“Dear Mr. —, Thank you for your generous donation in support of my scholarship for this year. I am very grateful for your investment in my education. At Yale, I major in English and write for several campus publications. My favorite spot on campus is the bench by my entryway in Davenport College.”
A number of students have written letters like these to University donors who contribute to our financial aid packages. Each time I write a letter like this one, I am thinking about our expression of gratitude and of whom the University asks to express it. I am very grateful to be here. I am grateful to donors who contribute to our financial aid. But I think that the problem is something larger, something in the performative posturing that the University demands of students on financial aid and only of students on financial aid.
Questions of who deserves what are often on many of our minds, as we walk to class, as we sit at dinner, as we exist on this campus. Do we deserve to be here? Policies like the student income contribution — against which there have been significant protests over the past few days, with students camping outside of Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall — are made to make certain students feel less like they deserve to be here, that they have to prove their deserving in a dollar amount.
When students write these letters of gratitude, it’s a task they check off, that they have to perform. Why is it that only students on financial aid, who might be low income, who within that population are disproportionately students of color, have to kneel down in gratitude to the Yale of the past? There is also often a gap between alumni’s understanding of Yale and that of current students’. Some of Yale’s social and student groups operate on the support of alumni, so interactions between alumni and current students in these groups are routine. I think that these interactions can be positive and fruitful. But sometimes, there is a disconnect between what donors and students value about Yale. Friends have told me that in reunions for their student groups, it strikes them that alumni had vastly different experiences in the group and at Yale and convey sentiments that they do not agree with. Of course, this gap is not bad — but it is a gap that reflects how Yale has changed from its past, how perhaps in appealing to donors in the letters we write for financial aid, we have to perform a different version of ourselves, one that might better align with the Yale of the past.
Our student body, our faculty, is vastly more diverse than it was in the past, and yet some students are made to carry the burden of their difference. Low-income students, and more broadly, students on financial aid have to express gratitude and their worth in ways that their wealthier peers are not asked to — and the result is a more stratified Yale that still separates across lines of socioeconomic difference.
I am not suggesting that the financial aid office do away with these letters to donors. I am just asking that our administration be more aware of the effect that even subtle requirements like these have on our student body. I think that we are all grateful to be here, but when you ask students to perform their gratitude over and over again, students who perhaps already question whether they deserve to be here, that gratitude might become tainted with bitterness and resentment. We should be grateful, to our alumni, to our donors, but it is not only the job of students on financial aid to be grateful. The structure of Yale is still postured to the past, even if it looks quite different today. As such, everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status of the path they took in getting to Yale, should express their gratitude not only to alumni who we might never meet but also to the people who stand before us every day, in our dining halls, in our suite bathrooms.
We, along with the University, need to question who is most expected to perform gratitude and to whom. We need to question the different meanings that gratitude holds for students across socioeconomic barriers. I do not know the precise answers to these questions. I do not know how we can be grateful for those who financially support our educations without continually bending to the past. I do not know how to escape the trap of asking certain students to repeatedly prove that they are deserving. Here is what I do know: We can all truly, genuinely be grateful. Not just to individuals of Yale’s past, but to each and every person around us.
Meghana Mysore is a junior in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .