When you meet someone new at Yale, how do you introduce yourself? Chances are you’ll mention your major, your class year and perhaps even your residential college, but the most common question is something to the effect of “What do you do?”
This is, of course, an invitation to rattle off your extracurriculars. As I’ve written before, most Yalies probably spend more time working for clubs on campus than they do on schoolwork. We identify ourselves by the organizations we are a part of — and it’s making us miserable.
One of the most distressing conversations that I’ve had in recent weeks was one with a first year who claimed that she hated the activities she was involved with at Yale but felt pressured to continue because it was “too late to do anything else.” What she probably meant was that if she joined any other large campus group, then she probably wouldn’t receive the same leadership opportunities. She’s not alone in feeling trapped. Over the past few years, this sentiment has been all too familiar.
Club membership has become the embodiment of credentialism at the modern elite university. The theory goes that if you lead the right clubs, you’ll pad your resume enough to get the right jobs and presumably be successful. This line of reasoning is why so many clubs tout their pre-professional connections, selectivity or sheer size to lure prospective first-year members. The Yale Undergraduate Consulting Group boasts on its website that its student consultants have ties to the likes of Google, Blackstone and McKinsey, which suggests that students have a better chance to land jobs at such organizations if they join. The Model United Nations Team at Yale and Yale Debate Association both note that they have “highly competitive” or “rigorous” tryout processes, implying that their alumni networks are strong. And both the Yale International Relations Association and Yale Political Union claim to be the largest student group on campus, an indication that leadership positions in either organization would be pretty sweet lines on a resume.
Such advertising isn’t intrinsically bad — and, speaking from experience, it definitely works — but it invites students to join organizations based on a hierarchy of perceived prestige. Students search for the best positions in the best clubs because Yalies only feel successful if they’re the most successful of their peers. This is obviously stupid: There are only so many “prestigious” positions to go around, and, on a campus filled with high school valedictorians and national insert-activity-here champions, there’s bound to be some disappointment.
In fact, students treat clubs as de facto jobs. First years and sophomores work hard to become managers of sorts as juniors. And this is no accident. Juniors use those positions to obtain internships and eventually full-time jobs. What’s also unique to Yale is that seniors usually retire from club life entirely, which is pretty revealing. Aren’t clubs opportunities to engage with others who have similar interests, not chores to complete before leaving them senior year? It would seem that Yalies don’t really like the clubs they’re in, otherwise they’d stick around. Worse still, there’s no incentive for University officials to step in and change this culture. Students typically enjoy senior year — in large part, I’d imagine, because they no longer participate in clubs they hate — which explains why so many donate to Yale.
At the same time, it’s hard to criticize students for credentialism. As Yale becomes more meritocratic and less of a rite of passage for scions of the elite, it’s inevitable that students compete with one another. As Nathan Heller of The New Yorker points out, “credentialism … is what happens when you wipe away the grime of old-boy exclusivity.” Is it also any wonder that we, who came of age in the years following the Great Recession, are doing whatever we can to secure jobs for ourselves?
Wouldn’t it be nice if Yalies enjoyed themselves more? I’ve personally had a wonderful time this year getting to know many of my classmates who were once occupied by useless club meetings. Maybe the key to a successful Yale career is just being a little less busy.
Shreyas Tirumala is a senior in Trumbull College. His column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .