Yale College, among most prestigious liberal arts colleges, prides itself on promoting “diversity.” The Yale administration, for one, has heavily promoted statistics regarding the class of 2022 — that it is comprised of a 50:50 male to female ratio, 18 percent first-generation college students, 11.8 percent African-American students and 14.9 percent Hispanic/Latino students.
Likewise, campus culture cultivates a similar sentiment — one of the most valuable features of Yale is an environment that brings together students from any and all cultural, religious, social and economic backgrounds. Granted, Yale has come a long way — take, for instance, how far we have come since 1969, when Yale first began to admit women.
Nevertheless, some aspects of campus culture have yet to catch up. One of the most striking areas is the attitude around quantifying and measuring intellect, ability and promise.
Throughout my first year at Yale, it was commonplace for students to praise one another based off of their academic placements or their accomplishments in high school. It was a period of time when we had to start from scratch, rebuilding our identities at Yale. As such, many of us clung to the markers that had defined us in high school — our classes, our extracurriculars, our perceived intellect. Time and time again, I felt surrounded by voices that applauded others for the classes they took. I would venture to guess that everyone at Yale has heard something in the vein of, “Wow, she’s taking Math 230 and Orgo as a first year — she must be so smart!”
There is a distinct danger in simplifying others into their class placements and leadership roles on campus, judging their value and intellect on the basis of their achievements. For one, it’s a clear ignorance of the diverse backgrounds that Yale students come from. To put it simply, what differentiates the student who takes Math 112 their first semester from the student in Math 120 or 230? The courses available to them in high school. Not all Yale students have the privilege of attending a high school with the resources to provide AP or IB calculus, but all of us took full advantage of what was offered to us in high school — it’s why we’re all here.
I acknowledge that students who place into courses like multivariable calculus, intermediate microeconomics and organic chemistry have worked hard. However, it seems woefully regressive and dismissive to subsequently assume that students who have not done so have worked to any lesser degree. Why do we claim that a student is “smart” solely because he or she begins college in a higher-level course, when the Yale community is comprised of an environment where students rarely begin on an equal playing field?
This pervasive tendency among undergraduates to qualify one another based on their academic placements expands to extracurricular involvements as well. While less omnipresent but still as alarming, I watch many undergraduates praise their peers — albeit sometimes in hushed voices — for being published, winning a debate championship or founding their own nonprofit. Associations of accomplishments with a person’s innate ability disregard supplementary factors that must be in place for students to even dream of garnering such notable accomplishments.
Having access to a car, money for gas, a family with the means to pay for travel or the financial security to choose whether to work a part-time job — these factors all contribute to one’s ability to win a national tournament. At the same time, having an obligation to take care of your siblings, an ailing family member or to work a 25-hour work week alongside classes can detract from one’s ability to establish leadership in an extracurricular.
The Yale Admissions team seems to acknowledge people’s varying backgrounds and circumstances; they account for a person’s home situation in the admissions process. That being said, it seems that the intentionality behind this endeavor disappears once students arrive on campus. This is one of the largest contributors to the ever-so-present “impostor syndrome” phenomenon, a phenomenon that student organizations continue to promulgate via a plethora of applications following the Extracurricular Bazaar. In both competitive and selective student groups on campus, the application process serves as a mechanism to craft a team of high-achieving, experienced candidates, while simultaneously disadvantaging those who were not granted opportunities to engage with these extracurriculars early on. Not every Yale student has had the means or resources available to participate in activities like debate, Model UN, nonprofit work or investing during high school, so why is the question “What prior experience do you have?” so prevalent in one’s first year?
As a community, we need to do better in going beyond a verbal celebration of socioeconomic diversity on campus. I urge student groups to consider various factors that contribute to how much previous experience applicants come into Yale with. While I do not admonish the practice of praising one another for our accomplishments, I implore the student body to be more cognizant of how we associate academic placement and prior extracurricular achievement with potential, intellect and perseverance, especially when in public.
If we truly are invested in promoting a culture that accepts students of all backgrounds, we must first realize that many of us come to Yale from backgrounds of privilege and stop assuming that this same privilege is universal.
Aiden Lee is a sophomore in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .