John Nguyen

I’ve never had to think twice before singing. I don’t have to learn how to match certain musical notes each time I hear them on the piano. I listen to the various pitches and sing them. Because I don’t possess a proficient music-reading ability, I feel the flow of the music when performing with an ensemble. It feels like second nature. My musical journey started in sixth grade, when my science teacher encouraged me to sing in the talent show. Then my counselor recommended choir. Now, when I perform, my heart doesn’t race. My body is loose. My mind doesn’t wander. I just sing. When you do a task for so long, thinking becomes unnecessary.

When I applied to colleges, my high school counselors regularly insisted that I research institutions with small class sizes because compared to my high school courses, I’d get closer interaction with classmates and professors.

I perused books like the “Fiske Guide to Colleges,” and I found the statistics that my counselors told me about. Like some other elite colleges and universities, Yale boasts about its small classes: “Three-quarters of all courses enroll fewer than 20 students, and hundreds enroll fewer than 10. The student-to-faculty ratio is 6:1.”

When I read this data, I tilted my head to the right, widened my eyes and raised my eyebrows. That typical class size is suuuuuuper small. I envisioned how much fun my classes would be — how I’d be able to be part of a close-knit community with peers and professors, as I’ve experienced singing in choir.

In my public, Title I high school in Saint Paul, Minnesota — where courses, on average, had at least 25 students — I was rarely able to get all of my questions answered during the class period. There were other students who needed help as well. All courses were lecture-based, and student participation was rarely the norm. I had, at most, four class discussions in one year. For all of my high school courses, in 180 days of school. These Socratic seminars were rarely spontaneous: Nearly everyone, myself included, prepared a script of what we were going to say. We snaked our way around the rows of desks, giving everyone an opportunity to have their voices heard in a rigid, unchangeable pattern.

You could sleep through the period and the teacher wouldn’t penalize your grade. For classes you weren’t interested in, you could just get started on homework for other courses, tuning out your current one, making the most of your time. This clemency, seen in many lower-income schools, leads students to not feel inclined to actively engage in class. The leniency trap.

Now starting my first year of college at Yale, I’m in seminar courses with at most 12 kids, having intellectual discussions and debates each and every class period. In the first week of my English seminar, when seeing how intimate the class was — even on Zoom — I muttered “wow” under my breath. The discourse happens on the spot, with the trajectory of the conversation changing after each person adds their perspective. 

Growing up as an English Language Learner student in primary school — Vietnamese being my first language — I’m now fluent in English. Though, every language has dialects. For a first-generation, low-income student, the seminar environment can feel like an immersion program in a foreign tongue. Impromptu academic discussions aren’t intuitive for me. Jumping in and finding when exactly to slip in my two cents — and feeling confident doing so — is a skill I didn’t have much occasion to develop. 

In his book, “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students,” Harvard professor Anthony Abraham Jack discusses the “‘hidden curriculum’ of social and academic expectations that govern life at elite institutions.” Many students, especially those who are FGLI, find it difficult to use their voices in such unfamiliar, prestigious spaces. And when you’re not accustomed to such environments, sharing ideas in the tea party known as academia can be strenuous.

As an FGLI student, I experience the seminar with my eyes wide open, my mind all over the place, my entire body tense. The class material is usually the last thing I’m pondering. Most of the time, all I can do is nod my head to show my active listening. I’m on guard, calculating when to spout my ideas. Before I know it, the 75 minutes are up: Class is dismissed. And I’ve been silent the entire period. I let out a heavy sigh, and my body finally relaxes. Repeat the next day. Next week. For the rest of the semester. I ask myself: When will this stop being exhausting? When will talking feel like singing?

I’ve spoken with and occasionally cried to some academic peer mentors about my inability to speak up — both comfortably and often — in my classes. They’ve all said basically the same thing: “Practice makes perfect! You’re so amazing — that’s why you’re here at Yale. Just say one thing in your next class, then two the class after that, then you’ll be a natural. You won’t even have to think about speaking up! It’ll become so easy so fast.”

