Nine months ago, I was writing my college essays, indulging in the idea that I belonged at Yale. We’ve moved on from the application process, but the questions we struggled with are still stuck with us: Are we qualified applicants? Will we belong at Yale? Now that I’m actually at Yale, the answer feels less concrete.
As an international student, I’ve had some moments of feeling like an outsider over the last couple of weeks. For example, it’s hard to feel like I belong here when I use Celsius and meters instead of Fahrenheit and feet. Or when I keep silent in embarrassment after I hear a phrase I don’t understand, like “The clam chowder slaps.” The cultural distance I felt at the beginning of the year was wide, and I needed to pick up quickly if I wanted to close the gap.
And all of this is coming from someone who was born and lived in the States for several years. In fact, every time I introduced myself, I felt compelled to include that I’m from South Korea and Philly, although I don’t remember much from my infant days in Philadelphia. This was a defense mechanism, a way for me to feel less like an outsider. It’s not that Yalies were hostile to internationals; I simply felt more comfortable adding this.
This feeling may resonate with other international students. For some of us, our childhood and culture have suddenly become a unique, disconnected experience. Another international student told me he constantly asked himself, “Do I not know this song because I’m not American or because it’s just not famous?” While this may seem like an offhand comment, it speaks to something larger. We attribute all of our confusion (and mistakes) to our differences in identities. Although domestic students also face cultural inconsistencies at Yale, the “international” label makes us more wary of these cultural gaps.
But this label of international doesn’t mean we are the only ones feeling off. Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed idiosyncratic symptoms of feeling like an outsider in many of my friends, all self-imposed. Some of them were shy, just claiming that they weren’t as talented as the rest, as if being extraordinary was the new ordinary. Others would say they were probably just lucky and got here by accident. Even legacy students — friends who I presumed were the core of Yale culture — opened up about how they felt different from the rest of Yale.
It was only after hearing everyone’s doubts that I realized how arbitrary our feelings were. If none of us belong at Yale, then who does?
For example, my classmates say that they play basketball, love to do karaoke and know how to juggle, “but not at the Yale level.” Naturally, this begs the question: What is Yale-level juggling or Yale-level karaoke?
Many of these standards of “Yale-level” are self-created and self-imposed, barring us from taking pride in ourselves or even doing something for fun, because mediocrity can no longer be accepted. Whether due to cultural gaps or questions of competence, we create these arbitrary barriers. We make ourselves feel unfit, and that’s unfair to ourselves.
Yale isn’t a workplace that hired us to perform a specific function efficiently and flawlessly. Instead, we were all admitted into the Yale community — which is made up of people, not skill sets.
There are tangible consequences of feeling like an outsider. We might be shy when making new friends, stop testing our limits, and forgo applying for clubs and sports teams, all based on the standards in our minds.
It’s definitely true that Yale can feel grandiose. There is no denying its prestige, and being here can be overwhelming. But nobody — including ourselves — can say that we don’t belong. It’s time for us to stop pondering about whether we fit in at Yale and to start thinking about how Yale can fit our dreams and goals.
CHRIS LEE is a first year in Morse College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.