This column was published as part of the Commencement Issue for the Class of 2015.
College has not been easy for any of us, but as a first generation college student, I have often found myself struggling to navigate the novel terrain of college courses and campus culture. From failing my first exam to learning how to balance three jobs, Yale has been a minefield of unanticipated challenges — tied to the circumstances of my uniquely lived experience. My college career has not been perfect, and while I can jokingly say that “The only ‘A’ that matters is in between the Y-L-E,” the reality is that Yale’s prestige did not mask the challenges of living and growing into the person I currently am. Rather, it offered me a space to grow in spite of them. Unfortunately, it is far too easy to forget the achievements we won’t receive “distinction” for in the face of Commencement.
As the ambitious, idealistic individuals that we are, graduation can turn from a peacefully reflective time into a self-critical spiral of doubts. We can kick ourselves for not handing in the perfect senior essay, not fully committing to a specific extracurricular or taking relationship detours with friends. There are so many ways in which we can become critical of our performances at Yale, but this is not a time to be disparaging. Rather, it is a time to celebrate our courageous journeys here.
Courage is often imagined as a grand display of force that is quickly followed by standard manifestations of victory and success. Yet the reality is that truly courageous acts can rarely be translated into accolades. Courage is living with an open, fierce heart in the face of life’s unanticipated challenges. Yale has become a courageous home for so many students who struggled at various points in their journey to claim a place for themselves — a place where they could grow under the unique burdens in their lives. So often the mystical prestige of Yale is seen as an erasure of individual struggles. But the reality is that in the face of Yale’s opportunities, so many of us have tripped over our own feet when trying to balance the weight placed on our shoulders by life’s complications. While that balancing act is rarely seamless, today is when we should celebrate it as courageous living.
Many of the struggles experienced on campus by students have become buzzwords enveloped in phrases such as mental health, first generation college students, financial aid, low income and sexual misconduct. These trials can creatively manifest in such varied, intersectional ways that broad sweeping conversations fail to grasp the nuanced struggles experienced by students. Yet that is what courageous living has been, in practice, for all of us who have made it to Commencement. We have dropped the curveballs thrown at us by life and responded by reaching out to friends, pushing back against the administration or taking time off, while still always putting one foot in front of the other to ensure that we would make it to the prescribed finish line. By the time we get there, we’re a little battered, a little bruised and imperfectly courageous in our attempts to stitch together the patchwork of our Yale careers.
So this is to the student who had to drop a class because he didn’t know how to keep up with his workload, didn’t know how to ask for help and then learned how to balance. This is for the student who realized she didn’t have to suffer silently, and told a friend about her daily struggles with eating. This is for the student who worked 19 hours a week so he could send money home to his family, and didn’t get distinction in his major. This is for the student who wanted to surround herself with healthy relationships, and rejected the familiarity of abuse. This is for the student who took time off and decided to brave Yale once again. And this is for all the imperfect blemishes these experiences have left on our journey here. This is for living those moments courageously and staying true to our struggles and ourselves. Although we have not received a grade for some of the hardest work we’ve done at Yale, continuing to live our complicated and fascinating lives is cause enough for us to throw our caps in the air and celebrate the emotional work we’ve accomplished to be who we are now, so that we can take our next steps forward courageously.
Catalina Brennan-Gatica is a senior in Pierson College.