“Oh Yale!” It’s the fascinated intonation that I always hear, coupled with widened eyes and a look of wonder, when I’m asked where I am going to study.
Almost 8,000 miles away from the United States, there are few American universities that Indians have heard of, and even fewer that are considered worth going to. The Ivy Leagues, among these, hold a particular degree of importance and allure. I think that in India, there is a particular emphasis on the name, renown or reputation of a university, rather than the courses taught or faculty teaching. Inquisitive aunts and excited friends ask almost everyone going abroad: “Are you going to an Ivy League?”
Yale, however, invited no such questions. It was followed by widespread recognition and admiration and the inevitable: “How did you get in?” Yale, somehow, has created a name that resounds in the far corners of the world — accompanied each time with a story, or the name of a famous alumnus, each grander than the last. Over time, people’s indubitable admiration has eclipsed any knowledge about the reason for Yale’s reputation with their own deep seated fantasies that they think Yale can fulfill. Seeing people’s insistence on going to an Ivy League; their awe, pride and even relief when they hear about Yale seems to reflect an expectation for Yale to work some kind of unrealistic magic and simply take care of everything. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if Yale was likened to the fairy godmother; a whisk of a wand with a Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo, and all the Cinderellas of the world are ready to meet their prince — ready to become the next CEO, president or famous musician.
Yale has morphed into an idea far greater than what it is — an idea that carries the dreams and expectations of people not only in India, but all over the world. It was a strange feeling to realize that somewhere along the line between Yale being my dream to it emerging as everyone’s ultimate dream, some of that expectation people hold of Yale had rubbed off on me. I think as humans, we love grand ideas. We love the idea of being a part of something greater than us. In the months since receiving my acceptance letter, I grew caught up in the grand idea of what Yale encapsulated, rather than what it offered as a university. The promise of a happy place where everything was perfect, a place that could fix everything, not unlike the beginning of the alcohol module we had to watch: “The unicorn farms. Our cotton candy lake. Every Yalie goes to sleep with a smile on their face.”
The weeks before college, filled with packing, placement tests and reading to complete, entailed a jar- ring transition from my indifference during summer to confronting the reality of leaving. In the midst of wracking my head with Spanish conjugations and packing my toothpaste dawned the realization of just how close Yale actually was. Yet this time, it was a different version, far from the idyllic image in my head. A version encased in reality, surfacing through a web of practicality. It began with the impostor syndrome sneaking up on me, replacing the fascination I had held about the people I would be surrounded by, with intimidation. Problems that even Yale could have began to occur to me: an unsympathetic professor, an unkind student, an awful room, a racist remark, food I wouldn’t enjoy. Yet, despite all the terrible things I could think of, more than any- thing, I was scared to confront that it was ordinary — a university just like any other, albeit with extraordinary resources. It is almost fear- fultogotoaplacethatisputon such a pedestal. To know that we will soon be another part of the structure, another part that will bear the weight of expectation and be scrutinized in turn. It is fear- ful because people’s expectations are not merely empty demands of Yale: They are statements coupled with hope. We all want the promise of what we think Yale offers. Maybe we even need it, in a world like this. The knowledge that there is a place that is secure and welcoming, a place that fulfills the most unrealistic fantasies we throw at it. A safe place, with a hint of magic.
That may be too much to ask of Yale. And the reality of it may bring to a crumbling conclusion my image of it. However, there is a strong advantage the imperfect has over the ideal, in that it is real. Reality brings with it a reassuring tangibility and the startling joy of the unexpected. And it may have countless problems, but I am glad it exists outside my head. Because Yale doesn’t have to be perfect to be magical.
Freya Savla is a first year in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .