I’m from the Austin neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, a community decimated by decades of discrimination and disinvestment. I became aware of that at a young age as I traveled downtown to elementary school every day and saw the rundown buildings and boarded-up corner stores transform into sleek new housing developments and trendy restaurants as I got further away from my neighborhood.
Witnessing the deep inequality in my city turned me into a political firebrand by the time I became a high school freshman. At every opportunity, I researched structural inequalities like mass incarceration, educational achievement gaps and disinvestment in communities of color. For class assignments, I put together radical policy proposals, calling for complete divestment from private prisons, increased funding for under-resourced schools and the expansion of social assistance services across the country. I wanted to change the world, and as I set my sights on higher education, I knew I wanted to use college to gain the knowledge and power to do it.
In mid-February, I learned that I had been admitted to Yale. This was it. This was my chance to change the world. But my dream of Yale was just that — and no dream exactly lives up to our expectations. Now that I am here in person, I realize that my presence here is itself a moral tradeoff.
A couple of months later I found myself participating in Yale’s Cultural Connections preorientation program. In one of the program’s first workshops, a critical history tour, I learned about Yale’s past ties to the American slave trade and colonialism, as well as its present ties to police brutality and climate change. With this information, I was left questioning whether by attending this university I had made myself complicit in the actions of a school that has damaged so many communities, the very communities I vowed to help in the years before I arrived.
After the tour, group discussions began, and I asked an upper-level student about her relationship with the University. She said that while she couldn’t control Yale’s history or current actions, there are ways she can, and does, hold the University accountable for its practices. She also said that it’s nearly impossible to enact reforms from the outside of an institution. “I have to have access to power to make change, and my Yale degree will open the door to that power,” she said.
In the moment, that idea proved reassuring. But now, as I arrive on campus and complete my first days of college, it has lost its resonance.
Theories of change tend to be uncertain, and the once alluring thought of leveraging an institution such as Yale to create change has now become troubling to me. To Yale, I am an investment in their future, with the expectation that my fame, success and donations will keep the University going strong for years to come.
My presence as a student, much like the rest of my Yale peers, gives this ancient institution life and power and conflicts with my goal to help disadvantaged communities. In being on campus, I also implicitly submit to the belief that individuals with power and influence are some of the only people capable of driving significant change, thus abandoning my faith in the power of community and collective action.
But even so, my choice of college was constrained by public perception. Americans recognize and often yield to the power of prestige. And even if I were to reject that notion, I would be one small drop of water pushing against a wave of entrenched convictions about higher education. The only way to turn the tide would be for top students across the country to abandon distinguished colleges and universities at once. Unlikely.
Nevertheless, Yale has a robust network of activist and service organizations, and all of them share a common goal of working to better the world. But, as admirable as the work is, it feels akin to a game of moral math, best described by this question: Will doing good outweigh the bad things I’ve done? At Yale, that question might be phrased as “Will joining this club or volunteering with this organization — or leading this protest or pursuing this career — be enough to justify my presence at this university?”
Every day, we as Yalies should strive to come out on the positive side of our moral equations. And, as everything we do in our lives will in some small measure be owed to Yale, we will always find ourselves calculating our own moral standing in light of the institution that has shaped us.
CALEB DUNSON is a first year in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .