Over the past month, through protests, marches, teach-ins and open forums, students have advocated for greater resources for minority and underrepresented students at the University. But many students may feel the need for such support even before setting foot in New Haven for the first time: the demand for the pre-orientation program Cultural Connections has steadily increased since the program’s inception, with several dozen students turned away this year.
In light of recent demonstrations about Yale’s racial climate, University President Peter Salovey promised in a University-wide email on Nov. 17 to increase funding for cultural initiatives on campus, including orientation programs that explore diversity and inclusion. While his email did not specifically mention Cultural Connections, students and administrators are discussing the ways in which the increasingly popular program could benefit from additional funding, as well as the role it plays in shaping the experiences of students of color on campus.
Cultural Connections has evolved over the years to meet the changing needs of Yale’s minority students. While the program began as the Puerto Rican Orientation Program in the 1970s, it was renamed the Pre-Registration Orientation Program soon after before becoming Cultural Connections in 1999. According to its website, the program explores diverse student experiences at Yale, particularly highlighting those of students of color and issues relating to racial identity, although it began accepting students of all ethnicities in 2004. Incoming freshmen are assigned to two upperclassmen in small groups affectionately called “families,” and activities include panels on campus life presented by ethnic counselors, discussions with faculty members who specialize in nationality and race and introductions to Yale’s cultural centers.
Due to its popularity, the program was largely oversubscribed this year relative to past years, with many members of the class of 2019 who registered for the program being turned away or redirected to other pre-orientation programs. Cultural Connections counselor Dustin Nguyen ’18 said roughly 200 students applied but only about 130 could be accepted, adding that while last year families usually consisted of seven prefrosh, this year the size more than doubled.
“We honestly need more counselors, because this year we had to turn away more kids than ever before,” Nguyen said. “If we could increase our funding to be able to pay more counselors, we could accept more of the incoming freshmen.”
A larger pool of participants, he added, would also help the program better represent a diverse range of perspectives.
Dean of Student Engagement Burgwell Howard said Cultural Connections is constantly evolving and growing, adding that it is fair to say that recent campus conversations will shape how the program is approached. He added that the past month’s racial controversies are issues relevant to the entire Yale community and ones he hopes will be addressed in classrooms and student organizations as well as orientation programs.
“I would love to find ways to expand on some of the socio-economic [and] class discussions that happen within the program. I would also love to see ways that we might further engage majority students in these necessary discussions of race, culture, curiosity and understanding,” Howard said. “After all, we all bring some forms of our cultures and identities to Yale, and we should all begin to develop the language and tools to delve into this necessary and sometimes uncomfortable learning that is the college experience.”
Howard said enrollment in this fall’s Cultural Connections was the highest it has ever been, which he said speaks to the resonance of the program with new students and the commitment of the upperclassmen who staff the program.
Cultural Connections is the only pre-orientation program other than the Orientation for Yale College International Students that is free to students on financial aid, with the exception of travel costs. Both Yale’s Freshman Outdoor Orientation Trips and Harvest provide a sliding scale of cost reductions to students on financial aid. Cultural Connections and OISS are also the cheapest programs, costing $200, with FOOT and Harvest costing a minimum of $430 and $420 respectively.
But former participants also highlighted less tangible benefits to the program, emphasizing the ways in which Cultural Connections is invaluable to minority students’ introductions to Yale.
“Cultural Connections is not cut and dry. It’s about the community that you make and the people, conversations and shared experiences,” Cultural Connections Counselor Jinchen Zou ’18 said. “The programmatic aspects of CC are important in that it supports the transition from high school to college, but there is also the community that comes with it and that is even more important than the structural part.”
Similarly, Cultural Connections counselor Abdul-Razak Zachariah ’17 cited the space students are given to share their experiences as one of the program’s largest benefits. There is a lot of respect in the room when students share their journeys to Yale, Zachariah said, and it is important that people do not immediately make assumptions about others. Cultural Connections allows students to be unapologetic about their identities, he said.
Salovey said a slew of options would be explored to improve existing programs focused on racial diversity, as well as develop new ones grounded in academic scholarship.
“We will be exploring various programs,” Salovey told the News. “In general I am more satisfied with ones that are research-based and focus on unconscious prejudices and intergroup relations.”
This year, Cultural Connections ran from Aug. 22 to Aug. 27.