As I sat down on Zoom to meet Deja Chappell ’22, the first thing I noticed was the yellow sweater she was wearing. Behind her was an overflowing bookshelf — she would later tell me some of her favorite authors are June Jordan, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston and Ursula K. Le Guin. Deja said that yellow is her favorite color, but the specific shade has to be mustard yellow, almost greenish.
“If I see something that’s this color, I’ll usually just get it,” she said through a laugh. “The color itself is just soothing to me. I just feel good when I look at it.”
Being with Deja for five minutes will make you realize that she smiles easily and laughs often. She hopes that when people meet her, they get good energy from speaking with her. In my 40-minute interview with her, I swear I could feel this through the screen. Despite bringing this positivity with her wherever she goes, Deja clarified that this wasn’t always the case.
“Yale is structurally hostile to Black students and Black women,” she said, with an air of calm understanding. “It’s college; everybody is going through something, but especially for Black women, it’s hard to adjust.”
Deja said that if someone had met her four years ago, she’d be a very different person than she is now. It’s hard to imagine her as anyone other than the smiling woman sitting across from me, in a yellow sweater and with an overflowing bookshelf behind her.
After growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, and spending a gap year in Morocco, arriving at Yale was a culture shock in more ways than one. She said the places she has been and the ideas she has been exposed to have “radicalized” her in thought, though she doesn’t consider herself a radical person. Deja believes that college has helped her reevaluate her own beliefs because of her classroom experiences and the people she’s met.
Deja has a calm sureness to her ideas, and told me about herself with a smile, taking time to think about her answers. She works at the Yale Sustainable Food Program, dyeing material with natural pigments, and was part of the Yale Outdoors club for a long time. She finds empowerment in the music of Megan Thee Stallion, City Girls and Flo Milli, although she said most people expect her to listen to indie music.
When I asked her about where she sees herself after Yale, she responded that she’s not sure, but that she’s fine with not knowing what’s in store.
“Everybody changes, even if you’re doing something right after school, that doesn’t mean you’re going to do it for the rest of your life,” she said with a shrug.
As an Ethnicity, Race and Migration (ER&M) major, she believes that spending time in the university has made her realize that “it’s not all about taking, taking, taking — it’s about giving back.” If you spot her in the manuscripts and archives section of Sterling Memorial, or in the Beinecke, she is likely digitizing old books for her friends to give others a glimpse of the knowledge that so fascinates her.
Deja took a leave of absence last spring semester, spending some time in Alabama with family before coming back to New Haven this fall. She says it was one of the best decisions she has made.
“It was really, really healthy just to have distance. … Just because you’re far away from school, doesn’t mean you’re going to stop learning, it just means you’re no longer on the timeline of classes.”
Reflecting on her time at Yale and how much she has changed during these years, she noted that “being at an Ivy League school just puts you in proximity to a lot of power and also a lot of complicity, and it can really affect how you see the world around you.”
While Deja has faced challenges at Yale, they have not overshadowed the joy she has found in community, especially among students of color.
“You get so much strength from people, you start to really dig down and see where your strength comes from, what do you really care about, what matters to you, where does your happiness come from. It might seem like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s really about adjusting to your needs and your joy.”
Ángela Pérez | firstname.lastname@example.org