“Why Yale?” When I was asked this question at my alumni interview, I said something along the lines of, “The JE courtyard revived my childhood dream of being a knight.” But Gothic architecture was not the reason I came here. If I am being fully honest, I came here because it was the most selective college I was admitted to. I imagine this selectivity is the decisive reason most Yalies choose to matriculate. It isn’t the residential college system. It isn’t the Human Rights program. It isn’t lux et veritas. Plain and simple, most of us came here for the prestige of a Yale degree. Though the status chase led us here, it does not have to define our precious Bright College Years.
My guess is “Why Yale?” is supposed to make ambitious students seek something more from Yale than status. The unfortunate truth is that Yale culture is obsessed with status, and to a fault. It is only a matter of time before “Why Yale?” slides into “What are you doing this summer?” with the implication students should have an internship lined up. Nearing graduation, I’ve begun to hear “What do you do?” as if the most important aspect of meeting me is knowing how I earn money. Most students treat Yale as a launch pad into the status competition of the adult world. What else explains the near majority of students who go into tech, consulting, and finance immediately after graduation? These industries affect large segments of society while paying extraordinarily well. What more could an ambitious Yalie ask for?
I’m not above seeking status. We all do. Status is an indelible part of social life that regulates individual behavior in groups. Rising in status makes us happy, while falling makes us depressed and anxious. Among humans, the status drive can direct ambition towards socially beneficial ends. Without the status conferred on public service, the United States never would have garnered such notable statesmen as Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.
The problem is when status competition becomes the all-consuming driver of elite culture. Responding to an unequal political economy, Yalies place undue importance on a select set of internships and jobs, heightening the competition for them. We labor intensely at the cost of our physical and mental well-being. The culture of competition leads Yalies to skip sleep and meals, suffer from increasing rates of anxiety and depression, and resent each others’ successes. Most importantly, the competition squanders the real opportunity Yale offers in forming a life beyond mere status.
If I had a few words of advice for my fellow Yalies, use your years at Yale to find status in your strengths and interests. Don’t agonize over taking courses you find boring or overly difficult. Looking back, I would have enjoyed my Yale years more had I studied History rather than Ethics, Politics & Economics. I was afraid I needed to signal quantitative chops because that’s what everyone told me would land me a good job. Though I don’t regret developing this skillset, it delayed or sidetracked my interests in journalism, film, and learning about other cultures. So rethink that Certificate in Data Science or pre-med track.
Part of escaping the status chase is building competency in the many parts of life that are not professional. Ask someone out and experience what it means to love someone. Live off campus and learn how to take care of yourself: cook, clean, and exercise. Pick up hobbies and feed passions that access your spiritual side. Everyone has one.
Next, find your people. Status is defined by the group, so find groups that value you for your interests and talents, where you are trusted with responsibility and others want you to succeed. Don’t settle with being a lackey just because you’re in a group that is prestigious or hosts exclusive events. Leave it. In a place with as many interesting people as Yale, you should be making new friends all four years. Cross class years. Approach athletes. Talk to performers. Ask a professor or TF to meet for coffee or drinks. Join or create a group that will make you grow.
Finally, take risks. The real privilege of a Yale degree is the ability to invest in yourself with minimal downside, free from having to make a living. Now is the time to try different career paths and gain life experience. Work for a political campaign, wait tables, start a company, live abroad and teach English. Yalies are too concerned with keeping their options open. Consulting and banking sell students on their “exit opportunities,” as if you can’t fall back on a Yale degree. Spend these four years and do something that makes you a more interesting person. Your corporate job can wait.
If I leave you with anything, dislodge the “Why Yale?” mentality. Yale, like any other elite institution, is only as interesting as the people that it sends off into the world. Use Yale not to chase professional status, but to build the foundation of a full life.
ETHAN DODD is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.