The process hasn’t been quick, though. Before I speak up in my smaller-sized classes, my heart races, beating out of my chest. I often pick at the skin around my nails, waiting for a moment to share my views. I’ll have at least three talking points ready for the discussion, but I’ll usually be able to bring up only one. While in the seminar, the brain becomes a funny organ: Ew, shut up, what you said didn’t even make any sense. Stop talking, imposter.

I see the other kids in my seminar classes, and many of them share their ideas so effortlessly and eloquently. When an idea pops into their head, they don’t think twice. They say it with pride. A pride I hope to someday feel. Some are fortunate enough to have practiced and internalized this skill of navigating the seminar. Many of the other students look and feel like me while I’m singing. Free. When you do something for so long, you don’t need to think hard about it.

How much time will it take me? I ask myself.

I became aware of these challenges before I even officially kick-started my college journey. During the summer of 2020, I participated in a bridge program, which helped me and a handful of other FGLI Yale students polish skills like writing. But I never talked in front of my English class then, unless it was for a presentation where everyone was required to. Now, three months into my Yale journey, I’ve started to give more snippets of my voice in class. Progress. But I still release heavy sighs after each seminar discussion. I feel like I’m in a constant game of catch-up, not knowing if and when I will be on the same playing field. And then I wonder: What about the FGLI kids who didn’t have the head start of the bridge program, but needed it?  

My fellow FGLI students are talented. They dance. They act and do theater. They write poetry and perform spoken-word pieces. They play instruments. They draw. And I sing. All of us lead in our own unique ways. 

And many FGLI students share my anxieties. Alexa, Lexi, Carla and Joseph, some of my FGLI friends, explain: “It’s really hard to speak up in my seminars — to take up space when anything I say feels ‘uneducated’ or when I use simple vocabulary and others use fancy jargon. And when other students talk about their parents’ professions, I get hints that this is the Yale people told me to be scared of. For many Yale students, their environment hasn’t changed.”

When I got admitted to Yale, my name was printed in Minnesota newspapers like the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press. My counselors, teachers, friends, classmates, family and random strangers told me how proud they were. They were sure I’d succeed, offering countless words of affirmation

“You have so much potential!” 

Phrases like “smooth sailing from here on out!” and “truly inspiring” are often the cheers when the FGLI kid “makes it out.” College acceptance videos — with the student jumping up and down ferociously, their parents and friends ugly-crying around them — start chain reactions of joy. These clips are happy viruses. We can get sucked into believing that, for the student, the struggle is over.

In a Boston Globe article about “What is it like to be poor at an Ivy League school?” Brooke Lea Foster underscores, “a full scholarship to an Ivy League school, while a transformative experience for the nation’s poorest students, is only the first hurdle. Once on campus, students report feelings of loneliness, alienation, and plummeting self-confidence. … And some disadvantaged students feel they don’t have a right to complain to peers or administrators about anything at all; they don’t want to be perceived as ungrateful.” Operating in the seminar is a matter of skills — a cultural competency that some have already cultivated, and others not. The Pell Grants and the need-based scholarships graciously knock down the first domino in line on the journey of an FGLI student. But the rest still stand.

When I doubt myself, I try to recall Alexa’s words of wisdom. “I’ve realized that us simply existing and being in these spaces is a victory,” she reminded me recently. Reminds all of us.

Alexa continues to dance unapologetically. Joseph wows audiences through musical theater. Lexi proudly plays her clarinet and draws. Carla feels at home when she acts. I further my love for singing. And writing. I continue to nod in seminar, showing all of my teeth as I smile, acting like nothing is wrong.

When anyone tells me that I’m a great singer, I respond “Thank you.” Then I continue the answer in my head: And you probably don’t know that it’s hard for me to talk. But hey, I’m trying. We’re trying.

John Nguyen |