity as something too valuable to be politicized without my consent — by buzzwords like William Deresiewicz’s “excellent sheep.” My identity is no longer a necessary casualty to the embarrassment spurred by others’ responses to Yale. As members of the Yale community, we make concessions, including occasional discomfort, in exchange for all this place offers. As much as we might want to, we cannot isolate ourselves from others’ opinions of Yale.
In our classes filled with mobs of Y sweaters, we are shown the potential for greater personal and communal wellbeing, regardless of whether or not the wearers articulate that aim. We do not need to accept the problematic aspects of Yale, but we do need to operate in spite of them. Without ownership, students will only further buttress the often hollow and misplaced judgments that critics make about our higher education choices.
Yale is neither its glossy images nor its simple definitions. When we choose to wear a Y sweater, we begin to create a community where we can collectively achieve more growth, clearer identity and warmer wardrobes.
Kelsi Caywood is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.