As our car pulled up to the New Haven Green, my dad glanced over his shoulder and said, “You can get out here, if you’re afraid Mom and I will embarrass you.” I looked up with pleading eyes, dreading the moment that I would have to part from them. “No, it’s okay,” I replied, trying not to come across too nervous. “You can drive me to my dorm and help me get settled.” When I eventually pried myself up from the seat of the car, slowly absorbing Yale for the first time since I visited as a bright-eyed prefrosh, all I wanted to do was turn around and run back home.
Why have I decided to share this first-day-of-college sob story from last year? Because I know how long ago this experience can feel for upperclassmen such as myself — it can be very easy to forget how terrifying everything once was.
But this piece is not about transitioning to Yale, or even about missing home. It’s about power.
In just two days, the News will have a new managing board. Times like these — when one group of students hands over the reins to another — offer all Yale students an opportunity to contemplate how we treat one another. After all, what really makes a junior in a leadership position so different from a first year beginning to feel their way through Yale?
Last year, I grew the most under student leaders who were able to plant themselves in my shoes, who were able to recall their first painstaking moments at Yale and see themselves through my eyes rather than their own. This is the leadership model that should govern the way power is wielded on our campus, one that should continue to guide us as we venture out into the professional world.
As society becomes increasingly automated and mechanized, the skills that will serve as our greatest assets will be our ability to communicate with others clearly and to respect colleagues in the workplace regardless of their position. Researchers have buffered this point, analyzing the role that empathy plays in corporations. In the process, they’ve found that empathy is a central element to any smoothly run business operation. The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Harvard Business Review and Huffington Post, for starters, have all run pieces emphasizing this truth.
When power structures fail to incorporate empathy, organizations grow toxic and dysfunctional. In turn, hierarchies become sources of competition and anxiety rather than wellsprings of guidance and support.
Part of this problem is the fact that at most, we are only four years apart. Because of that, each year of experience at Yale sometimes feels like it counts for 10. It shouldn’t. Juniors in leadership positions now were first years a year and a half ago. By treating underclassmen with empathy and respect, student leaders help not only their own staff, but also themselves — building better student organizations and accomplishing more in their leadership roles.
The other impact of the small age range in college is that cultural change can happen very quickly. One cohort of student leaders can set an example for the group immediately following them, shaping how their organization will operate after they leave. The lack of institutional memory can be a positive here — a historically toxic organization can, in the eyes of a first year, seem as if it were always welcoming and friendly. But this can also be a double-edged sword: healthy cultures breed future success just as rapidly as negative cultures breed further toxicity. For every class at Yale, the stakes are high.
I don’t mean to negate all of the experiences that students accumulate in just one year — or one semester — of Yale. But all too often, this knowledge and comfort with Yale’s campus and way of life serves as an excuse to talk down to and exert excessive power over underclassmen, nearly all of whom have done incredible things to get here and are equally as intelligent and capable as the Yalies who preceded them.
Power, it turns out, while often well earned, is very situational — especially in college. A single year’s divide between two students can feel far wider than it actually is. By keeping that in mind as we go about our lives here, we can ensure that we pass along institutions to the next group of Yale students that take empathy and respect seriously, rather than viewing it as a mere afterthought.
Gabriel Klapholz is a sophomore in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .