A friend recently laid out some rough math: The chance of running into another Ivy League graduate similar to us — low-income, first-generation Houstonians — was something like 0.02 percent. We laughed about how ostentatious that number was, how incredibly low.
Over the summer, I backpacked through the breathtaking beauty of Wyoming’s mountains as part of a fellowship program with 20 other students at prestigious institutions who had beat the odds. Some were undocumented, some were refugees. Most of us were poor. At one point, we joked about just being a ragtag group of at-risk teens, a psychology researcher’s gold mine, lost in the woods.
What is the probability that a kid like me ends up in a place like this? Whether the place is the wilderness or Yale or any locale of de facto restricted accessibility, this is a question that all of us should ask, but many don’t. The follow-up questions are even more important because the answers are even harder to own: Why is that the probability? Why am I here?
The summer before my senior year, a Houston community-based organization brought about a hundred first-generation, low-income students to live in Ezra Stiles College so we could envision our future at a place like this. For a week, we listened to guest lectures, lounged in butteries and marveled at the luxurious water pressure in the shower. Then, reality hit: It was statistically improbable for all of us to be accepted.
When I was, I felt like I’d won the lottery, but, unlike winning the lottery, people said that I deserved this. And a small part of me believed them. After all, our successes are most often viewed as smart purchases with the currency of hard work and talent. An inherently self-centered narrative praises us as deserving of the position we now have in life — Yalies with our various accolades. We’re eternally sleep-deprived, constantly busy, flitting between classes, libraries and meetings. So maybe we could be forgiven for thinking that this is all about us, but it’s not: We’re lucky and indebted.
Some Yalies are luckier than others. It really helps to have a trust fund or double-legacy status or a stable childhood of enriching experiences. But I was lucky too: I was born here, a citizen. My parents sacrificed their safety, health and dreams for mine. Teachers, counselors and organizations invested in me both inside and outside of the classroom. I did not “beat the odds” just because of me; our success is not just because of us.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to other people who have made it possible for us to be here, most of whom we don’t even know or think about: the laborers who build our roads, airports, cities; the workers who deliver our pizza, harvest our food and pick up the trash; and the countries whose resources we all indirectly exploit. The list goes on and on. If we had to do all of those things ourselves, we would not be here. Most Americans have been unceremoniously born into the world’s wealthiest 10 percent; most Yalies, the top 0.05 percent. We are largely blind to our often parasitic relationship with the American poor, let alone the global poor, unless a seminar reading calls it to mind.
This is important because it impacts the way we perceive our positionality and our moral obligation to others. When we implicitly believe that we deserve success because of talent and hard work, it’s easy to focus on where reality falls short of expectations and to be tone deaf in our complaints. When we subconsciously worship our merits in entering selective spaces, we justify perpetuating that exclusivity in our social circles and our career pursuits. Instead, paying it forward to the underprivileged should not be a lauded act of benevolence but a moral requirement that we owe as a result of what we have taken.
What is the probability that a kid like me ends up in a place like this? Why am I here instead of the other hundred students that visited Yale alongside me — or even the hundreds of thousands other people around the world who work hard but whose talent remains undiscovered?
Sure, on some days, I’d like to see myself as an at-risk teen who beat the odds. Most of us would like to believe that we deserve our place here, and, sometimes, that perception gives us strength. But often, that idea of deserved exceptionality allows us to pursue a life of invisibly selfish and unkind goals, while increasingly filling us with anxiety about our own worth: How much do we deserve? If we instead consider our success as a composition of contributions from those around us and before us, perhaps we’ll be less likely to default on the debt we owe the world. Perhaps we’ll make the effort to care about, sacrifice for and love others in the decisions that we make so that, eventually, anyone can make it to a “place like this.”
Liana Wang is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .