The people we’re watching are watching. It has long since been remarked that this dynamic makes us perpetual performers, always on stage in front of our fellow man. Nonetheless this part of the human condition is heightened at Yale, where we meet eyes not only with tourists and peers, but also with ourselves, who we were and who we aspire to be.
Consider our setting: gothic stone buildings, wood-paneled libraries, vaulted ceilings, and stained glass windows. Our picturesque campus communicates that Yale is a palace for learning and research for the upper echelon. Tourists and prospective students flock here in large groups, audibly “oohing” and “aahing” at the architectural wonders of our carefully designed landscape. Though the buildings are a major spectacle, the students are also a part of the show. This fall, when Sterling Memorial Library was reopened to the public for the first time since the start of the pandemic, little signs popped up urging tourists: PLEASE DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH STUDENTS OR STAFF. Spectators wander through our dormitories, our classrooms, our study spots, and our social spaces. We go about our business like rare animals in a zoo.
Scene: During the peak of my acute midterm stress (a tough moment for my personal hygiene) I ventured into the courtyard to get breakfast. To my dismay, a tour group was there learning about how “Each residential college is a microcosm of the Yale community.” With the door clanging loudly behind me, they turned to look at me. Like any good zoo animal, I tried to go about my normal routine and act like I wasn’t phased by their observing eyes. I felt a twinge of embarrassment and insecurity as I felt them perceive me: do I embody what they expect a Yale student to look like? Were my slightly greasy hair, deep under-eye circles and ensemble of mismatched sweats part of the Yale life that they expected to see? To campus visitors, we aren’t just random college students, we’re Yale™ students, which comes with a host of assumptions and expectations. Later, passing yet another tour group at a time when I felt like I was struggling as a student, friend, and athlete, I couldn’t help but think: Do I really want to shed tears in front of these people and disrupt their illusions of the Yale lifestyle? No. I decided to pull myself together, exit stage left and cry backstage instead.
The irony about this discomfort is that I consciously picked this particular stage as the setting for my college years. I read the summary of the Yale College play, imagined my role and hoped that by playing this part I would be able to have a comfortable lifestyle and the career of my choice. Many of us accepted our offer of admission based on the image we picked up from pop culture. From popular depictions of Yale and Yale-bound students like Rory Gilmore and Molly from Booksmart, Yale is the place for quirky, try-hard, slightly judgmental, privileged students that jampack their schedules with extracurriculars—but also love solving crossword puzzles and may incidentally be brilliant in their fields of interest and study.
These stereotypes are Yale™. We are socially conscious, multitalented, hard workers and we are very special.
I come from the Mountain West which, as a region, doesn’t send many people to Yale. When I meet new people back home, I’m careful with how I answer the “where do you go to college” question. If it does come up that I go to Yale, it’s usually met with a “Wow, you must be a genius.” (Reader, I am not.) If they realize that I struggle with basic math, they jubilantly point out, “she can’t do math and she goes to Yale!!.” (Reader, I am well aware of my mathematical difficulties.) This conversation, usually awkward at best, brings up a strange swirl of emotions for me. On one hand, I feel proud that I am a Yale student—but I also feel a little grossed out by this pride. Any Yale student with an ounce of self-awareness knows that a lot of luck and privilege put us on this campus. So how should I explain what Yale is to people back home without overly romanticizing nor downplaying it?
Once I arrived on campus, I realized that there are so many more types of students at Yale than I’d seen represented in popular culture or college brochures. This realization, while freeing, also made it hard to situate myself within the school. Upon internalizing that there was no singular, streamlined Yale student mold to follow, I felt overwhelmed by possibilities. Instead, I turned to my peers and compared myself to how they were navigating college to try to find my own roadmap. I often only feel like a hard worker when I see someone who seems to be working less. Or I feel bad at time management when I see someone spending their evenings socializing. Even the pastime of complaining can feel tricky when I gripe about my workload to someone taking two extra credits.
