The residential college is the lens through which many of us see our time at Yale. It is the home we share with our closest friends, a place of learning and growing within community and the locus of so many of our memories. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of coeducation at Yale College, a group of Pierson undergraduate women and affiliates convened to research, identify and connect with outstanding women who called Pierson home in those early years. Under the guidance of Head of College Dr. Stephen Davis and the research brilliance of Emily Yankowitz ’17, a current doctorate student in history and Pierson alum, this group set out to highlight the voices and lives of their predecessors. In so doing, the committee hoped to profile women for the outstanding roles they held in their communities, on campus, and beyond.
The committee had the honor of welcoming back Patricia Melton ’83 as their first guest in this College Tea series on Oct. 19. At Yale, Melton competed on the varsity track and field hockey teams, going on to become a nationally ranked track star. She later pursued a career in education before moving back to New Haven as executive director of New Haven Promise. The program covers tuition at in-state colleges for New Haven public school students who maintain at least a 3.0 GPA and 90 percent attendance record in school, perform community service and maintain a positive disciplinary record.
Melton is undoubtedly an accomplished athlete and leader in her field of education policy. What is perhaps most inspiring about Melton’s story, however, are the parts of her life that do not appear on paper. From these experiences, Melton draws an almost palpable empathy for her students, many of whom grew up in circumstances not much different from her own. As I look at all of the other incredible people who are invited to speak on campus, I only hope that more continue to resemble Melton — someone who has dedicated her career to helping others thrive.
Melton grew up on welfare in the housing projects of Cleveland, the sixth of seven children raised by a single mother. When Melton was 12, her mother tragically passed away in a car accident. A young Melton had to support herself independently after this incident. During this period she became singularly focused on education as a path to change her life’s trajectory. Melton was accepted into Middlesex School, a private boarding school in Concord, Massachusetts, through the A Better Chance program. Melton excelled at Middlesex academically and as a lacrosse and field hockey player. When she was accepted to Yale, she became the first in her family to attend college.
For first-generation students, hearing someone like Melton can provide further strength and purpose, showing them that they are following in the footsteps of the trailblazing first-generation students who preceded them.
Melton’s time at Yale was not linear, but instead was marked by her efforts to navigate the institution as a first-generation, low-income college student. She arrived to campus several days late, missing the beginning of field hockey season, because she was unable to afford transportation to campus. Melton continued to juggle financial and familial responsibilities alongside her classes and athletics at Yale. She moved off campus when she returned for her second year because she could not afford the dining plan. After her first year, she stopped buying textbooks.
In 1980, halfway through her sophomore year, Melton received the tragic news that one of her brothers had been shot and killed in Cleveland. She recounts finishing the second half of her undergraduate degree in a blur, struggling to focus in class as she grappled with her own responsibility to home and family.
Nevertheless, Melton persisted. When she did not receive the support she was looking for from the field hockey team, she decided to walk on to the track and field team. She won two Most Outstanding Athlete awards and a second-place national title in hurdles during her time at Yale. Shortly after, she qualified to be a finalist in the 1988 Olympic Trials in the 800-meter run. To this day, Melton still holds the Yale record for the 400-meter hurdles.
While family tragedy and financial obligation forced Melton to live off campus as a sophomore and junior as a cost-cutting measure, she decided to return during her senior year in an effort to create a community that she otherwise felt she did not have. While this was a challenging step, she remains positive that doing so was the right decision. Ultimately, Melton graduated. She now helps others do the same. Having returned to New Haven, she has reconnected with the city, with Yale and with Pierson College.
Patricia Melton’s story holds a mirror to Yale as it was and urges us to continue making this a place where students can thrive and feel they belong, regardless of financial status. Melton’s story also reflects something more beneath the surface, something deeper about the people from our families and home communities we carry with us at Yale. While often invisible, these communities are salient in the ways they motivate who we are and the work we do. They help shape us into who we become, and this is nowhere more clearly felt than in the resilience and grit of Melton’s narrative.
As a recent Pierson graduate, I consider it an honor to have her among the first trailblazing women in Pierson College, a community dear to me and so many others.
It is through learning from these women and hearing their stories that we can better help order to make Yale a more welcoming place for all students. Join us at Pierson College for more teas throughout the semester as we do just that.
VALENTINA GUERRERO is an alumna from the class of 2019. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .