Early into shopping period, I remember lamenting to a friend that I had not gotten into a writing seminar that I wanted to take. “You deserved it,” he told me, and then retracted the word, adding, “but maybe ‘deserve’ isn’t the right paradigm.”
As first years begin their classes and extracurriculars, the question of “deserving” occupies many minds. Some first years may wonder if they “deserve” to be at Yale, or if their application accidentally made it past admissions. They may feel afflicted with the prevalent imposter syndrome.
The question of deserving becomes even more complicated when we consider the textured fabric of each of our realities — our differing socioeconomic, racial, familial backgrounds. Yet, the casual way in which we often discuss “deserving” does not reflect the complex variety of factors that contribute to its meaning.
Perhaps what I find most troubling about the lawsuit against Harvard claiming that affirmative action unfairly discriminates against Asian-Americans, for example, is that it seems to categorize “deserving” as one-dimensional, not describing applicants as multifaceted individuals with a diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds and passions beyond their academic success. Further, not everyone begins on equal footing, and what affirmative action aims to do, in a sense, is to lessen the barriers of entry to an elite institution like Yale.
The meaning of deserving, therefore, has changed shape, positively, to become less quantifiable and absolute.
We can reconsider how we talk about what we and others deserve. I think my friend is correct in saying that deserve is not the right paradigm. Many experiences and motivations have led me to writing. The same could be said of the girl sitting next to me in class. We place ourselves in a difficult position when we try to decide what we and others deserve. We ultimately do not know anyone else’s life, or what they experienced before entering Yale’s gates.
Quantitative measures of merit leave out crucial details of a story. A student plagued by depression or anxiety each day who is able to switch their grade to Credit/D/Fail before the midterm deadline — an important policy upgrade— versus a student who gets an A in the same class are operating within a different set of circumstances.
We need to be more aware of these many factors when we discuss deserving. We need to remember the many narratives of each person. Viet Thanh Nguyen, a University of Southern California professor and writer, discusses the concept of narrative plenitude in a New York Times article on “Crazy Rich Asians.” “We live in an economy of narrative scarcity, in which we feel deprived and must fight to tell our own stories and fight against the stories that distort or erase us,” Nguyen writes.
We need to populate the spaces we occupy with more varied narratives so that we can move toward a more nuanced, truer depiction of ourselves and others, narratives that show the color and range of the Asian-American experience, black experience, immigrant experience and every identity’s experience.
At every turn, though, we make judgments about what we deserve. A judgment at the hands of the admissions committee led to our acceptances to this school. But I suppose what I’m asking is for us not to consider these judgments — or our own — as final. There is always room to see more.
During shopping period, I attended a seminar, “Constructing Coeducation in the American Academy,” and during class, professor Laura Wexler said something that stuck with me: To be home in a space means that you are comfortable asking questions in that space.
It is difficult to answer the question of who deserves what, but we are all here. We don’t have to answer the question, or assume that we can. We should ask questions, and complicate what we know. As a first year, I remember feeling nervous each time I entered a seminar room. I hesitated to speak. I would think over responses to questions in my mind over and over again before I said anything out loud.
We cannot quantify deserving, but you are here. I would urge you, first years, to not be afraid to speak in section, to populate the room with the many contours of your voice. Do not judge other people’s words in absolutes, but realize that you can occupy this space, and you can ask questions. Observe, speak and explore, but never be complacent in your knowledge. Allow yourself your many stories, and listen to what others have to say. This is your space, your home. You are not one-dimensional. You are rounder than your acceptance letter. You are here.
Meghana Mysore is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.