“You sound like you’re picking classes for a summer camp,” my dad said with an air of disdain after hearing some of the classes that I proudly announced I would be shopping during my time at Yale: “Olympic Games, Modern & Ancient,” “Food, Identity, and Desire,” and “Writing About Oneself.”
Having grown up in Taiwan, my parents perceive college education as a route to a highly specialized and narrow skillset intended to help the individual sustain a living in life beyond college gates. The idea of a STEM student taking a class in art history and another in modern philosophy is not only new, but also bewildering.
In most Asian countries, going to college entails selecting a specific field of study and committing to it for four years and perhaps a lifetime. Hong Kong University, for instance, admits you not only to the university, but to a specific program or major within it. In stark contrast to my Yale interview, where the conversation had little to do with academics, my Hong Kong University interview was conducted by a professor in the department to which I had applied, which intended to assess my familiarity with the field. Moreover, there are fewer majors like Classics or Germanic Studies; instead, they are replaced by more pre-professional studies like Business Administration, Journalism and Finance Technology. These aren’t like high school summer camp courses designed for kids to explore subjects beyond the maths and sciences. These are classes that would help you feed yourself.
On the other end of the spectrum, Yale’s liberal arts education presents a strikingly higher level of academic liberty. The curriculum not only actively asks students to reach beyond their major through the distributional requirements, but even after fulfilling these requirements, Yalies still have ample space left to explore classes that simply sound “interesting” to them.
My dad’s comment, made while my head was deep in Bluebooking, prompted a moment of reflection as I realized just how different my college experience would be from that of my parents, or anyone in my family. There is a high chance that I will not graduate as a specialist in a particular field, but as someone who “knows a little about many things.” This is different from most elders’ image of a successful college graduate and worrisome for my parents who believe in the power of scarcity, that only a unique, pointed skill set will sustain a high living standard for their daughter.
Almost anyone coming from a family whose values differ from those of Yale’s will face this struggle of reconciling these perspectives. To me, the Asian route is directed toward a clear objective. It is efficient and leaves little room for diversion. Yale, on the other hand, reminds me of the time when I was given too much money during a trip to Toys “R” Us, where I wanted to grab every toy on the shelves and stuff them in my room; I wanted to add almost every class to my shopping list. While the fascination with this liberty has been a perpetual source of prefrosh enthusiasm, excessive freedom can also generate confusion and uncertainty if not put to good use. The notion of exploring for pure interest, though romantic, can be idealized at times. After all, how will knowledge on Milan Kundera’s life and literature alone pay your rent?
Freedom is irresistible, but I also don’t want to lose practicality in my education. As greedy as it may sound, I want the best of both worlds. I want to develop my survival kit while also learning about Renaissance art and food in ancient Greece. Beyond taking advices of exploration embedded in slogans and advertising, it is important to understand that Yale will not shelter us forever. Hence, that skill-based learning that my parents envision is still very much going to be a part of my education plans.
Nonetheless, I also find it essential for international students to experiment with a different culture’s educational values. Isn’t this the reason why we’ve all chosen to travel thousands of miles away from home to Yale? With so much freedom handed to us all at once, we’re challenged to allow pure curiosity to inspire novel interests, to become risk takers willing to venture into unexcavated fields. It’s this cross-cultural educational experience that will empower us with a more global outlook, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each system.
If I’m lucky, amidst the next four years of exploration, I will find where the two objectives intersect. Moving toward this goal, I hope that Yale will, in all aspects, be more than camp. It’s where I hope to experiment, grow, discover, learn and most importantly, design my own education regardless of cultural differences or expectations.
Annie Fang is a first year in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .