Dear First Year:
When you first arrived on campus, we told you an inviting story: The admissions office makes no mistakes. Yale is a community. You belong. In my last regular column for the News, it is my sad duty to disabuse you of these silly ideas.
First, you don’t deserve to be here. And yes, the admissions office makes mistakes — but only if you let them. The job of the admissions office is not to distribute the spoils of war after the arms race that is high school, but to make a gamble — a gamble on who will do the most good for our world. So, don’t worry about whether you are smart enough or prepared enough or good-looking enough for Yale. All of us lucked out in some way in the lottery of life. They call it the imposter syndrome as though it’s a bad thing, but we are all imposters now.
So don’t take yourself too seriously, but take what you do seriously. Whether it is rowing on the crew team or organizing in New Haven or doing research in a lab, you have a chance to make good on someone else’s bet. The path ahead will be hard, but how else would you have it? You didn’t come here to sleepwalk from First-Year Assembly in Woolsey Hall to Commencement on Old Campus.
For Yale may be a community, but you are also an individual, with a cascade of choices that you — and only you — can make. Before college, life was fairly linear, like a Jane Austen novel. The early 20s, however, feel more like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story. Some of the choices will be personal: How much does money mean to you? What about family or power? Other decisions will be ethical. What obligations do we owe one another? Will you lie or betray someone to get ahead? What does friendship mean to you?
There are no definite answers, but the last thing you want is for others to make those choices on your behalf. In the end, life is not Credit/D/Fail. All lives may be equal, but not all lives are equally well-lived, and the best place to experiment with these choices is at Yale.
Speaking of choices, you should be a history major — though not necessarily of the thesis-picture-outside-Sterling variety. By “majoring” in history, I mean thinking — and living — in time. Seeing yourself as a historical subject will help you recognize that your experience — and our moment — is unique but not exceptional. That our pasts — individual and collective — animate the present but don’t predetermine the future. That our personal and shared destinies are entangled. That the choices we make matter.
And remember: You don’t belong at Yale. With or without you, this 316-year-old institution will get on just fine. To seek to belong is to buy into Yale’s conceit, to accept that the University is nothing more than dusty portraits and fancy parties, Gothic archways and landed tombs. These are the things that give Yale its cultural authority, but these are not the things that make Yale. To desire them is to transform history into kitsch; to hold them in contempt is to reject a shared inheritance, but nonetheless to affirm their power. The trick, then, is not to try to belong, but to create a Yale that belongs to you.
One of the greatest joys of college has been to build a home away from home, from the spaces I have inhabited — my favorite spot in the Saybrook College dining hall — to the rituals I have developed — I plead the fifth — to the friends I have made, and some others. The greatest joy has been to share this world with those around me, with all its imperfections and idiosyncrasies. I am sad to leave this life behind, but that sadness only belies the joy and gratitude I feel to have made this place my own. When it’s your turn to leave, I hope you, too, will feel the same.
The Analyst (formerly The Wallflower)
Jun Yan Chua is a senior in Saybrook College. This is his last staff column for the News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .