Yale was hard at first.
Two and a half years ago, I transferred into the college as a sophomore from Fudan University, a top university in China. As one of the two students transferring from a foreign university that year, I was basically clueless about Yale. It was also impossible for me to foresee how much I would change within a very short time.
Every time someone asked me how I liked Yale compared to my previous college in China, I would say “so much better” without hesitation. That is the honest answer. I have nothing to complain about; Yale is generous, supportive, and most of all, cares about its students and respects their voices.
As I enter my final semester at Yale, I’ve begun to reflect about how much I have changed. I feel confident in my skin. I no longer get freaked out walking across the Saybrook dining hall. I hang out with friends and talk like any other Yalie. I no longer introduce myself as a transfer student and very few assume I am an international student when they first talk to me. At the same time, when I speak with my family, I can sense them getting more and more impatient about my Yale stories. They don’t seem to relate and I feel suffocated from time to time when I am not on campus.
This divide between my new and old self was confusing until I returned to a question that I had left unanswered: Why do I deserve to be at Yale?
Was it because I was more impressive than other applicants? The truth is that I am likely no smarter than many of my classmates back at Fudan. I was fortunate enough to meet a mentor, who was impressed by my work ethic and wrote a recommendation letter on my behalf. My personal statement was what I hoped Yale would want to see from its applicants. I likely hit some of the right keywords without even being aware of knowing them. I did the right thing at the right time. I got lucky.
The one-time positive result of getting admitted to Yale, given its significance, can form very strong biases that influence us for the rest of our lives. In other words, we tend to give more credit to ourselves than to those who have helped us, or the events that occurred simply because of the randomness of life. While we may know deep down that luck could have contributed as much as many other factors, it is painful to admit it.
In the end, however, it is detrimental not to realize life is a series of random events. Each of us likely experienced a turning point on our respective paths: a great role model, an enlightening conversation or some other revelatory moment. What we did do was grasp that opportunity when it showed up. But did we deserve that opportunity in the first place?
At Yale, some of us have become go-getters with no gratitude for those who have helped us along the way. We get blinded by the competition on campus, and become attracted to the positions that everyone else is similarly seeking. The titles and labels of the Ivy League captivate us, and after graduation, we are similarly attracted to work for companies with big names.
But one thing Yale may have taken away from us, without many of us even knowing, is the courage to admit we are no different from the many smart people that stand outside these gates.
This is why the idea of “civic leadership” — defined as solving shared problems and bridging divides — is so essential to Yale today. On Jan. 30, Yale College and a committee of students will co-host the second annual Civic Leadership Conference, which is open to all undergraduates and will include guest speakers and workshops around the central question of “How can Yale become more civic-minded?”
Civic leadership is important because it constructs the definition of leadership from the ground up. Civic leadership challenges the hierarchical systems that often pervade our academic institutions and workplaces. It is an individual initiative with the potential to influence others. It stems from sympathy and self-awareness. Civic leadership is simply the idea of caring and taking action.
Such behavior can often feel rare on this campus. It is important to acknowledge all the accomplishments we have individually achieved. But it is just as important to reflect the sympathy and self-awareness on the community we live in and realize how much we owe this success to one another.
Stella Yang is a senior in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .