As I enter the final weeks of my junior year, I have only begun to grapple with the fact that the remainder of my time at Yale is not as boundless as it once seemed. As we get closer to this next chapter of our lives, there are constant reminders of the immense privilege that has been bestowed upon us, and calls to leverage that privilege into exerting a meaningful impact upon the world. It is a pressure that I am sure most of my fellow classmates are well aware of, and one that some may have already confronted even prior to setting foot in New Haven.
I imagine most of my classmates had similar experiences to mine once they were admitted to Yale — we were told how lucky we were to have been chosen by a school where the chances of admission are statistically implausible for even the most qualified of candidates, and where admissions on the whole functions as a black box. The sense of having being “chosen” is one that students often remain wedded to during their time here. Senior societies, one of Yale’s most hallowed traditions, will often tell members to take pride in the fact that they have been “chosen” — either genuinely or with self-deprecating humor. They remind their newest class that they were selected for being among the most visible leaders on this campus, from involvement in their friend groups, teams or student organizations.
As we look forward to our lives outside of Yale, these reminders of being the “chosen ones” only intensify. Because of our Yale diplomas and the immense influence our University’s alumni have in the realms of politics, business, law and academia, we are touted as “future leaders of the world.” As such, we are not only responsible for navigating the stresses of newfound adulthood, but also responsible for helping address the issues that our generation will face. The theme of President Peter Salovey’s Baccalaureate Address last year was for students to “repair the world,” reinforcing yet again this notion that we have a duty to “fix” the problems in our communities.
It is difficult to find fault with any of these sentiments. It is not just because we are graduates of Yale College that we have been endowed with this sacrosanct duty, it is the noble and morally right thing to do. One also cannot argue with the fact that many of our classmates, teammates and friends on this campus will one day become leaders in their respective fields, and achieve renown for their accomplishments.
What may be slightly more problematic, however, is internalizing and even fetishizing such a message to the point that it produces an adverse effect. I have encountered students who, despite having the very best of intentions, have focused excessively on the idea that belonging to this institution impels them to become leaders. By constantly being told this message and repeating it, we create a narrative in which we live in an ivory tower, and feel the need to fix the great and insurmountable problems of the perilous world we live in. Taken too far, this can breed unintended arrogance and a patronizing sense of noblesse oblige.
Among my extracurricular commitments on campus, I am a part of a student-run community service organization that seeks to serve small businesses in the greater New Haven area. Feedback from past and current city residents has been always overwhelmingly positive, and many note the tremendous impact the organization has created on improving the local economy. One interaction I had with one of our city partners, however, left me feeling somewhat unsettled. The resident told me he had had a positive experience working with the organization, but commented, “there was something about Yale kids — they like the idea of doing good for others so much that they almost like the fact they’re playing with people’s lives.”
Such a statement is worrisome. Instead of simply taking pride that we’re working to promote positive change, it seems to me that some have bought too much into the idea of becoming “future world leaders.” We have begun to take pride not only in doing good for good’s sake, but instead being one of the “chosen” few that help out those whom we look down upon from our ivory tower.
Great leaders are defined by their humility — perhaps the one thing a Yale diploma cannot guarantee.
Franco Chomnalez is a junior in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .