An Arabic translator for the Air Force. A four-year member of the Navy. A former addict turned Boren scholar and sociological researcher. A globe-trotting snowboarding coach and graphic designer. A former Marine Corp and State Department employee. They all walk Yale’s campus, but not as residential fellows, graduate students or professors. These are undergraduate students, all working towards the same bachelor’s degree as their younger classmates. They are Eli Whitney students.

A program named for Eli Whitney, Yale College class of 1792, who enrolled at Yale at 23 after years of working as a farm laborer and school teacher, the Eli Whitney Students Program is designed for people with high academic potential who have had their education interrupted. A five-year education gap is a prerequisite for program eligibility; as such, the youngest Elis are roughly 25 years old, while the oldest have been closer to 70.

But, to the students themselves, their reflection on the goal of the program, and their place here, is much more personal. “I think it’s incredibly smart, in this highly orchestrated play-date that is Yale, to have people with a true variety of experiences, people with different psychological approaches to learning,”said Frances Fagan ’19, an Eli exploring public libraries as models for refugee centers.“I’ve found that, although there’s a lot of ethnic and geographic diversity, there can be a feeling of a lack of experiential diversity.” Through field work, Fagan is acquiring data about resource hubs and policy reform and best reconciling the needs of underserved communities with those of the government. Her goal is to achieve this organized, mutually-beneficial relationship of education and experience.

Similarly, the administration of the program recognizes the recently increased diversity of Elis, and acknowledges the abundant benefits of that broadening. Laurie Santos, the head of Silliman College, has mentored many Elis, so this more recent expansion has been evident to her: “I think the program now is much more diverse in the kind of student it accepts, which is fantastic because it means the program brings to Yale scholars with vastly different personal backgrounds.”

A Changing Tradition

The rules in place today are the legacy of a time when the Eli Whitney program looked very different. When Yale first conceived of and implemented the program in 1982, it imagined that most participants would be middle-aged locals looking to take a small handful of college courses. The “special students” program, as it was once called, did not offer a traditional BA/BS degree but rather a Bachelor of Liberal Studies. A committee that reviewed the program in 2006 recommended the implementation of a genuine admissions process and an expansion of academics to a traditional bachelor’s degree. This meant that the “continuing education” model was abandoned in favor of an undergraduate academic experience, according to Dean Risa Sodi.

In 2008, the program was revamped and renamed. However, the program has not yet been fully reformatted to accommodate the evolution of its target demographic. While Yale implemented more rigorous admissions standards and allowed for heavier coursework, it did not eliminate an original ordinance that rendered Eli Whitney Scholars ineligible for on-campus housing. Aside from GI Bill stipends for the veterans in the program, Yale doesn’t provide financial aid for the mandated off-campus housing of Eli Whitney students. Elis are assigned to one of five residential colleges — Timothy Dwight, Berkeley, Hopper, Silliman, or Trumbull — but their relationship to those colleges is tenuous.

“It’s really only so that the deans can sign off on our schedules,” said Logan Keith ’18, a former Navy member who studies politics and warfare here.

As the program has evolved, the student cohort has become both younger and more full-time. Most incoming students are using closer to two or three of the available seven years to complete the program. According to Sodi, head of the program, eight students are graduating this spring, one of whom finished in a mere two years. The quicker Elis can complete the program, the closer they get to their ambitious post-graduation goals and the fewer supplementary costs they must pay. Unfortunately, that can come at the cost of the true liberal arts education.

“I’m going through this as quickly as possible, rather than getting an education for enrichment,” said Wade Southwell ’19, who researches sociology with the hopes of doing entrepreneurship upon graduation. He doesn’t want to spend time; he wants to save money.

Paying the Bills

While financial aid was not offered to the Special Students program, it has been offered to the Eli Whitney Students Program since its inception in 2008. In the past few years, roughly 75 percent of Eli students have qualified for a need-based full-tuition scholarship. Since Eli students live off campus, however, Yale does not factor cost of room and board, course materials, a sustainable meal plan, or technology into their financial aid packages.

Veterans like Keith and Tony Grant ’20, former Arabic translator and Eli committed to reforming American health care, have their tuition covered by the Yellow Ribbon Program, a provision of the Post-9/11 GI Bill that helps pay for the costs of private universities and graduate programs. The GI Bill provides 36 months of education benefits, though its payments vary in accordance with number of course credits. For a full-time student — at Yale, someone who takes three or more courses per semester — the GI Bill pays roughly $21,000 dollars. Yale then adds a veterans-only scholarship of roughly $10,000 that is matched by the VA, thus covering the remaining $20,000. For someone with a low-income background like Grant, it’s a great deal, “very generous”— if the money actually comes.

Last spring semester, veterans were not paid their education benefits until well into March. Without the funds, the months between January and March left many Elis “homeless and hungry,” Keith said. Veterans are especially dependent on the monthly housing allowance (roughly $3,100) to pay for their rent and bills. For a married student like Grant, the money is doubly precious. When the benefits do finally arrive, veterans usually do not put them into savings. Rather, they use them to pay off accumulated debts.

“As the months without [benefits] go by, we’re bleeding in $2000 chunks,” said Grant. “There were days when I would come home, sit down, and put my head in my hands. [My wife] would be sitting there paying the bills, hoping that her job is enough. Some days she would ask, “Tony, are we going to make it?”

And he would give the most honest answer he could: “I hope.”

Since the GI Bill payment amounts are contingent on the number of courses a student is taking, Yale waits until after shopping period to inform the Veterans Administration of the number of courses taken by each student veteran, according to director of undergraduate financial aid Scott Wallace-Juedes. But as noted by Grant, that explanation doesn’t do much to help student-veterans waiting on what amounts to their life support. While traditional undergraduates might be “too busy choosing classes” to notice the length of shopping period, each passing week means another week of the VA’s essential education benefits delayed.

Keith, meanwhile, doesn’t believe the office files the paperwork immediately after shopping period. Noting the distance between the end of shopping period and the arrival of the GI Bill payments roughly two months later, he suggested that Yale’s financial aid office wait until after the conclusion of dropping period (roughly two months into the semester) to avoid filing paperwork twice in case a full-time student drops a course to become a part-time student. For veterans, the delay causes extensive financial distress. Keith says he has exhausted his life savings and is currently in debt just from being a Yale undergraduate.

There have been improvements. Previously, Yale had charged Eli Whitney students on a course-by-course basis — roughly $5,700 for each credit — rather than a semesterly flat rate like traditional undergraduates. This effectively limited an Eli Whitney student to 7.5 credits per year — that is, two to three courses per semester — because additional credits would exceed the amount covered by the Yellow Ribbon program. Now, however, Eli Whitney students are allowed the same maximum number of courses as the rest of the undergraduate body with the added benefit of a lower minimum. In addition, the GI Bill’s monthly housing alliance is no longer considered part of the financial aid package. Meanwhile, according to Sodi, former Dean Jonathan Holloway has passed on to current Dean Marvin Chun an Eli Whitney Advisory committee intended to analyze and address the financial aid implications of the program.

The veteran students have also attempted their own solutions: a few Elis are working on an initiative that would have the VA automatically assume that they are full-time students every semester, which would expedite the payment process. But even with these advances, the Elis have a long way to go before they can be assured financial stability.

But even if that initiative is adopted, it will do little to help the most vulnerable Eli Whitney Scholars. The veteran Eli students agreed that “civilians” — students from non-military backgrounds who do not receive VA assistance — have it much worse. Even though his tuition fees are covered by Yale’s financial aid package, Southwell has struggled to pay for his off-campus housing while still retaining his status as a full-time student: he is reliant on  food stamps and Obamacare, he has an Obamaphone, he is maxed out on loans, and he works the maximum possible hours at his various student jobs. Since Yale doesn’t cover his health insurance, he’s been forced to travel long distances to his doctor appointments.

“I regret the time I’m not able to spend networking with researchers, preparing for graduate school, [and] meeting with professors and mentors,” said Southwell. “The student I could be, the things I could contribute, the community member I could become are all hindered by the lack of financial aid. I feel like I could contribute much more intellectually and academically if I had fewer financial obstacles, which is a problem Yale can solve.”

“Some administrators have been very supportive,” Southwell continues, “but others have discouraged me from talking about my issues for the pure fact that it ‘could stress administrators out to know that I’m struggling.’ I’ve even had an administrator recommend that I transfer to another school if I’m having such a hard time financially.”

Coming Together

The financial problems facing Eli students as a result of off-campus housing accompany social ones. Yet the Elis make it evident that even this community disconnect is tied to financial inadequacy. Away from the soccer games played in the courtyard and the laughs exchanged over meals in the buttery, a sense of isolation, of being an undergraduate student who has to make ends meet for housing, food and utilities, of being “other,” can easily fester.

It was just a few short years ago that Eli students could go months without laying eyes on each other. After all, they make up a mere 20 of the Yale College’s roughly 6,000 undergraduates. Their ineligibility to live, and even to eat, on campus disconnected them not only from traditional undergraduates, but also from each other. Some Elis commuted from different parts of the greater New Haven area, while others attended lectures and seminars and sections. Some traveled home to cook dinner while others chose to stay on campus later to participate in extracurriculars.

Veterans in the program, however, felt solidarity in their shared hardship, specifically in the early parts of the school year. They helped each other bear the burden of postponed GI payments and feelings of financial disregard.

It wasn’t until fall 2016, when Yale began providing five free lunches a week in the residential college dining halls, that the Elis began to keep up with each other more regularly. Today, the majority of Elis spend their lunch hours together in Silliman, Trumbull and Berkeley dining halls debriefing their classes and projects.

“The sense of community keeps getting stronger, because the current students are transmitting that to the new students,” said Sodi. “They come in seeing a new community already. There is much more of a core to the program.”

Since taking over the Eli Whitney program in 2015, Sodi, the “cool grandma” Grant says he never had, has attempted to ease the Elis’ initial transition into Yale and strengthen their sense of community. Her introduction of peer liaisons, the Eli Whitney-equivalent of the traditional Freshmen Counselor, has provided incoming Elis with previously nonexistent advising on shopping and Bluebooking. Aside from encouraging Elis to attend the academic fair in order to talk to various directors of undergraduate studies, Sodi holds check-in meetings with students after course selection.

Elis like Keith appreciate the help: “Whatever they’re paying [her], it’s not enough.”

Home Away from Home

Despite the segregation that some Elis feel within the self-proclaimed inclusive Yale community, Southwell describes his time with fellow undergraduates as enjoyable. “I’ve felt totally welcomed here, I feel accepted, especially among undergraduates: when they hear that I’m a nontraditional student, they think that’s really cool.” At a place where kindness and open-mindedness could be considered admission criteria, this appeared logical.

“The place where Yale shines, to me, is the academics and in my relationships to other students and professors,” Keith said. The classroom environment and material hold true to Yale’s commitment to academic excellence. Elis have found their academic niches here, and their intellectual opportunities have been more than they expected.

The program’s organization, however, hinders Elis from becoming close friends with their peers. Because grabbing a quick dinner and studying late in the library are not feasible options for students who live so far off campus and have different meal plans, associating with classroom friends in more social settings is difficult. Getting home after a party at 2:00 a.m. or a late night at Woad’s proves exhausting at best for the majority of the Elis.

“Why are you marketing an all-inclusive program when there are so many stipulations to keep us separated from the student body?” asks Keith.

As a result, many Elis experience a sense of otherness in a place they are supposed to call home. In every student’s first few weeks as an undergraduate at Yale, their residential college becomes a significant marker of identity, pride and comfort. For Elis like Keith, an inability to relate to such an essential part of the community fosters a sense of ostracization: “I don’t feel like a Yalie.”

And it’s not for lack of trying. Southwell worked hard to contribute to Silliman, his own college. “I was really involved in student life at Silliman,” he said. “I was on the activities council, I attended a lot of [Head of College] Teas. I really hung around campus a lot.” Yet, it was taxing on a full-time undergraduate: “It took a lot of my energy because it wasn’t like I lived in my college and could come to an event in five minutes. It takes me an entire afternoon or an entire evening to do what other students can do in 15 minutes.”

