When I meet someone new at Yale, I usually ask a rather unconventional question: “What’s your story?” It’s a weird one — and as anyone who’s been on the other end of it over the last four years can tell you, it’s hard to answer. But somehow, every time I ask, I hear something new and meaningful.
With Commencement around the corner, I’ve often thought about what the most important part of my Yale experience was. I’m still not sure what the answer is, but hearing the life stories of others has been a huge part of it. Over the last four years, I’ve heard quite a few stories from students and staff on campus. I’ve heard the story of a woman who went from living in a small village in India to studying medieval Indian poetry at the largest research institutions in the world — an inspirational professor who happens to have taught me Hindi. I’ve heard the story of a man who bounced back and forth between Kenya and Connecticut, experiencing more than a few identity crises along the way. And I’ve heard the story of my roommate whose experiences growing up in California and studying computer science were simultaneously remarkably similar and fundamentally different from my own.
I’m not alone. Stories are one of the core aspects of the Yale experience; I’m sure all of us have had similar chance conversations in a buttery, hometown discussions in FOOT or something else entirely. And captured in our stories is that indescribable sparkle of Yale.
For me, engaging with stories means writing them down. So, I did: I joined the Yale Daily News as a staff opinion writer my first year on campus. Since then, my columns have been a public diary of sorts. And they’ve created stories of their own.
One night last year, I was sitting with a friend of mine on Cross Campus when we started talking about names. He mentioned how much of a point of pride it was for him when he finally became a U.S. citizen and legally changed his name from a traditional Korean name to a more Western one. To him, changing his name represented the final step in becoming American; he would no longer be an outsider. I was taken aback. For years, I’ve felt that in a nation of immigrants, my Indian name, Shreyas, is the most American name of all. The discussion that followed mattered to me, and I wrote a column about it. Pretty soon, I was flooded by emails from people around Yale and New Haven telling me about the background behind their own names and offering a variety of perspectives about how the words we use define our identities. I’ve never looked at a name the same way since.
And yet, every day that we respond to “How was break?” with a “Fine,” we rob ourselves of the opportunity to hear more of these stories. When you catch up with your friends on campus, please say more than that it was a “normal break.” What does normal even mean? Does it mean hiking through the hills of Palos Verdes, California? Does it mean stargazing in a small town in West Virginia? Tell them a more compelling story; you definitely have one.
It sounds like this is yet another column bemoaning the death of social engagement at Yale. And maybe it is. Complaining is what columnists do. There’s little work required: Just dish out 800-word criticisms of whatever your bugbear of the week happens to be and you’ll join the club. In some sense, we’re the spoilsports of Yale — the Debbie downers who manage to make Yale feel a little less magical and a little less perfect.
Perhaps that’s why the most common response I hear whenever I write a column tends to be, “What’s your problem this time?” It’s a good question. Rare is the column that appreciates rather than excoriates. And you know what, that’s probably fine. The venerable institutions that comprise the University are really just communities of teenagers and 20-somethings who have no idea what we’re doing. We mess up pretty often. Most columns are written as a good faith effort to keep us accountable, and this one is no exception. But this is also a column in which I appreciate how amazing the past four years have been.
In fact, this will be my last regular column for the News. Thank you to all the friends and random passersby on Cross Campus whom I’ve subjected to rants about campus culture at 1 a.m. These conversations and columns tell my story. What’s yours?
Shreyas Tirumala is a senior in Trumbull College. This is his last staff column for the News. Contact him at email@example.com .