Exactly three years ago, I was spontaneously offered a high-paying hedge fund job simply because I was reading “War and Peace” in a coffee shop and had the gall to tell a fancy looking stranger that I thought finance didn’t matter.
For me, this was the epitome of the “Yale moment.” By doing absolutely nothing beside being a bit out of the ordinary, I landed a lucrative job offer and a powerful contact in my inbox — never mind that I never actually made use of either.
Perhaps the phenomenon of the “Yale moment” confirms that places like Yale are an automatic pathway to power, a commonly held belief that has rightly inspired scorn from just about everyone in America during the recent college admissions scandal. The “real” scandal, claims the central argument, is that wealthy kids have a leg up in the system through their parents’ potential donations and ability to pay for expensive test preparation, writing tutors and private school tuitions.
Reducing good schools to power trips, however, dangerously places education on the backburner. The scandal, more than anything, should be a challenge to Yale to reconsider its myopic privileging of admissions over the academic and social health of campus.
Obviously, an extreme sense of empowerment comes with acceptance to a place like Yale. I still remember that unimaginable feeling, one that a select few high school seniors felt yesterday afternoon, that the value of my entire life at 18 was suddenly confirmed. I had made it. No matter what happened in the future, the “congratulations” blinking back at me from my screen meant that my family and I would be okay.
And for my first year at Yale, that feeling carried me forward. I sacrificed classwork to see famous people speak every day, I joined far too many organizations and I explored New Haven and New York many times over.
Of course I got a job offer in a coffee shop — I’m a Yalie, and that’s what it means to be a Yalie.
But that feeling changed in my sophomore year. For the first time in my life, I felt like a failure academically; I did poorly in classes I thought I would be able to handle, I was rejected from activities I desperately wanted to do. In the background, however, the idea that I had already “made it” kept tugging at me to not worry — but at the same time, a mutinous voice would always whisper in my mind: “Maybe you don’t belong here.”
That thought is a depressing one, and it’s propagated through the admissions-crazed mentality of elite schools, no matter what sort of voodoo they conduct to make an unfair selection process as fair as it can reasonably be. There are strong arguments for turning admissions into a lottery for this precise reason. In general, I fear that our country’s damaging obsession with who is allowed to enter these elite spaces might be unstoppable.
But I also know that these schools have it entirely in their power to continue giving a few hardworking, underprivileged students from around the world a more than random chance at admission without packing their entire self-worth into a single, powerful “Welcome to Yale.”
Self-doubt continued for me until I took it upon myself to learn from my failures. After writing two subpar papers on subjects I thought I cared about deeply my junior fall, I felt devastated. What did I have to show for myself at Yale? Where was that future that I thought I was in complete control over since the day of my acceptance?
And finally, it hit me. I hadn’t “made it” when I got into Yale, but was instead lucky to have such a precious academic opportunity before me. I emailed my professor and met with him to go over my papers. I had forgotten how much learning I still had, and will always have, to do.
What I hope you’ll realize, class of 2023, and that Yale will help you to realize, is that your growth at this University should ultimately come from failure, reflection and self-knowledge, not acceptance.
If you give it the chance, Yale will teach you to look more closely at texts and society. It will show you how to reflect carefully about the most urgent questions of our time alongside — and beyond — the greatest traditions of thought across the world. It will support you with the structures of the residential college and guide you through the rewarding labor of sowing and cultivating trust and companionship.
But these elements of campus, as I see it, should stand as models for the country, not elitist symbols of power. They’re ones that can be emulated, such as at the University of Oklahoma, where two residential colleges were recently built — a first for a public university.
When Yale recklessly expands its student body, decimates its undergraduate library, undervalues its traditional support for the humanities and rushes forward without intellectual direction, I fear that the University is in danger of losing sight of the beautiful model of education that has long been nurtured within its neo-Gothic frame.
So congratulations to our newest class — not for having “made it,” but for having the rare chance to look askance at our society and ask: “What do I know?” The answer might surprise you more than your acceptance letter.
Leland Stange is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs every other Friday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .