On most 36-degree days, Yalies retreat to their dorm rooms and libraries, turning up the heat and hiding out in preparation for the impending New Haven winter. November 18, 2014 was different. On that day, hundreds of Yale students abandoned the warmth of their classrooms and bedrooms — not to mention their lectures and problem sets — to wait outside Payne Whitney Gymnasium for several hours in the frigid cold, all in the hope of securing a coveted ticket to the annual Harvard-Yale football game.
Tickets sold out by 3:30 p.m. Hundreds of students were turned away. Secondhand tickets sold online for as much as five times the original price.
Four months later, nearly 200 students gathered in the cold again, this time on Cross Campus, to criticize Yale for a whole host of problems, from neglected cultural centers, to continued investment in fossil fuels, to the maintenance of a student income contribution in financial aid packages. Sebastian Medina-Tayac ’16, one of the rally’s organizers, said at the time that the event represented the voices of students who had been “historically disenfranchised by … certain elements of the institution as a whole.”
“It showed that there is unity among students and that students deserve to be heard,” he said.
For many, tradition is at the heart of the Yale College experience, whether in the form of annual events like the Harvard-Yale football game or storied customs like “Bright College Years.” But at a time when 28 percent of the student body is a racial minority, many of these traditions have drawn scrutiny for their roots in a society and a university once dominated by white men. Students who identify as anything other than that say that the University does not make a place for them among its Gothic spires and vine-draped walls. They say they must forcibly carve out a space for themselves during their four years here.
And as students protest, it seems that Yale’s traditions might not hold the same status they once did.
Just last weekend, hundreds of freshmen crowded into Woolsey Hall — this time in the sweltering humidity of a late summer afternoon — for Yale Up!, a grammatically excited program that trots Yale football players and cheerleaders onstage to the tune of traditional Yale and residential college chants and fight songs. The necessity of an event like Yale Up!, inaugurated last year as a part of freshman orientation, suggests that Yale’s traditional markers of school spirit may not be the campus mainstays they once were.
But at the same time, tickets for The Game continue to sell, and a walk around campus reveals no shortage of navy blue gear.
So, in short, students’ attitudes are complicated.
“There are moments when I have felt angry with certain portions of the University,” Javier Cienfuegos ’15 said. Cienfuegos frequently takes to social media with critiques of Yale, and he says that many people accuse him of hating the University — an accusation he denies. “I’ve felt angry with the administration, or I’ve felt angry with other student groups on campus,” he acknowledges. “But I don’t think I’ve ever felt ashamed of Yale as a whole.”
Cienfuegos’s words exemplify a common sentiment among Yale students, who are quick to find fault with the University’s day-to-day workings but still profess allegiance to Yale itself— whatever that might mean. I myself am often asked how I can reconcile the myriad problems on campus with the peppy speeches I give to starry-eyed prospective students in my capacity as a campus tour guide.
For God, for Country, and for Yale, the saying goes. But what does it mean to be “for Yale”?
For many of the freshmen who attended Yale Up! last weekend, “school spirit” as it appears in the movies — packed stands at football games, face paint at raucous tailgates, fight songs recited by heart — does not exist at Yale.
Eli Baum ’19 said many high school seniors likely apply to Yale for its brand — the “HYP mentality,” he called it — rather than any kind of fervent attachment to its history or customs.
“When I originally was looking at colleges, I wanted somewhere with a lot of school spirit,” Lily Marmolejo ’19 said. She laughed. “Yale traditionally does not have a reputation for school spirit.”
If there is a sense of passionate attachment to anything at Yale, many would argue it is to the residential colleges.
In fact, Marmolejo said she was struck by how much of Yale Up! — which was conceived of by the athletic Captain’s Council, likely to promote University-wide support for school athletics — revolved around the individual residential colleges.
“Everyone had their [college flags]. No one was wearing anything Yale, they were all wearing their college colors,” she said.
If anyone would know how school spirit does or doesn’t manifest itself; at Yale, it might be Adam Lowet ’18, communications director for the Whaling Crew, a group dedicated to generating support for Yale sports teams. But even Lowet acknowledged that the various niches into which Yalies divide themselves can detract from a wider University spirit.
“I do think that a lack of school spirit vis-à-vis athletics translates to a lack of identification with Yale as a whole,” he said. “Yale does a great job sorting students into communities in which they can feel comfortable. Where it doesn’t do quite as well is translating that sense of belonging into Yale-wide community and spirit.”
But even these micro-categories of identification have become the subject of controversy recently, with renewed debate about the namesake of Calhoun College and a separate but related conversation about the title of “master.” Sara Tabin ’19 said she actually identifies more with Yale as a whole than with her college, Calhoun, because of the controversy over its name.
Both of these debates center around painful legacies of racism that are inextricable from the University’s history. But some students and alumni argue that changes will undermine tradition and history. And, they say, if we rename Calhoun because of its unsavory namesake, what do we do with Elihu Yale, who was also a slave owner? Do we rename Yale, too?
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Cienfuegos, the student known for his frequent, public critiques of Yale, says yes.
And yet, he seemed to have a stronger sense of “school spirit” — a sense of what Yale means and why he loves it — than anyone else I interviewed.
“None of the traditions in question contribute at all to make Yale the place that it is,” he said. “Master is just a title. Calhoun is just the name of one college. Even the name of Yale has nothing to do with what makes the University special. I think that first and foremost, it’s a community that people manage to foster in a variety of different environments.”
But Cienfuegos admits that, ultimately, it is not even the friendships and communities formed inside Yale’s gates that propel him to declare his love for the University. It’s that, for all his criticisms, Yale as an idea seems to stand apart from the day-to-day controversies that spark rallies and op-eds and petitions.
It’s a sentiment expressed by everyone I interviewed: Yes, school spirit in its stereotypical sense is lacking; no, I don’t go to all the football games; but there’s something else I can’t quite pinpoint that makes me love this place.
“I think school spirit at Yale is less about physical acts and more about a sense of community, of loving your school and being there for your classmates,” Tabin said.
And according to Cienfuegos, “I do think that I have some sort of romanticized, abstracted idea of Yale that I tend to separate from even the administration. Controversies are a part of Yale, but I also feel like my love of Yale has nothing to do with these events.”
“Yale makes it easy to feel like you belong here,” Lowet said. “Like Yale is home”.
I agree: Yale is home to me. But that’s part of the reason that I don’t agree with Cienfuegos. I don’t know if I would support changing the name “Yale,” because for me, that name is part of the way I identify my home. I am romantically, perhaps stupidly, attached to it. Yale is the name on my t-shirts and sweatshirts and scarf and pennant; it is the name I dreamed of when I was a little girl; it is the name on my admissions letter. To quote “Bright College Years,” the word Yale is part of the memories I will look back on when I remember my “happy, golden, bygone days.”
I had to Google the lyrics of “Bright College Years” to find what they say about the undergraduate experience. So would most of the students who attended Yale Up!, I’m sure, even after that session of manufactured college cheer. But I don’t think that means we love Yale any less.
“I’m sure Yale Up! was over-the-top positive,” Tabin said. “But I thought it was fun, so I didn’t mind.”