I’m a first year from a religious boarding school in west Austin, Texas. Compared to the Confederate flag–flying, pickup-driving, camo-wearing countryside surrounding it, I’ve always felt that my hometown was just as cosmopolitan as any American city. But when I first visited Yale, I realized just how culturally different the South and the Northeast really are — and at one of the most divided moments in the last half century of American history, how alienated they can be.
At Bulldog Days, one of my fellow prefrosh asked me in all seriousness what kind of horse I ride to school (a Subaru) or if I — gasp — own a gun? (Three.) I laughed at this, until my hometown friends asked if all my new classmates wore suits to lectures and had their family names on school buildings (not all of them!).
Underneath the good-natured ribbing, though, runs a deeper suspicion. Yale seems to resent what it sees as cartoonish Trump Country, and parts of more rural Texas are hostile toward the elitism they feel so shut-out from. Even my competitive high school dismissed schools like Yale as stuffy and devoid of the Southern hospitality we so prized. They were right to look for that attitude — it’s hard to quantify the value in growing up with such rich social capital. The trust between every pair of strangers, the genuine, uninhibited quality to every stop-and-chat and, of course, the warmth in hearing that ubiquitous, ever-so-slightly accented “y’all” adds something vital to the sense of community in a place that only gets more important in the chaos of early adulthood. Whether it was the imposing Gothic architecture or the neckties, I think my class saw the Ivy League as a frigid opposite to that way of life.
But as I got to know Yale a bit better, I was surprised to find in its goals all the highest values of my own culture — the commitment to community, the refusal to take oneself too seriously and the superlative friendliness. “Screw your roommate” didn’t sound particularly uptight, and what were residential colleges if not an egalitarian twist on the University of Texas’s venerated sorority system? It truly seems that Yalies share the South’s basic dedication to the traditions that bind a place together. From feminist cookie decorating events to the Yale Record’s “Waitlisted Student Petting Zoo,” everywhere I looked even at Bulldog Days greeted me with the same welcoming, easy atmosphere I so loved about Austin.
In New Haven, I found those qualities carved into an environment that doesn’t lend itself so naturally to warmth. I’m now realizing that, in much of Texas, the casual hospitality I so love still rides on the expectation that you, too, stranger, will bleed orange for the Longhorns, drink sweet tea by the gallon and rail against the tax code. I don’t want to sell the Lone Star State short — Austin, especially, is known as much for South by Southwest cosmopolitanism as it is for cowboy boots, and I’ve loved every minute living there — but there is still a parochial element to Texas that feels like visiting the smoldering ashes of the Confederacy.
Newly minted Yale students have no such common fabric, but they didn’t seem to need it — in my first days at Camp Yale, I learned that every fascinating person I met might be from any hemisphere, any political orientation or even someone who puts pineapple on their pizza, but I knew they would be unfailingly kind and welcoming. The buttoned-up New England propriety my neighborhood found so stuffy now seems like a deliberate augmentation of that same openness, one that writes accommodation for the foreign and different into the framework of life. It seems to me that Yale created — or strives to create — that sense of easy, small-town exuberance between people from thousands of miles apart, even ones selected, on some level, for their willingness to dissent. I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather spend the next four years.
Cat Orman is a first year in Hopper College. Contact her at email@example.com.