In an essay I had written in my first semester at Yale, I brimmed with gritty optimism, writing, “If I must work twice as hard to get half as much, I’ll work ten times harder. Ceilings exist to be broken.” As a kid, I’d been assured that hard work will take you as far as your dreams can imagine. Now, midway through college, I’ve clung stubbornly to the same determination. My optimism, however, has slipped.
Recently, the student income contribution has received a fresh wave of attention, spurred in part by the race for Yale College Council presidency. For that, I’m glad, and I hope the administration engages in the kind of aid reform that allows all low-income students access to a Yale experience unsullied by financial burden. But students and faculty, this community itself, also have immense agency in the work they can do to address class: all the subtle cues that alienate students outside of income alone.
When David Brooks published a column last summer on class, Yale students roundly criticized him for his anecdote about soppressata and a gourmet sandwich shop. However, campus conversation is laced with similar cultural signifiers, whether its an expectation that you’ve come here with taste in clothing or philosophical literature or our obsession with exclusivity in extracurricular clubs and social circles. Fifty Most, despite its self-proclaimed irony and satirical nature, featured a cast of largely wealthy students. Even lauded performing arts groups, though talent-based, often operate in the unspoken transaction of social currency that leaves many first-generation, low-income students behind.
Professors, too, participate in social alienation. First, many seminars judge participants on the presentation of an argument, couched in Yale language, rather than the content itself. Some have offered critiques of papers that question students’ ability to speak English or invited students to pricey meals that low-income students cannot afford. Though research shows that first-generation students are less confident in requesting a professor’s time outside of class, few professors actively reach out to students and lower that barrier for contact.
A week ago, I received some exams back where I’d performed particularly poorly, on top of being exhausted by my job and other academic demands. For the first time, I went back to my room and cried. I felt alone, and scared: The grades played into a broader anxiety about my socioeconomic mobility. In some ways, it was a purely emotional reaction; my rational mind asked whether I’d care about these exams in five years, and the answer was clearly no. But, like the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s characters — many of whom navigate between two different worlds — I often feel that a single bad move could be calamitous for achieving the future I want. Ishiguro describes how a chess player, making a mistake in an important game, has “this panic because you don’t know yet the scale of the disaster you’ve left yourself open to.”
At Yale, I’m close enough to the elite world to understand the value of connections, of being inside the network, of what social status means. Yet in many ways, I’m searching for a way to the top without access to the inside track. With a greater awareness of the role that social capital plays in the world at large, the stakes of my performance seem to be constantly rising. In the pursuit of class-passing, my academic and activity-based qualifications have to make up for where I’m lacking in social cues. Meanwhile, I am also aware of the opportunity cost of time spent on academics over social climbing because the latter now has value I formerly did not recognize, in the real world of power and money.
Over dinner one night, another student and I pondered over this dilemma, especially as achieving social capital often seems so nebulous and vague. Maybe, he suggested, moving too high up the ladder is too much to ask for. Maybe it’s our job to make it to the middle class, and let our kids — whom we can dress in Patagonias and send to good schools and give the confidence that we’re still learning — advance past us.
Maybe this glass ceiling is one that we can’t break, but still, I don’t want to settle. In that first-year application essay, I wasn’t looking for a life with a ceiling: I also wrote that I sought “a future unrestricted” where I can push power to improve people’s lives worldwide.
Perhaps the student income contribution can’t change without the Yale administration. But the gatekeepers to the inside track are in this community that ought to be one, supportive home. So while I’m willing to work ten times as hard, while we demand aid reform, let us also hold ourselves accountable. Let us change the norms so those who enter in the future find class-passing less of a difficult game.
Liana Wang is a sophomore in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact her at email@example.com.