How did you feel when you were first accepted to Yale?
Some of you probably cried, overwhelmed by the cheesy “Welcome to Yale” bulldog telling you, yes, this is real. Unable to contain your excitement, you rushed to inform your parents, who also began to cry. You swaggered into school the next day, with your future secured and (we suspect) your ego boosted. All those swim meets, debate practices, standardized tests and science fairs had finally paid off — you were a Yalie, and that felt good.
But perhaps this elation slowly gave way to anxiety. Tears of joy turned to drops of nervous sweat. Would your brilliant classmates outshine you in everything you tried? Would you drop from your normal 4.0 GPA to a number appreciably lower (for 99 percent of you, the answer is yes)? What about your social life? How would you adjust to a new peer group of smart, equally driven students, several of whom seem destined for the Senate or Supreme Court? Would your new roommates be accepting of your insomniac sleeping schedule, or your sexual orientation? Would Yale’s stated commitment to meet 100 percent of “demonstrated financial need” turn out to be smoke and mirrors?
And — this past year in particular — many of you no doubt worried that you would come to feel alienated from your new home. You may have wondered what it meant to be a student of color in a residential college whose namesake’s greatest contribution to political life was a vehement defense of slavery. You may have wondered whether Yale, for all its rhetoric, would really care about you as anything more than a convenient statistic to be highlighted or ignored. Perhaps you fretted that your ideas — not always popular in Facebook groups like “Overheard at Yale” — would be dismissed out of hand by your peers.
Here, class of 2020, is the reality: All of these reactions — the tears, the anxieties, the alienation — will rear their heads at various times throughout your Yale career. There will be days when you look out across Cross Campus, see the sun reflecting from Sterling Memorial Library and think to yourself, “This is paradise.” There will also be days when your papers and problem sets seem so overwhelming you begin to wonder if you were the Admissions Office’s one mistake. And then there will be the days when no one will listen to you and you won’t know what to do.
Yale will not hold your hand, and it will not apologize for wrecking your straight-A average from high school. The administration will make some decisions you strongly disagree with, and others you support. When you express concerns about those decisions, your peers will sometimes respond uncharitably, making you feel alone. (Everyone has had this experience at Yale, no matter where they stand on recent controversies. Trust us.)
Sooner or later, the bulldog’s welcome begins to wear off. You’ll wake up one day, cast your eyes around this incredible place and feel an unwelcome sense of disenchantment. You’ll have learned a hard truth: Yale is not perfect.
And as you come to terms with the decidedly un-utopian character of college life, you will make mistakes. You’ll lose your temper, let friends down, miss deadlines and allow emails to languish, unacknowledged, in your inbox. So will your professors, your classmates, your heads of college, your deans. Embrace these mistakes, and embrace each other, especially in times of difficulty. Recognize that loneliness is not impenetrable, even when it seems that way. Often, asking for help — or a shoulder to cry on — can go a long way. Our campus can often feel less like a university and more like a bureaucratic hierarchy, prizing technocratic efficiency over a supportive learning environment or bonds of fellowship. Still, you’ll learn that most people here — in the administration and outside of it — are decent human beings, if you are willing to seek out that decency.
Ultimately, Yale is what you make it. The University cannot be reduced to a series of corporate charters and nebulous bylaws. It is an organic institution, inseparable from the students, customs and values that comprise it. Just as Yale will shape you, you will shape it.
So we urge you not to forget that initial magic. In dark times, defeatism is the surest path to defeat. When Yale fails to deliver on all its promises — and it will — recall the sense of wonder that your admission inspired. Before you change the bad parts of Yale, and preserve the good ones, you must recognize that you are Yale. This can be a special, magical, enlightening place. But only if you make it so.
That’s the task we leave with you.