2012 was a year of mistakes. I auditioned for improv. I declared myself too good for Toads. I said I liked girls. I ran out of a naked party after realizing that it was a naked party. And in a stereotypical extracurricular frenzy, I wanted to write. I stepped into the Yale Daily News with the passion that only a first year could muster and wrote a piece bemoaning how cultural centers divided the community — “The cultural center conundrum,” published on Nov. 8, 2012.
It was bad. Puzzling metaphors, shoddy writing and remarkable naivete (even for a first year) combined to make one inflammatory mess. Within four months of stepping onto campus, I had made unintentional enemies with people who knew me only by name. By the end of that fall, I could monologue Tyra Banks’ “Be Quiet” rant from memory. I never entered 202 York again.
Over the next two years, I criticized myself for not stepping into cultural centers more often. As a result of my editorial, I never felt comfortable occupying the very spaces I had defiled as an aspiring columnist. Even as my friends invited me to events overflowing with samosas or mochi, I felt like a pariah.
As an upper-level student, I finally bit the bullet. I attended events hosted by the cultural centers. I confronted the roots of my self-hatred as a queer Asian-American. I watched documentaries about issues I had never considered before. I made friends who looked like me, felt like me and understood me.
My senior year was that of a fractured Yale. It was 2015, the year of Erika Christakis’ “look away” email regarding offensive Halloween costumes. The movement to rename Calhoun College was charged with momentum. Sigma Alpha Epsilon had just been accused of hosting a “white girls only” party. The importance of cultural centers, during all of this, became crystal clear. Without hesitation, they opened their doors as spaces to listen, reflect, rant and grieve. Silenced voices were finally given room to speak. It was there that I engaged in profound conversations about institutional racism and privilege, never feeling endangered in those intimate spaces.
Four years later, I am a medical student at a school that lacks the infrastructure necessary to make its minority students feel safe or welcome. In my first med school seminar, I was the only person of color in the room. I have been called a f***** by patients and once had a physician tell me to “just turn down the gay.” My peers argued that it was both “extreme and unnecessary” to include trans health as a mandatory part of our curriculum. There was an astounding absence of institutional support to protect people of color and queer people. During my first year, I often felt alone and scared of being outspoken in a marginalized body. I had never felt this at Yale, knowing that support was embedded in the systems around me.
Coming face-to-face with an environment unprepared for its incoming diversity helped me realize how much I took spaces like cultural centers for granted. The safety and community that they fostered did not exist without thoughtful allocation of staff, finances and time.
Throughout my time at Yale, I worked to correct the mistakes I had made in 2012. I came out as unapologetically gay. Woads became a hallowed tradition. I took ENGL 120 and “Daily Themes,” classes that molded me into a more thoughtful, balanced writer.
So it is about time that I corrected this one too: There is no cultural center conundrum. Cultural centers allow for a more unified Yale. They make us feel welcome where we might otherwise feel ostracized. They teach lessons and foster discussions that are absent from Yale’s curriculum. They provide students the space to build solidarity, resilience and community.
I still make mistakes, but Yale was a place that shaped me into who I am today. All of these experiences opened my eyes to the importance of inclusion, leading me to work with my medical school to develop workshops discussing unconscious biases and the intersectionality of race and sexuality. I want my community, and my future communities, to provide my peers the resources that the cultural centers provided me. They’re making strides. And hopefully, so am I.
James Lee graduated from Yale College in 2016 and is a third-year student at the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .