From a young age, Americans study what it means to be independent. Some of us even learn it as a textbook definition. For me, the Declaration of Independence and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” made it clear how important freedom and independence are in America. We’re taught that we live in the land of opportunity. Our independence allows us to seize opportunities. In an environment like Yale, a top global university where students are selected on a basis of who can best take advantage of the opportunities there, this adds an immense amount of pressure on students to become independent in college.
Many students come to Yale with the expectation that here we would suddenly — though comfortably — transition from adolescence to adulthood. Once we are no longer living with our parents, we believed, the opportunities and multitudes of choices we were provided would make us independent.
Naturally, we celebrated our first move to campus after high school. We even reveled in the infinite number of daily responsibilities. Each ring of our morning alarms reminded us of how we set that alarm ourselves and that we have no bedtime. The multitude of phone alerts for campus events made us feel responsible and important, confirming that we had many places to go and things to do. We selected our own courses and chose our own academic path. With a mere meal card swipe, we got to chomp down on comfort food galore and never had to eat broccoli again. We were free to dress in anything we want, from chic couture to the ultimate cold gear. And best of all, we got to do everything without living under the roof of our parent’s rules.
Yet, although we didn’t even admit it to ourselves, we all wished that we had never left home. Sooner than later, each ring of our morning alarms began to remind us how we only got four hours of sleep before the exam, and that we weren’t ready for it. Every phone alert we got, our palms would get sweaty because we realized we didn’t know which of the many events to go to. We felt the pressure to make all your courses fit into your major and, at the same time, meet subject requirements. With each meal card swipe, we remembered our poor eating habits — and the fact we still haven’t arranged a workout regimen. We realized we are terrible at selecting the right clothing for the right setting and end up wearing to class dirty sweats you might have slept in. The responsibility that came with our infinite liberties and the pressure we placed on ourselves to become independent just became an itch we couldn’t scratch.
In college, the lesson I hope we all learn is to acknowledge how being independent does not mean ridding ourselves of others. We will no matter what still be in some way, dependent. The roof we are under, the rules and our routines — not one of these is fully under our control. Many of us are still financially dependent on our parents: for our tuition, our room decorations, our rooms, our food and our clothes. And beyond the question of who’s paying for it all, we residential students are in a bubble of willful dependence. We do not make our own food. We do not do the heavy cleaning of all the places we inhabit. Decisions on academic and professional tracks are subject to pressure by peers and also checked by professors, advisors, deans.
The best thing we can do to best take advantage of our newfound setting and liberties is learn to rely on others in a healthy way. To be successful in being independent, we need a definition of independence that involves interdependence. In the process, by abandoning our fixation on sole self-reliance, we become dependable people.
We piece together our individual clues and learn how to collectively to survive, we rely on others. Working with advisors to schedule our academic routines, with suitemates to clean our dorms, with classmates to study, being independent becomes a manageable reality. We narrow down all the opportunities that we took as freedoms given to us — from courses and clubs to carbs to clothing—and put our trust in others and ourselves.
The U.S.’s motto of “e pluribus unum” is written in textbooks — now interpreted as “separating the one from the many” in achieving freedom and independence. No textbook definition however, should define how we live our lives. If Yale teaches us anything, it is that to go grow as individuals we need to let go of the pressure of doing everything alone. That definition of independence does not work in practice and sets up unrealistic expectations for ourselves. Learning to rely on others is a sign of maturity and makes us reliable people. Only when our understanding of independence in the U.S. becomes about interdependence, independence leaves our textbooks’ pages and becomes an achievable reality.