Yale has been my home for 10 years. I set down roots here and found rich soil in which to grow. It’s where I first read Dillard and Baldwin, Didion and Wallace. It’s where I first heard P-Funk and the Kinks. I ran my first regression here. Cast my first ballot here. Dated, got engaged and will be married here. In innumerable ways, Yale has supported my growth, most powerfully through the people she has gathered into a community.
Yet. It was Yale that revealed how fragile my presence has been all along. Yale that exposed her own hypocrisies; Yale that showed me the dark side of America. Before arriving, I’d never read Asian-American history. I’d never read slave narratives. I’d never considered what the Alien and Sedition Acts symbolized for our young country. I’d never heard of redlining, never mourned Japanese internment, never realized that female Yale undergraduates did not exist until 1969. America would not always have been America to me. Yale would not always have been Yale to me.
Graduations have a way of unsticking the mind in time: sending it forward, sending it back. I can recall the sweetest moments of my life here with such immediacy.
I remember sprinting down Elm Street with my first-year roommate during an August thunderstorm, soaked to the bone, elated that I had made a friend. Back then, it was impossible to imagine the night before college graduation, when 30 of us would gather in the Ezra Stiles College common room to eat Wenzels and reminisce. During those last moments, I had an overpowering desire to hold everyone close, to bind us all to one other before we all dispersed. I can still see the seasons of East Rock in my memory — the fiery leaves of autumn, the porcelain clink of icy branches in winter, how that ice yields so gently and completely to the soft new green of spring. There was the heft of my dissertation as I turned it in. And the celebration afterwards, where five of us shared crepes and a bottle of rosé, a surreal Wednesday lunch for a surreal Wednesday.
But as I savor these memories, I can’t help but think of the struggle behind my joy, the weight that others bore for me.
In 1854, Yung Wing became the first Chinese student to graduate from Yale — from any American university. How did he bear the homesickness, a continent away from home?
In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in a motel in Tennessee, dying for my right to not be judged by my skin color. Did he know the breadth of his fight? Did he know how long it would take?
In 1982, Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit during his own bachelor party for looking Japanese. How bitterly did his fiancé mourn? Did he know that his suffering would awaken a movement? Did he know that he died, in part, for me?
People describe the enterprise of scholarship as “standing on the shoulders of giants.” But it’s true of life in general, too — we just don’t make it explicit. The things I have loved most about Yale, even the chance to be here at all, have come at a price paid by other people. In the case of my parents, a literal price tag — thank you, mom and dad.
I get to run regressions in Stata because others fought for the dignity and personhood of people with my skin color. My ability to present ideas to an audience of scholars? It was earned by those who argued, over the course of centuries, that women are neither the weaker sex nor property.
Their activism opened a spectrum of possible identities for me to inhabit — made it possible for me to “not be that activist-y,” to put my research first, to not be defined entirely by my race and gender, full stop. Their sacrifices — both those willingly given and those violently taken — have paved and paid for my way.
What if there were a citation system for social progress? Jaya Wen ’12 GRD ’19 received her B.A. and Ph.D. from Yale (Wen 1990, Li 1990, Chin 1982, King 1968, Blake 1885, Wing 1854, et al, et al, et al.) Who would I cite? Who would I miss? What do I owe to those who came before me?
I’m not sure. But I have my whole life to figure it out. I hope my life itself will be an articulation of the answer. I am certain of one thing, that there is a moral responsibility that accompanies good fortune. I’ve already been so fortunate: born in the right country, at the right time, with good health, surrounded by family and friends who love and respect me. The least I can offer my predecessors is the continuation of their work — to push on boundaries and break through limitations in an effort to make more room for those who will come afterward.
Jaya Wen graduated from Yale College in 2012 and is currently a sixth year Ph.D. student at the Yale Department of Economics. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .