In most ways, Yale is nothing like real life.
In real life, you aren’t packed like sardines into dorms that house the world’s foremost future scholars, leaders, and entrepreneurs. In real life, you don’t usually pass people that are idolized like rockstars in their field of expertise on the way to breakfast. In real life, you don’t party with presidents or hook up with someone on Forbes 30 under 30 – at least, in my experience. Author and alum J.D. Vance called Yale “Disneyland for nerds,” and, in a way, that perfectly summarizes one’s college experience here. Yale is a sort of magic kingdom, but like in Disneyland, the sense of magic one feels here is contingent upon an artifice, a nearly imperceptible sleight-of-hand trick. Whether you’re walking through Phelps Gate or the gates to Buena Vista Street, you find yourself immersed in the alternate reality of the enclave you’ve just entered. This fantastical world into which you’ve been absorbed feels magical because it contrasts so sharply with the quotidian world. Spend enough time in the bubble, though, and you begin to equate the two. You forget your season pass has only bought you a limited time during which you can escape the everyday.
Some days, Yale is unreal in that very positive way. Other days, it seems like the magic kingdom transforms into a dungeon overnight. Your mind is put on the rack and routinely stretched to its limits. Your residential college library transforms into a torture chamber in which you’re trapped long enough to hear birds belting their morning song, a requiem for your sleepless night. In those moments, you want to distance yourself from this alternate reality as much as possible. Real life may be mundane sometimes, but it provides some respite from the devastating lows and soaring highs that you experience at Yale.
Then again, real life is not entirely disconnected from college. The academic rigor of college prepares you to take on some of the most complex jobs the real world has to offer. If you end up with such a job, your diploma may not release you from the dungeon but merely move you to a different chamber. Also, you may never leave the elite social circles into which you’re inducted at Yale. Your roommate may one day become your coworker or even a presidential running mate. Either way, “elite” colleges are often a pipeline to “elite” jobs, so you shouldn’t be surprised if you eventually see a familiar face or two after graduation in an adjacent office cubicle.
This may seem self-contradictory but how do you summarize something as complex as your first year of college in a single, coherent aphorism? The closest I can get is to say that Yale is complicated, and that’s probably the way in which it most closely resembles real life. And, especially in a year where many of us had to turn on the rack in our childhood bedrooms miles and miles away from any campus libraries, our feelings about Yale are complicated, too.
It’s impossible to find the one “right” way to feel about Yale. The sheer diversity of first-year experiences this year has proved this fact incontestably. You shouldn’t feel obligated to be nostalgic about every moment involving Yale, nor should you give up on finding any personal significance in all the time you’ve spent with this school thus far. You don’t have to feel a certain way about Yale. What’s much more important is that you do feel something at all. Those feelings are worth some contemplation on your part. Your first year at Yale — the oft-magical dungeon or the oft-tortuous Disneyland — is not the sort of project that necessarily ends with some grand epiphany. In a way, it should never end at all. No matter how “real” you feel your Yale experience to be, acknowledge the fact that this experience is real to you because you’re the one that lived it. That is a sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal, but never unimportant truth. Reflect on the good times and the bad. Consider how they have shaped your reality. As I see it, this is the best way to hold on to the magic and make it through the dungeon.