The late George Pierson ’26 once asserted that “Yale is at once a tradition, a company of scholars, a society of friends.”
But how accurate is this description?
When we come to Yale as freshmen, we swear allegiance to our pre-assigned residential colleges. We are told that our colleges will be our homes for the next four years. Yet many spend those four years searching for acceptance into new communities. Some find their social niche through their major. Others compete for membership in extracurricular activities. But perhaps the most extreme manifestation of this drive to belong is the proliferation of Greek life and secret societies on campus.
I wasn’t part of a fraternity or a society while I was an undergraduate. But I had friends who were, and they treasured the intense bonds formed with one another over drinks, stories and deep conversations. I am happy for anyone who has the opportunity to experience such intimacy. But I can’t help but notice the irony: This intimacy is predicated on a kind of exclusivity. I’m not talking about social capital. Yalies — who pride themselves on socially prohibitive levels of busyness — somehow find hundreds of hours to commit to rushing Greek life and joining secret societies, all in the name of meeting new people and experiencing a unique emotional connection. If we spent half this much time sitting in dining halls or going on coffee dates, we’d realize how simple it actually is to make friends and build relationships. So why do we put ourselves through so many superfluous social gymnastics?
The cynic might charge that we care more about gaining acceptance into exclusive communities with fancy names than we do about actual community membership itself. But I don’t think that’s it. The reason we subject ourselves to these histrionic rituals is that we don’t know how to build genuine rapport on our own.
Every year in Jonathan Edwards College, freshmen and sophomores participate in fireside chats. They’re asked personal questions like, “What surprised you most about Yale? What lessons did you learn from last semester?” One by one, underclassmen disclose not only what excites them, but also what challenges and worries them. As they begin to speak, they can sense the audience appreciating their candor and they grow more confident sharing their authentic identities. These sessions teach an important lesson about the power of emotional vulnerability. It gives us insight into our differences, and how they inform and enrich our community. At the same time, emotional vulnerability helps us discern the common humanity that lies beneath these differences. It makes us feel less alone.
This feeling is ultimately what we seek in a community. We want to see others as they truly are, and we want to be seen in the same way.
But for whatever reason, we are afraid of acknowledging these fundamental human needs. We mask our desires for closeness and support with polarizing recruiting schemes and elaborate rituals. We insist that all communities are equal, but that some communities are more equal than others and we will go to absurd lengths to join these more equal communities.
I suspect that many of us sense that this feeling is just beyond our grasp, something we’ll always have to reach for. We reckon that belonging can only be secured after we prove ourselves once again, that we’ll only come by what we’re looking for upon conforming and achieving whatever is expected of us. Perhaps this is merely a holdover from adolescence, when we often confuse external validation with genuine belonging.
And that is unfortunate. Many of us chose Yale over similar schools because it promised us a sense of unconditional belonging. It’s why the idea of a community — the idea of Yale — appealed to us when we arrived on this campus. It’s why this idea still appeals to us now. Yet in many ways, the choices we make and the institutions we venerate undercut the Yale we love. We allow our insecurities to vitiate Pierson’s ideal.
Connection isn’t something that just happens to us. It’s a decision we can all make. It’s an action that we can all take. Yale already offers us everything we need to thrive. But only if we take Yale up on that offer.
Johnathan Yao is a 2015 graduate of Jonathan Edwards College and will graduate from the School of Public Health in 2016. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .