First-generation college students are often told that the point of their education is to do better than their parents, to live materially better lives than the previous generation, to provide a better future for their own children than they had when they themselves were young. It was with this attitude that I entered Yale a little over a year ago. My admission, I thought, was the winning ticket to a future that would be better, a future that would make me a better me, a future that would allow my children to have more than I had or than my parents had. I’ve realized that I want more out of my time at Yale.
I spent my entire first year thinking about what I was getting out of Yale. Most of the time, this calculation fell into quantitative terms. I was getting a degree that would open doors and fill spots on my resume. I thought that the point of a Yale education was to move up the socioeconomic ladder. It wasn’t until I spent a decent amount of time at Yale that I actually understood what a liberal arts education means, and how it is not meant to be pre-professional training. Maybe that was a massive oversight of the Yale admissions office in admitting me. More likely, it points to how we treat education across this nation and at universities like our own: as a means to an end.
Yale serves a purpose that most of us never address but are consciously aware of: it regulates meritocracy. It’s true that one of the quickest ways to enter the upper class is by receiving an Ivy League degree. It’s true that, for first-generation students, this grants an exceedingly more promising material future and a fulfillment of the dream that captivates us. But it comes at a price. In my year-and-then-some at Yale, I’ve slogged through excruciating workloads and weeks with no sleep. Last semester I developed insomnia, and I have listened to classmates bemoan nights that end at five in the morning. I have spent many months 700 miles away from the people dearest to me. I have seen cherished friends suffer from severe mental illness. I have doubted my own intellect and faith and worth. I have learned so, so much.
Whether or not Yale is a meritocratic institution is not what I want to ask here, though there exists more than enough fodder to answer this question 20 times both ways. The point is that everyone believes — or maybe, pretends — that it is, so nothing changes. Because Yale promises us a glorious end, the expectation that we will live in a palace or at least a very nice apartment in a neighborhood with good schools, that we will be able to publish a book and get into grad school, that we will die surrounded by our material successes, then we must put up with everything it forces upon us. Fifty hours of schoolwork a week. Imposter syndrome. Exorbitant tuition and debt. Mental illness. And for what? So that we can send our own children back to Yale? Have comfortable lifestyles in New York, working jobs just as competitive and draining as our lives here? I do not question if this is our desire; it obviously is. Rather, I doubt this life is worth our struggles. If our education didn’t promise us our deepest intellectual and material desires, we would never let it affect us as much as it does, people would not cheat their way into positions on sports teams and we would have a better grasp on our lives, present and future. If the point of a liberal arts education is, as a friend of mine said, to become a better person, why must it come at the expense of our physical, mental and spiritual well-being — and sometimes our lives?
Even still, I love Yale, and I love the people I have met here and I love what I have learned. But it is precisely for this reason, and for the future students who will come here, and for all of us here now and our future selves, that we consider these questions. What do you want to get out of Yale?
SHARLA MOODY is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .