Winnie Jiang

On Aug. 21, 2022, I stepped onto Yale’s campus as an official Yale student. Ever since getting into Yale in April, introducing myself as an incoming freshman at “Yale University” felt foreign. My idea of “Yale” was composed of distinguished and eyebrow-raising alumni, sprinkled media references (my favorite Yalie is Teddy from “Good Luck Charlie”), and Yale’s 300-year history of being an elite institution. 

These small allusions combined to create the great, impenetrable mythology of “Yale.” Everyone who is reading this has probably had their own legends about this place. Soon, the mythologies will be replaced by my own memories of Yale, I thought. “Yale will roll off my tongue” and I’ll tell personal anecdotes until everyone back home gets sick of me. 

But days passed and classes started, and yet I was far from my mildly diabolical plan of falling headfirst into Yale. In fact, it felt as if both my body and my memory were rejecting Yale entirely. No matter how much I dragged my tired body back to Old Campus, my feet couldn’t find their way back to L-Dub without resorting to Google Maps. Conversations with new friends were awkward and stiff, following the generic script of: “What’s your name? What residential college are you in? What’s your major? Where are you from?” As I walked past Cross Campus, I watched friends reunite and catch up with one another. Dogs raced across the quad as their owners read peacefully on picturesque benches.

My mouth would subconsciously contort into a slight pout-smile as I passed the green chock-full of people and dogs that seemed more in love with Yale than I would ever be. Inwardly, I was jealous and frustrated, wondering if I could ever sit on the grass, laugh with my friends and become an indelible part of Yale’s scenery. Outwardly, I wanted to succeed in the role of “happy, excited Yale freshman.” I wanted to be the girl who found her first few days of Yale to be everything she expected and more. 

As I called old high school friends and received the Big Question of “How’s Yale,” I struggled to find an adequate and exciting answer. How could I possibly answer that question when my perception of Yale hadn’t changed at all. My “Yale” was as emotional and personal as the Google Search images of Yale: the aerial shot of the bustling Schwarzman Center dining hall, the postcard-like images of the Sterling Library and its formidable, stone body and the headshots of famous and affluent alumni.

I began to despise Yale. The first week festivities and ceremonies washed over me like a wave of East Coast, Ivy League prestige and elitism. The Opening Assembly, with its parade of gown-wearing trustees and flags, highlighted Yale’s rich institutional history. It is not difficult to forget that Yale was built for and by white, wealthy men. Its traditions and reputation are built on this foundation. 

 The line of extracurricular activities and clubs at the Extracurricular Bazaar was dizzying and overwhelming. Returning Yale students knew exactly where to go and how to get there, both metaphorically and literally. Most of all, I hated that I wasn’t a part of this world of ceremonies, events, and Yale buzz.

But regardless of whether this school accepts you, the fact does not change that you are now a physical part of Yale. And when you finally internalize that this far-off, distant image of Yale now includes you, whether you like it or not, the seemingly impenetrable mythology begins to disintegrate little by little. 

It might be during your first year or in your very last  semester as a senior, but at some point in your Yale career the school becomes real. Just as you can’t pinpoint the moment when you’ve fallen in love with someone or determine exactly when the season changes from winter to spring, I don’t know how or when Yale became “real” to me. I just looked around me, and Yale came alive. 

The rooms of the Asian American Cultural Center now hold memories of roughly-made kimbap and tearful conversations about grief and silent K-drama watching sessions. Elm Street conjures chaotic montages of running and singing with friends as the nearby frat party music blares in my ears. The table closest to the wall at Saybrook dining hall will permanently be imbued with the memories of some of my favorite conversations: those painfully intimate and bare, full of tears and intensely joyful. 

Every once in a while, I look around Yale as I sit on Cross Campus with my friends. It turns out that even as I laugh with those around me, in a position I once envied, my ideas of belonging and familiarity at Yale inevitably fluctuate, ebbing and flowing throughout the semester. Perhaps “Yale at Home” is a precarious dynamic rather than a state of permanence. But if it is, I’m really, really okay with it.

I’ve found home in the most unexpected places. The stony gothic facades of Yale’s historic buildings no longer intimidate me. In fact, even the Sterling Memorial Library feels rather homey and familiar now. It houses one of my favorite places on campus: the stacks.

Often considered the “heart” of Sterling Library, the stacks house a vast majority of the university’s books. If you climb all the way up to the sixth floor, where I go most often, you’ll see rows of isolated desks and chairs, each separated by a wall of volumes. Pull the chair out gently; otherwise, it’ll squeak. Look directly in front of you. You’ll meet the many scribbles of students who have sat at the same desk. Some are neat and encouraging: “You can do it!” or “I believe in you!”  Others are explicit or mildly entertaining, ominous clue-like messages from  obviously bored students of the past. 

The stacks are but one illustration of the fact that the history of Yale–the glamorous, the elite, the ugly, the exclusive, all of it flows through the veins of this campus. But as much as this school and institution touches you, you too touch it. You inscribe your memories, words and personal history into Yale — just like the thousands of inscriptions next to the millions of books.

Whatever the hell Yale is — it’s yours.