Listening to some peppy Bollywood bops, I crunched through a sea of gold leaves as I headed to my first class at Yale. But as I walked into a lecture hall filled with hundreds of students, I was overwhelmed. I’d only taken biology four years ago, and remembered nothing. But students around me were loudly exclaiming that the class was “going to be such a breeze.”
My heart started racing a little faster: Everyone seemed to have taken Yale-level biology courses in high school. “It’s fine, stop stressing,” I told myself. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize then that Yale’s STEM departments were not going to save me from drowning.
As New Haven skies grayed, so did I. After just a few weeks of classes, I felt like I was losing myself. Fighting with homesickness, imposter syndrome, wavering friend groups and opaqueness around how to succeed, I approached my professor for guidance. He offered some advice: I “just wasn’t studying hard enough.” Hurriedly whispering a “thank you” on my way out, I felt my voice choking. Back in the confines of the Saybrook stairwell, I called my parents as I burst into tears for the fourth time that week, telling them that I didn’t belong at Yale and wanted to come back.
Despite constant reassurance from professors that “we aren’t competing with each other,” it seemed that these very same professors instituted systems that were doing exactly that. After one particular quiz, my professor proudly expressed that he blatantly designed the quiz to test us on material he hadn’t covered yet. When students asked why, his response was simple. “To prepare you for your careers,” he said. I started to wonder then if my future would truly be that bleak, with people working against my success.
Going to medical school is a dream for me. After coming to Yale, however, I often found myself questioning my worth, asking questions like “Will I ever make it?” or “Am I even deserving enough to go to medical school?” As I took more courses, I started to realize that many students, including myself, have fallen prey to basing their self-worth on whether they perform well in courses that cater to the whims of professors.
“Weeder” courses, as they are so pleasantly called, seem as if they are designed to prevent students from their aspirations. “Don’t trust anything any professor tells you — they’re all working against you,” my friends told me. STEM students are naturally extremely wary of their professors. How can students learn when they never trust the people providing information to them? How can we grow when we are consistently being shoved back into the dirt?
An example of this occurred two weeks ago. During the height of an overwhelming election week, we pleaded with our biochemistry professor for a two-day extension on the exam. Our professor simply told us to “hang in there.” One TF called students “animals let loose.” Our concerns were not only invalidated, they were mocked. Other students have individually pushed for change, but they’ve largely been ignored by STEM departments. This isn’t sustainable, and students are burning out.
I’m not saying students are completely innocent either. Professors may instigate this culture, but it’s students who perpetuate it. When I’ve felt down about coursework, I’ve approached peers many times. Their words of comfort? “That test was so easy. You actually thought it was hard?” Moreover, students with mental health crises or emergent circumstances are questioned by their peers: “You knew the assignment was coming right? Some of us actually studied for this.” When we can’t even show empathy for each other, we are truly alone in combating Yale’s STEM culture.
We are faced with an academic culture that could turn us into ruthless, unemotional machines. But we have to find humanity within ourselves to combat it. If we don’t, we may end up in the bleak trajectory that my biology professor had suggested — stepping on others to make our way to the top.
NISHITA AMANCHARLA is a junior in Saybrook College. Her alternate column, “Think beyond STEM,” runs every other Monday. Contact her at email@example.com.