As he navigates the first few weeks of freshman year, Kevin Zhen ’20 knows where to turn for help when faced with questions about which courses to take, which extracurriculars to avoid and anything else a freshman might wonder about life at Yale.
Zhen is one of 12 incoming students from Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire that sends more students to Yale than nearly any other high school. Zhen estimates that, in total, there are about 50 Exeter alums on campus, a network he described as an established community for him at Yale.
“If I need any insider information, I’m not afraid to ask them about it,” Zhen said. “I’m pretty grateful that I knew that I’m not alone even before I arrived.”
Other students are not so lucky. According to an August News survey of incoming freshmen, about 40 percent of almost 1,000 respondents said they knew fewer than five people at Yale before stepping foot on campus.
This divide leads to two distinct experiences of Camp Yale: one for students with an existing social network, and one for those who must pave their own way. And as the number of high schools sending students to Yale each year rises, many more incoming freshmen could find themselves without a built-in network of peers to call on for support.
“We now have students from over 1,000 different high schools,” said Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan. “The freshman class now sees students from more and more high schools, from more and more countries. So the variety of contexts that students are coming to from Yale is broadening and diversifying.”
One such background is Adrian Rivera’s ’20 public high school in Mission, Texas, where 85 percent of the student body is “economically disadvantaged,” he said. Rivera is the first student from his high school to ever attend Yale.
In the summer after his sophomore year, Rivera received funding from his high school to attend Yale Young Global Scholars, a two-week summer program on campus where high school students can take courses taught by Yale faculty. Through YYGS, Rivera met students that would ultimately join him at Yale, and by fundraising online, he was able to attend the program again the following summer.
Still, he said, these connections do not rival those readily available for students coming from schools that are widely represented at Yale.
“How well do you know someone you met for two weeks during the summer?” Rivera said.
In contrast, Zhen said he had the opportunity to tap into the experiences of older students he already knew from high school.
Like Rivera, Shawn Luciani ’20 is the only student ever to come to Yale from his public high school in Pace, Florida, a small town in the state’s panhandle. To find people in similar situations, Luciani turned to the admitted students Facebook page, and kept in touch over the summer with students he met during Bulldog Days.
Just 3 percent of students from rural areas attended high schools that have previously sent students to Yale, according to the News’ survey.
Others also turned to Yale’s admitted student Facebook page to find people to get in touch with once they arrived on campus.
Nadira Abdilahi ’20, who is from Somalia but attended Westminster School — a private high school in Connecticut — for three years, said she only knew one former Westminster student at Yale before arriving. In the opening days of school, she mostly socialized with students she met on Facebook before coming to campus, she said.
Unlike many coming from high schools in rural areas, Luciani knew incoming students through Freshman Scholars at Yale, a summer program that the University runs for low-income and first-generation students before their first semesters at Yale.
The program’s coordinators have stressed in the past that it helps build a community for students from low-income backgrounds before classes start, and this year FSY increased its capacity from 48 students to 60 students to accommodate high demand.
Though some see the need for programs like FSY, Luciani said he did not think students from less privileged schools were at a social disadvantage at Yale, given the high number of other students who come from low-income families.
But as Camp Yale ends and awkward introductions give way to stronger friendships, common experiences among students may have already sown the seeds for a social divide between those with privilege and those who lack it, Rivera said.
“If you have had the ability to travel all over the world, if you have had access to exclusive things … automatically the conversation will not be as good as it is with someone who has done similar things to you,” Rivera said. “Based on what people perceive you to be, they will either strike up a conversation with you or not.”