Though my graduation from Yale is only a few weeks away, I can still remember the climactic spring day that would mark the start of my time here: the day I was accepted. As happy as I felt that afternoon five years ago, I could not help but ask myself, why?
Just within my own high school, there were stronger athletes and musicians, stronger writers and scientists. They all wanted to go to Yale as badly as I did, and worked as hard as I did, but did not have the same opportunity as I had to matriculate. There is a reason the admissions office says that they could refill any class multiple times over with the same quality of students. The process seemed a total crapshoot, and the only thing I possessed more of was luck.
Despite these odds, my time here at Yale has been an unambiguous privilege and has given me an overwhelming number of opportunities. I am about to earn not just one but two degrees from the University that had once deferred my early action application.
This year, as a new admit to the School of Public Health and now a newly minted alumnus of the college, I volunteered to interview applicants for the Class of 2020. In the midst of getting to know some truly accomplished and public-spirited high schoolers, the feelings of sentimental ambivalence came back to me.
With animated eyes, these students tell me what they like about Yale: living in residential colleges, taking classes with legendary professors, the boundless extracurricular offerings and resources, the people. It’s true I tell them. All of this — and everything else — is what makes Yale so great.
With a newfound zeal, I write their evaluations and feel excitement for them — until I remember Yale’s sobering low acceptance rate. I knew deep down that no matter what I write, most of them would be rejected. This fact was confirmed on March 31 when admissions notified me of the decision of my interviewees: All were rejected.
In truth, Yale’s prestige and reputation have always hinged on its selectivity. Every year, there is yet another record-low acceptance rate. And the University seems to derive a sense of satisfaction from this fact. But to put human faces and stories onto the masses of rejected applicants makes me wonder what I’ve done to deserve the benefits that have come at the expense of so many others. I feel tremendously grateful but equally uneasy about whether my sense of gratitude can itself be enough to validate my ticket to Yale.
I’m sure that this feeling is not unique to me. I imagine this is why University leadership has always reminded us of a responsibility of civic service during our opening-day exercises and on commencement. But despite our president’s lofty words, ideas of service and higher purpose inevitably take a back seat to the same default habits we have unconsciously developed merely to survive the academic, extracurricular and social pressures that we still face. These pressures to compete and advance will continue to exist after college, perhaps to an even greater degree if we continue chasing after fancy titles and fancy material possessions. It’s the never-ending rat race, the ruthless climb up the ladder. If we go down this path without time for pause, we will be caught in a cycle of avarice and mutual envy. We will be worse off.
Such narratives are true, but they do not necessarily have to be true.
Today, I try harder to remember the high school kids who would have done almost anything to come to this school and still could not. I try to remember that I also did almost everything I could do to come to this school and ultimately was able to. I try to remember the sense of gratitude I felt as a freshman. But if I am to be conscious of my gratitude, then I also must be conscious of my duty to do something with my degree.
This responsibility is unsettling, but necessary. This is the price and the promise of our Yale degree. Our time here at Yale is short — a mere stopgap in our time as part of broader communities. Communities that took us in when we first entered the world. Communities that we’ll return to on breaks and after we graduate. If we make these communities our own as much as we have made Yale our own, if we do our best with our education and think about the needs and problems that extend beyond just those of our own, then I am confident that when we are done, we will have deserved our place at Yale. We will have earned this.
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 .