As I strain and toil to live up to my idealized expectations of the Yale student, I also observe other people seemingly excel in the areas I struggle with. This is when the Yale “production” leaves me feeling the most unmoored. It’s like a recurring nightmare: I’m onstage but I don’t know my lines; I know the role I’m supposed to play but not how to embody it in the right way.
As uncertainties of my belonging at Yale and the identity I want to inhabit on campus bounce around my mind, I can’t help but ask this fundamental question: Is the Yale™ persona a worthy ideal to aspire to? Should I go rogue and reject the role of the tryhard, perfection-seeking student, an extension of my earnest high school existence? Countless conversations with friends at Yale revolve around how we can divorce our sense of self from the unrealistically high expectations of being at Yale. Yet none of us seem to know how to actualize their implications. None of us want to be a “bad Yale student,” as we feel guilty when we prioritize other elements of our existence outside of our academic and extracurricular achievements. If we reject the Yale mold completely, we are left without a roadmap for how to “succeed,” with no indication that the post-Yale existence promised to us will remain intact. In the end, we go right back out on campus and continue acting like a standard Yale student to the rest of the world.
On Yale’s center stage—cross campus, of course—there are the cigarette smokers in the corner exuding a cool unconcernedness, as though they’ve unlocked the secrets to a post-worry student existence. There are the students who type away on their Macs while wearing fashionable sunglasses. And then the most elusive and mystifying cross campus creatures: the people sprawled out on picnic blankets chatting and enjoying a carefree moment.
As I analyze, and even feel jealous of, these characters in Yale’s production, I realize that it’s hypocritical to make assumptions based on these snapshots of people’s lives—but I keep doing it anyway. We live in such close proximity to each other, seeing each other in seminars, eating meals, in the bathroom and drunk over the weekends—you would think that we’d have more expansive views on each other. But it seems that we, still, can’t help but perform for each other as we insist on presenting polished exteriors everyday. I try to present myself in a way that mirrors my inner self, but the way I dress, where I study and so many other daily considerations are filtered—whether consciously or unconsciously—through what I think my Yale role requires.
Reasons to reject the die-hard Yale student stereotype go beyond personal doubts regarding our place in this institution—a few prominent ones include discomfort with Yale’s parasitic relationship with the city of New Haven, its lack of mental health resources for students, the romanticization of higher education, its investment in fossil fuels and Puerto Rican debt… the list goes on. But what does it even mean to reject this role? At the end of the day, most of us will graduate with a Yale degree, even those who are the most critical of the institution. We chose to come here and were also clear-eyed about the potential benefits this would likely afford us in the future. Grappling with Yale’s institutional problems necessitates getting comfortable living in the gray area. It’s okay to be thankful for what we have access to as Yale students, while also arming ourselves with these resources and skills to fight against injustices inside and outside of the institution. This tension between being grateful to Yale, being uncomfortable with Yale and trying to understand my own place on campus probably began with a hefty dose of imposter syndrome. But this line of inquiry has ultimately allowed me to at least try to be honest with myself when I feel like I’m performing for my peers or trying to embody a particular version of the Yale student. Maybe that’s all we can ask for at the end of the day—to acknowledge the many directions we are being pulled and be honest with ourselves.
On days when I feel more at peace with my place at Yale—maybe when I’ve gotten more than 7 hours of sleep or I’ve just had a good conversation with a friend— I see tour groups and feel gratitude rather than stage fright, grateful not for what Yale is meant to be, but for what it means to me: the dear friends I’ve met here, the eye opening moments I have in my Spanish Film, Gender & Sexuality, and Political Science classes, the hours spent playing frisbee at the IM fields, and joyous common room gatherings that go late into the night. A little over halfway through my time at Yale, I hope to continue coming into my own, think critically about my time at Yale and find a spot on the world’s stage that feels right for me. If nothing else, I’d like to put my own mark on the role I’ve been cast in.