In my experience, being a first-generation, low-income student at Yale is a lot like having a target on your back. You go through your everyday life under the gaze of a million hidden eyes all aimed at you. These eyes lie in waiting, hoping to catch the moment when you inevitably slip up and make a mistake. And you are afraid that your mistake will reinforce their belief that you do not belong. This is the paranoia that comes with being a FGLI student at Yale, and this is the fear that is the most difficult to dismantle.
It is unreasonable to believe that making a mistake, such as getting a bad grade, is evidence that one does not belong at Yale. Yet for me, the thought still nags at the corner of my mind every time I get a less than stellar essay review or when I say the wrong thing in an English seminar. Am I not good enough? Am I not talented enough? Am I not enough? Everyone else seems to know what they are doing. This feeling is an unfair burden that I, an FGLI student who did not go to a private school before Yale, have the unique misfortune of carrying. I have spent many sleepless nights sick with the worry that not only have I disappointed my family, but I have also been found out to be a fraud. It is a precarious position to be in, and it does not help that being FGLI makes you stand out glaringly from the rest of the student body.
At Yale, there are constant reminders of how different FGLI students are compared to everyone else. For example, I eat more salmon in one week in the dining halls than I do at home in one year. My dorm room is the size of my parents’ bedroom, complete with its own fireplace. Just the fact that I share the same residential college as former President George H. W. Bush is enough to tell me that I am attending a school where its students come from wealthy and powerful backgrounds. Even without all that evidence, just the sheer number of Canada Goose I see on campus is proof enough that I have stepped into a different world. Before Yale, I did not know what lobster tasted like. Now here I am, intruding in a socioeconomic circle that is so far beyond my reach that I can only ever dream of it.
Being FGLI at Yale is a lonely and difficult affair. It is hard to find one’s place here when one exists in such a small demographic minority on this campus. Finding another FGLI student is like finding a ladybug with no spots. We exist, sure, but in such a small number that it makes you wonder if this is truly it. Could this truly be everyone? If we were ladybugs, you could fit us all in one hand. If we were ladybugs with no spots in a jar of thousands of regular ladybugs, it is no surprise that we are easy to miss. Perhaps that is why I dread being spotted. Maybe I am afraid that those watchful eyes will catch me making a mistake and suddenly my strangeness will be in full view, scrutinized and criticized. I will be the oddity, the curio, the mystery. People will ask their questions. How did he get here? Why does he look like that? Where did he come from? And for God’s sake, what is he wearing? To be FGLI at Yale is to constantly fend off these sorts of questions.
At first, I did it without thinking. In my first year, I would dress in white shirts and black ties, slacks and oxford shoes. I would go to class everyday looking like I was going to a wedding, because I believed that if I dressed any differently, people would not take me seriously. Even today, I continue to wear collared shirts and slacks because of a desire to appear like I mean business. Because how else will people know that you are a Yalie if you do not wear some elaborately designed cardigan? This is just one of many ways FGLI students stake their place here. Some will pretend to be affluent and cosplay as upper-class characters. Others will lie about their backgrounds. And some, like me, will project an image of themselves that has been carefully curated to stamp out any doubt that they do not belong. It does not always work, and part of being FGLI is accepting that people will inevitably see you for who you really are.
It takes time to stand up to the fear of being caught as the odd one out. For me, it took a pandemic to get my priorities straight. I realized that being FGLI will come with difficulties that other students will never face, but I also understood that being FGLI is more than just an obstacle or a paranoia. We are our families’ hopes and dreams. We are the first to be in a place like Yale. We are opening doors and breaking glass ceilings. It is so easy to get caught in the trap of believing that the eyes of the world are scrutinizing you. And even if they are, it is because you are challenging the status quo. You are breaking barriers. You are existing in a place that was once designed to keep people like you out. I say let them look upon us. Let them see that we are more than meets the eye.
Appendix: What is your FGLI Epiphany?
By Jamie Yi
In the spring semester of 2021, I was one of the few first years allowed to live on Yale campus based on “exceptional need” for an on-campus learning experience. Aside from the ROTC and international students, the majority of us were FGLI, like me. A large community of first years, however, existed beyond Old Campus, living in apartments and sublets in New Haven. The parents of these students decided a New Haven rent check was worth it so that their kids wouldn’t miss out on the Yale social scene for a semester. Spending time with this crowd, I was told on multiple accounts how cool it was that I got to go to public school, and how crazy it was that all their friends came from private. I’ve been known to be oblivious, so apparently it took social stratification manifested into a housing divide for me to notice classism at Yale. It was a rude awakening. And once you start noticing class dynamics from an FGLI perspective, Yale truly never looks the same.