For Southwell, it is clear: living on campus would make his social and academic life immensely more enjoyable and more organized. Pushing this small group of undergraduates away from campus breeds inefficiency and discontent, messages so apparently contradictory to Yale’s goals in teaching.

Some Elis, however, are content with residing in off-campus housing. Fagan, one of the non-veteran Elis, sees living on her own as an opportunity to explore resources in New Haven that are dissociated with Yale: “It’s a perfect balance of learning and doing and engaging; it’s a multi-dimensional education. And that would not be possible in a more traditional program.” Fagan takes three courses per semester, the minimum required to be deemed a full-time student at Yale, which allows her to work 20 to 30 hours a week in the New Haven community.

Grant, too, feels no desire to live on campus. Aside from the age disparity between him and most undergraduates, he feels content living with his wife in East Rock, where their Great Dane has become something of a minor celebrity. Zach Metcalf ’20, a former member of the Marine Corp deployed to Japan and Iraq who now studies economics, also lives off campus with his girlfriend. He feels similarly comfortable living away from Yale’s gothic castles. However, both agree that students who would benefit from living on campus, like Keith and Southwell, should be provided with the financial means to do so.

Fagan echoes their thoughts, noting that although personally “the freedom to pursue my interest at my own pace is worth not having a housing allowance,” she is well-aware that many other Elis do not have that luxury. Ultimately, in her view, “Yale is an institution with a massive endowment that can’t even offer a few students a housing allowance.”

(Dis)Content

Grant often thinks of Amherst. Although he had also been admitted to Cornell and Brown, his college decision ultimately came down to a face-off between Amherst and Yale. He recalls Amherst offering him not only more generous financial aid than Yale, but also a higher credit conversion that would have allowed him to graduate far in advance of the 3.5 years he’s spending at Yale. Though the appeal of Yale’s name and its incredible resources eventually sealed his decision, he sometimes regrets not taking Amherst’s financial aid package, some of which he could have pocketed for graduate school.

But ultimately, he doesn’t regret coming to Yale.

“I’ve met too many good people,” he says with a smile.

Despite abounding discontents surrounding finances and treatment in their program, other Elis expressed appreciation for what Yale has provided them as well. Keith, who was deciding between Columbia, University of California, Berkeley, and Yale, “didn’t want to live the rest of my life asking ‘what if?’” Now he has the peace of mind of knowing the answer to that question, for better or for worse.

Fagan, too, feels good about her enrollment: “I wanted to come to the East Coast because of its abundance of resources, but I ultimately chose Yale because of the Ethnicity, Race and Migration Program. The speakers, mentors, museums, lectures here, as well as the economic and cultural diversity of New Haven — these are the things make this kind of liberal arts education most practical.”

And though in retrospect many of these financial hopes went unfulfilled, the Elis aren’t burdened by a spirit of pure regret. Rather, the prevailing feeling is one of ambivalence: love for what Yale has provided, and hurt at what it hasn’t. In Grant’s own words, coming to Yale “paid off — but with reservations.”

Academically, there is a shared feeling of gratitude: “Even with financial struggle, school has been so fulfilling, and being at Yale has been the fullest realization of where school can take me,” says Southwell. Financially, though, there is resentment for the lack of economic security when they expected abundant aid. The way Keith sees it, “there just should not be people at an Ivy League institution relying on food stamps.”

Metcalf feels similarly: “You aren’t made aware of any of the financial ropes before you arrive here; it’s not fair to hide that from applicants.”

There remains a disparity between the academic exceptionality, the mentorship from professors and administration here, and financial neglect and lack of social integration among the Eli Whitney Student Program.

“I have a lot of love for our administrators,” said Grant, making this tension explicit. “Just not the bureaucracy that they work in.”

Contact Ahmed Elbenni and Shayna Elliot at ahmed.elbenni@yale.edu and shayna.elliot@yale.edu.