Any sixth grader in my elementary school’s advanced academic program could place into advanced math in middle school if they scored at least a 90 on the aptitude test. I got a 73. My family hadn’t known about the test’s significance and hadn’t thought to prepare me. My math teacher, Ms. Bodenhofer, somehow seeing or believing in my potential, wrote to the school board and managed to get me into the advanced math class. I didn’t know it at the time, but had I not been in that advanced math class, I wouldn’t even have been eligible to apply to the magnet high school that I later attended, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, or TJHSST, a high school which I found out about years after my peers. Some of these classmates had been in prep classes for its admission exam since second grade, when I was still learning English.
I had entered Ms. Bodenhofer’s sixth grade class six years after coming to the United States as a shy child who didn’t speak English. Because of the language barrier and my parents’ inadequate information about education opportunities, I faced a whole series of obstacles throughout my educational trajectory but ultimately entered my top magnet high school. Now I’m at Yale as a “first-generation, low-income” student. From these experiences, I’ve learned that in so-called elite academic spaces, without even realizing it, we often develop a unique and undercover brand of competition. Instead of enriching our education, this veiled conflict detracts from it.
Since I’ve been at Yale, there have still been times where I’ve felt like that little girl so long ago. There was the time I asked a friend if she’d like to do a problem set together, only for her to not only never follow up with me but also to, upon observing my score on the class midterm, ask me herself if I’d like to collaborate. Or the time one of my closest friends at Yale got published as a second author and didn’t mention it at our weekly Zoom, even as we talked about research and papers. Or when a friend of mine, with whom I had conversed at length about our mutual interest in research, was applying for a new research fellowship that I didn’t learn about until the deadline had passed.
Although these incidents in and of themselves might appear trivial, together they hint at a deeper culture at Yale of keeping our resources and accomplishments closely guarded. A more open environment would not only increase our collective opportunities, particularly helping those from less privileged backgrounds, but it would also allow all of us the simple pleasure of being able to celebrate each other’s accomplishments.
Perhaps it’s too much to ask or expect that fellow Yalies would share information about interesting fellowships or supportive labs. We are already so preoccupied with doing as many things as possible and solving our own struggles that the environment becomes at best “laissez faire,” and at worst, cutthroat. After all, from a student perspective, achievements and success are basically contested goods. The more you have, the less there is for me. Therefore, your gain is my loss.
While I understand this perspective, I strongly disagree. Education, and those who partake in it, should be held to different standards, because knowledge is not a contested good. Sir Jonathan Sacks puts it this way: “If I give all I know to you, I will not thereby know less. I may know more.” We are individuals who spend most of our time learning and studying, and even more importantly, are called to spread “light and truth.” The thing about light is that its importance is naturally tied to its reach. A good light is one that illuminates more. A lighthouse’s purpose is to light the way for as many boats as possible. Doesn’t being a light include sharing opportunities and bringing others up with us? Should we not “light”-en the burdens of fellow Yalies, particularly FGLI students who struggle with so much? Excellent scholarship includes not only building our own projects and successes but also sharing knowledge with others. This is why Yale expects all tenured faculty, experts in their fields, to teach undergraduate courses.
But even if Yale’s motto didn’t bind us, something else should incite us to help. It is the human solidarity that connects us all, regardless of language, race or nationality. Although not intentionally malicious, our inaction when it comes to others’ struggles is itself an action, and actions have consequences. Do we want to be the priest, proud and successful like we are all trying so hard to be, yet who so indifferently passed by the beaten man on the road? Or do we want to be the good Samaritan who took pity on the man and nursed him back to health? We can become Rhodes Scholars or Nobel Prize winners, but if we lose our humanity in the process, it won’t have been worth it.
A recent and deeply personal event made me wonder, for the first time ever, whether I would change my FGLI identity if I could. Certainly, some things in my life would have been easier. But even as I asked myself that question, I knew that the answer was a resounding no. Because there are heroes in this story, like that math teacher who interceded for me. A few weeks ago, I looked Ms. Bodenhofer up and sent her an email, thanking her and telling her that I think about her and what she did for me often. Her reply came a few days later: “That made me cry. Really hard!”
DANIELLE CASTRO is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.