Around this time each year, the perennial question resurfaces: What do I do this summer? And, if you’re one of the two-thirds of seniors who won’t be in the all-entangling tresses of consulting or finance next year, the question could simply be: What do I do?
My answer to you? Something completely different. After graduating last May, I spent four months writing for a small community newspaper in a town of 900 people on the Missouri banks of the Mississippi. And I majored in biochemistry and am heading to medical school in the fall. Go figure.
I’ll be honest, I had my doubts. I considered doing something that made more sense, like working in a cancer lab, interning at an urban health clinic or writing for a science magazine, ideally while living in, of course, New York City. Or literally anything else that wouldn’t leave medical schools and future employers scratching their heads trying to figure out if it was ADHD or split personality disorder that I was on prescriptions for.
The internship wasn’t what any Yalie would consider “a Yale thing to do.” But because it was so different, it was also deeply transformative, opening my eyes to a completely different side of reality.
During my time there, I discussed politics with farmers proudly wearing red Trump hats. I spoke with civil engineers who expressed frustrations at how much easier it was for East Coast activists to support the Clean Water Act than for blue-collar workers to carry out its dictates. I met a girl my age who was already a mother, a guy just one year older who was driving trucks for a living and a lady my grandmother’s age who worked two jobs and visited her daughter in prison on the weekends.
I am by no means trying to demean the people of small-town America. They were in fact some of the kindest and most principled people I’ve ever met. But they were also different from me in so many ways, and it was these differences that planted the seeds of personal growth.
I’ll give you an example. A couple months ago, as I was pounding out some calories on a treadmill at my local gym, my eyes landed on the TV above me. Sean Hannity was on. Suddenly, I realized something. For the first time, I understood why anyone would ever watch Fox News. It was because the anchors, whether it was Hannity, O’Reilly or Baier, literally looked and sounded like many of the people I had met in Missouri. They could have been backyard neighbors. They had the same twang in their voices, the same sparkle of midwestern congeniality in their faces. And I realized that a part of me had always subconsciously deemed them less knowledgeable and less trustworthy, precisely because they were so different.
I turned my eyes to the next screen, which was playing CNN. Anderson Cooper was on in all his snowy splendor. Cooper, Zakaria, Tapper — these were the kind of intellectual elites I had shared rooms with at Yale and eaten lunch with in Commons. But after my four months in Missouri, they were like aliens to me.
Yalies are undeniably a group of uber-privileged people. No matter what background you come from, we are all immersed in a culture soaked in aristocratic elitism and spend four years swimming in it. By the end of your time here, it will have changed you even if you don’t immediately realize how. I saw it happen to almost all of my friends at Yale, and it’s sure to happen to you — if you let it. If you don’t want to graduate more detached from the world than you were as a first year, make an effort to get out and understand the people this world is made of. Call up a Florida fishery and ask to work on one of their boats for a month. Move to a town in Idaho — remember that state? — and work at McDonald’s for a few weeks. Be uncomfortable. It’ll be the kind of learning that really sticks.
As humans, we have a critical problem. We fail to understand people who developed in a different background from us, and we tend to skirt past the difficult conversations needed to tackle these misunderstandings. What if white nationalists could understand what it’s like to grow up in a war-torn country dreaming of a better life for your family? What if anti-abortion activists spent a week speaking with single mothers in line at abortion clinics? What if climate change skeptics were to spend a year working in a NOAA research lab? A more civil, peaceful and enlightened society might be closer than we thought.
So this summer, this fall or even today, get out and experience another side of reality. Be uncomfortable. A better future is at stake.
Kevin Wang graduated from Yale College in 2017. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .