“Do you feel like you have to do something great?” my roommate asks me late into the hours of the night. The two of us were readying ourselves for bed after a common room discussion where I had mentioned my underfunded public school background and the rarity of it sending a student to Yale. She had attended a private school where students being sent off to the Ivy League was a more common occurrence, and she’s aware of her privilege and doesn’t shy away from discussing it, curious to know more about my life whenever she gets the chance.
I thought about it before answering. It was true that my high school had been “underfunded and underperforming” (in the words of my admissions file), statistically crowned as the most diverse high school in Tennessee and classified as Title I, meaning that the majority of students were considered low-income. The privilege, wealth and prestige often associated with Ivy League universities was a long way away from our little corner of South Nashville.
In our community, many kids were more focused on being able to graduate than being able to consider attending a prestigious university. My classmates were often working outside of school, not for extra pocket money, but to help support their families as teenagers. Many were the primary sources of income for their households, or their English was better than their parents’ so they had to spend their time mulling over documents or booking appointments. We had a large refugee and immigrant population, and you can’t expect someone to prioritize registering for an SAT prep course when a year ago they might have been fleeing persecution.
I knew that I was lucky then, and I know that I am lucky now. Working was not a necessity for me in the way that it was for my peers, and I had the luxury to commit more time to school or reading books or studying for a standardized test. My parents, despite being refugees, had access to education in their home country and did what they could to make sure that my own education would come first. I had the privilege of being able to dream, and I was one of the few lucky ones who were able to see my dream actualized.
Here, Yale has the means to fully fund my education, meaning that my less fortunate peers from home who attended local and state universities are paying more than I am. I have access to more resources than I know what to do with, so, yes, I do often feel that I have to do something great with this opportunity, and there are countless students here who feel the same urgency. But after months of reflecting, I’ve come to realize that this is a treacherous path to go down.
When you’re the “exception,” there is a constant pressure to prove that you’re worthy of the classification. It is impossible to forget that you are not necessarily any smarter or hardworking than the people from home, but you had the opportunities that made it possible to get here. Your education is not just for yourself but for an entire community that you are supposed to prove you were able to “overcome.” And that’s the other thing, isn’t it? People always think you got here “despite,” never understanding that you actually got here “because.”
There is a pressure to prove to others that you are worth the resources you’re receiving. This stressful mindset of having to make sure you do this whole college thing “right,” taking advantage of every opportunity possible and wearing yourself thin because the degree you’ll get in the end is for the community that carried you is both pride-inducing and suffocating. You’re proud of where you come from, and you feel like you have to make sure that you spend these next four years in a way that does justice to them, too. But all it does is put a weight on your shoulders that you cannot plausibly both carry and survive.
Moreover, the narrative that you, a singular person, have the ability to represent an entire community only minimizes the magnanimity of where you came from. A collective of eclectic people with contrasting beliefs and opinions and dreams is not something you can ever be an honest vessel for. You can’t wholly embody the traditions or stories of the street you grew up on in a seminar or discussion section. This unfounded pressure only restricts your possibilities in college, which ultimately does not positively serve you or the people you’re doing this for.
Despite this, it is so important to remember that the fact that you got here is a testament to something great in itself. Your community is proud to have carried you along the way, and however you spend these next four years, you will have spent them the way you were supposed to. Stay true to yourself, and remember where you came from. Grow, learn, take stories home and give them new ones to share. You can’t have a college experience that is fitting for all the people in your corner. You’re here, and that is enough.
DEREEN SHIRNEKHI is a first year in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .