Valerie Pavilonis

I explain my student job with some combination of the words alumni, money, phone, cubicle, great hours, Netflix and harsh lighting. I belong to the ethereal space known as “the call center,” as do other students who you definitely know. The job doesn’t come with the caché of the tour guides or the idleness of the library kids, and it certainly doesn’t have the catering that your friend at MacMillan stocks your fridge with. What it lacks in prestige, the call center makes up for with a trippy journey and a community afforded by no other student gig. We, as current Yale students and “Bulldog Callers,” reach out to alumni and solicit donations.

At 6 p.m. five nights a week, undergraduates from disparate parts of Yale report to the call center, on the eighth floor of what is maybe the tallest gold fiberglass-coated building in the State of Connecticut. The call center — officially the Yale Office of Development’s Phone Program — consists of two blocks of cubicles whose canvas partitions are just low enough to make eye contact with a coworker in the less social of the two calling dens. We sit in rows extending from the gold-tinted floor-to-ceiling windows to the massive flat screen on the wall in front of us. By 6:10, we’ve all gotten situated in “our” seats and have the headsets primed and ready to “dial.” We don’t actually dial a phone, but press a button that says “dial” every 30 seconds to prompt a new call on the software. It’s 6:15 and our manager is mid sales talk. He is a design thinker at heart. The teacher-turned-fundraising-strategist inaugurates each three-and-a-half hour session with a call to arms, featuring numbers, goals, strategies, and the occasional heartwarming personal narrative — think Malcolm Gladwell meets Glengarry Glen Ross. He sticks the landing by 6:30.

Netflix?

Not the Good Place.

I didn’t say the Good Place!

Queer Eye?

Boo.

Cult Documentary, then?

By 6:45, someone will have settled with the Twilight Zone, and Rod Serling delivers us through a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind on the flat screen as day turns to night.

Hi, I’m Alan and I’m a junior at Yale. I’m looking at the amazing sunset over East Rock and I’m reaching out from the Yale College Alumni Fund. How are you doing this evening?

I actually transferred into one of the new colleges, but I’m still a proud Saybrugian at heart.

By 7, we’ve burned our way through the night’s first episode of the Twilight Zone and I take a break for the first-hour stretch. It starts with a physical stretch in the calling den, then a lunge toward the blindingly white light reflecting off the linoleum break room to brew diner coffee. I announce the coffee to my coworkers and we congregate for the liturgical styrofoam cup of coffee, unlatching ourselves from our roles outside the break room. From this point forward, we speak exclusively in call center jargon that refers to the groupings of alumni based on their frequency of donation, graduation year and time zone. We work our way west through the night, bragging about our big donations or losing streaks, interspersing commentary about our own lives.

Five hundred on a credit card!

Wowwwww, you’re in VCB 100+ Bro….

Lapsed! That’s two dollars!

The call center is a sacredly safe space for us, the “Bulldog Callers.” For the most part, we have absolutely no links to each other’s lives outside the call center. Between the sellouts, screenwriters and Silliman intramural athletes among us, we give the residential college system a run for its money as a microcosm of the Yale community. Not unlike group therapy, the call center allows us to vent our experiences, unpack our fears and ponder philosophical queries to one another between calls. The difference between any random collection of Yalies and the call center is the confrontation during each call with a potential future self.

Do you remember the Wenzel?

Schwartzman!

Have you guys been watching Love Island?

Between the over 7,000 calls I’ve made during my tenure as a Bulldog Caller, I’ve connected with Wall Street hot shots, Broadway hopefuls, and valley-girl-turned-vagabonds that make up the Yale alumni community. In the three to 30 minutes it could take to solicit a donation, we are encouraged to think of ourselves as Yale itself, to speak honestly, to ask questions and to connect with our alumni. I often imagine what it feels like to get a call from one of us and have the opportunity to talk with someone living your past. Each of us has a story of the time we served as a sounding board for grievances regarding Brett Kavanaugh, Ethnicity, Race & Migration, Calhoun College, the Opioid Crisis, the size of Yale’s endowment, the existence of co-education (that’s always a fun one) or the lack of a course on the Western Canon, accompanied by a proposal to fund a department for just that.

Good evening, this is Dimeji.

Yes, women go to school here now.

We also have a collective memory of the group’s most noteworthy conversations. There’s the guy who spent the better part of his conversation talking about quitting his job to write and produce a musical about the College Street Music Hall. We don’t remember if he donated. The person who actually worked at the call center when they went to Yale DID, though. Who could forget the New York Times journalists and hedge fund executives who gave unsolicited career advice? The conversations that stick with us, though, occur when alumni ask us what we think of Yale.

OMG this guy literally protested Vietnam in front of Woolsey.

This woman says her husband of 60 years just left her and now she lives alone in this big house on a hill. She said she’s so glad I called, she’s crying though.

Aww…

On that part of a call, you have to navigate the dissonance between what you feel about Yale that day — a midterm, a breakup, suite drama — and the institutional identity that the alum is probably asking about. Personally, I find it hard to think of myself as part of the Yale that they’re referring to. The call center, for most of us, is our only glimpse into what life looks like after Yale is all said and done. The alumni themselves hint at what we will end up finding important or which parts of the Yale experience might stick in the long run. Even with some practice, I still can’t answer what I think of Yale now. What do they mean by “now”? While we’re at the call center, there is no stimulation besides the passivity of the TV — except for the nights when we watch reruns of Jeopardy. We sometimes go 45 minutes without a single person picking up the phone, and we know that there’s no meeting or office hours to attend, at least until shift ends at 9:30. You can leave the Good Life Center, but at the call center, you are required to stay in one place for three-and-a-half hours.

Are you okay?

Yeah, no, I’ve just had a day?

Is it because of [what happened with the same guy last week…]

I mean yeah…

All of us at the call center would like to say that these conversations inform how we live our lives in New Haven. I don’t think any of us could say confidently that we walk out of work each night any better prepared to confront our place on the Yale timeline. The strange privilege of reaching across a lifespan might not shed light on what we should be doing with our lives, but it does give us food for thought.

The beauty of the call center is the freedom to step away from your place at Yale. It’s a space where we can be just as much of a Yalie, whatever that means, as the people on the other end of the phone.

At 9:20, the phones shut off and we perch our headsets back on the cubicle walls, ready for a rundown of the night’s numbers which bookends every shift. Our manager goes down the roster and announces how much money we each brought in. When he’s finished, we thank him, pile into the elevator and disperse onto Wall St., returning to our assigned microcosms of Yale.

John Besche | john.besche@yale.edu