Around this time last year, whispers of admission and rejection floated through the halls of my private school. It wasn’t long before one of my classmates divulged to several others the true reason I got into Yale. According to her careful calculations, it was because I’m half Mexican.
For people of color, this accusation is common. Attributions of success to race are a dime a dozen. Nonetheless, the comment left me wondering how my half-Mexican and half-Chinese heritage interacted with hundreds of other criteria in the mysterious chemical reaction of college admissions. If you follow any media coverage on affirmative action, these two ethnicities that make up my biracial self, Mexican and Chinese, mean very different things for someone’s supposed advantage — or disadvantage — in college admissions. But it is precisely because my genetic makeup complicates this binary story that I question it.
This isn’t a soapbox for affirmative action. My reflections started with race, but I quickly realized that there are many ways in which we numbly quantify our lives as privilege or hardship. After someone questioned my admission, the pride I once felt flipped into shame. And although my friends insisted that I should feel proud, pride didn’t feel like the right answer anymore either. Shame and pride were mirror images, easy answers to the same question I was constantly considering.
Do I deserve this?
The 2,229 admitted students in the class of 2022 may be wondering something similar. And while I hope no one ever makes you feel ashamed of your admission — regardless of race, legacy or athletic commitments — I also hope that pride is not your primary emotional response to that sought-after congratulatory letter from Jeremiah Quinlan. Shame and pride are two sides of the same coin, and both distort the reality of Yale admission.
Let me be clear: I am not trying to rob anyone of her happiness about completing the college admissions process and perhaps overcoming huge odds to do it. Just the opposite, actually — I think excessive pride bars us from feeling true joy.
For most people, a little pride appears benign, but it can open the door to all kinds of elite syndromes: contempt, superiority, shallow empathy. Of course, it doesn’t happen by itself. With every family friend who fawns over your SAT scores, every stranger who gets googly-eyed over the “Y” on your hat, it becomes a little harder to deflect the compliments and a little easier to believe that you must, in some way, be better than them — and so you deserve more.
The email from Quinlan says, “You have every reason to feel proud.” Maybe. But I think there is far more reason to feel gratitude, awe and a sense of responsibility. It took a village to send me to college. We each represent a constellation of involvement: parents, teachers and baristas who invested their money, time and expertise. When we sidestep gratitude for pride, we trick ourselves into believing that we got ourselves here.
And why not feel awe? You need not grow prematurely jaded at Yale — you can maintain a sense of wonder at hearing the carillon bells ringing outside your seminar room or seeing a lamppost flicker on a snow-covered Old Campus scene straight out of Narnia. But, with an ever-plummeting acceptance rate, let’s reserve some awe for the cosmic arbitrariness of it all. That out of all the hardworking, passionate teenagers in the world, you were part of the tiny minority who even had the financial and cultural resources to apply to Yale.
This fact takes us to our responsibility. Quarrels over affirmative action always come down to fairness, a perplexing double standard. We tell ourselves that the admissions process is fair, that talent will always float to the top. But if we were consistent with the bizarre premium we place on fairness, we would care far more about the thousands of high school students who never dared to think they could go to college, whose talent is concealed by the need to take care of younger siblings, work to support their families or cross gang lines to get to school. Our responsibility is to open the door to Yale wider, not just celebrate after we narrowly slide through.
Prefrosh, congratulations. But if you’re predisposed to ask yourself if you deserve to be at Yale, remember that there are dangers in the word “deserve.” “Do I deserve this?” is the wrong question. Why convert your race or any other part of your identity into mere functions of advantage or disadvantage? Yes, you’ve faced headwinds that held you back. Yes, you’ve experienced tailwinds that boosted you forward. But you are more than either.
So, as strangers ooh and ahh, I encourage you to move past the default urge to self-deprecate with shame or puff up with pride. Augustine wrote, “By my swelling pride I was separated from thee, and my bloated cheeks blinded my eyes.”
Don’t be blinded. Awe, gratitude, responsibility — these are responses worth sustaining in a Yale education.
Lauren Chan is a first year in Grace Hopper College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .