To the class of 2023:
What does your ideal university look like? As you decide between colleges, I am sure you have given this question plenty of thought. Just as important though, is another question: How will you, as future students, work together to create that university?
I still daydream about my ideal Yale. I imagine attending a university that recognizes the contributions of all of its students (including those on financial aid); that supports all of its faculty members (including those in ethnic studies); and that prioritizes our collective futures on an overheating planet (over its bottom line). This daydream is fully within reach — Yale has all the resources necessary to make it a reality. However, after four years here, I’ve learned that Yale will not be the one to make this happen. Rather, this dream will only be achieved through the collective work of both students and New Haveners.
Admissions brochures are filled with improbably sunny photos of Cross Campus in an attempt to sell us more polished, employable versions of ourselves. Someday, they promise, we will be qualified to rule the world and perhaps even change it by climbing the corporate or government ladder. Not yet, though. Yale tells us that we must wait for high-powered careers to implement incremental changes. But as students and residents of New Haven, we are already inherently qualified to transform this place we call home. For generations, student activists have refused to wait for that far-off someday. Today’s Yale only exists because of their efforts.
From anti-apartheid divestment activists in the 1980s who slept in a shantytown on Beinecke Plaza for two years to the organizers of color who fought to change the name of “formerly known as Calhoun College,” there is a long legacy of students who have fought to hold Yale accountable to its values of “Lux and Veritas.” The history of campus activism teaches us that change here rarely comes smoothly or through institutional channels. It also demonstrates that the Yale Corporation has no choice but to govern in grudging conversation with students.
During my first year at this gilded University, I felt unmoored. Doubts about what I was doing here trailed me, through locked gates and the opulent first-year dinner. Activism is what finally helped me grapple with that gut sense of unease. The national media has often accused “snowflake” students of demanding to be shielded from discomfort. In reality, working to understand and contest our University’s complicity in historically-based systems of exploitation is deeply unsettling. Coming to Yale, regardless of whether you choose to engage politically or not, places you at the center of complex power dynamics: between Yale and New Haven, between the Corporation and students, between the administration and faculty.
With an endowment the size of a small country’s GDP and five presidents among its alumni, Yale holds considerable sway beyond its ivied walls. As students here, Yale’s influence in the outside world gives us the opportunity to tackle political issues, like climate change and the Puerto Rican debt crisis, that otherwise seem intimidatingly abstract. By changing Yale, we begin to change society more broadly.
At its heart, organizing is a profoundly hopeful exercise. Activism means pushing the limits of what is conceivable — women in college, ethnic studies programs, renaming Calhoun — and working until those ideas are implemented and enter the realm of common sense. While we should always challenge the erasure of past activism, it will be a measure of our success if future generations have the luxury of taking our work for granted. We fight for a world in which it seems blindingly obvious that Yale, as a world-class research and educational institution, should always have been on the front lines of expanding ethnic studies, supporting low-income students, stopping climate change and ending predatory debt.
The world’s eyes are on us as we lead the way towards a more just and sustainable future. Come transform Yale with us.
Emma Phelps is a junior in Grace Hopper College and a member of the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .