I came to Yale with an Obama-era faith in diversity and the power of Black exceptionalism. At 17 and at the top of my high school class, I believed I was the next iteration of the talented Black student entering an elite space and using his position to make change. I was certain that Yale had offered me a place at its university because it saw that promise in me. My family believed it too. 

They came from the South — as sharecroppers, who picked cotton in the Mississippi heat — to Chicago hoping the North would offer better economic opportunity. My grandmother enrolled in a local college in 1968 under that hope and carved out a career for herself in the city. My mother did the same and became a prominent public servant. In 2020, it was my turn. I could go further than anyone in my family had before — touch the Ivy League, build on the family’s dream and such. So entering Yale, I had hope that the university would usher me to greatness. 

More than anything, my time here has been a dismantling of that hope. In my first year, I saw Yale as a shining institution, a place which, in spite of its many flaws, had an essential goodness. I told myself to “cherish each moment I have here.” Then I watched as the university denied its responsibility to the city of New Haven amidst a pandemic, and I watched as the university treated the death of one of our classmates — and our school’s broader mental health crisis — with profound callousness. Still, I hoped that if students just named these injustices, Yale would change. Even if Yale failed to rise beyond what it had shown itself to be, I believed the university, with its wealth of resources, could do something for me and my community. I just needed to learn how to navigate it. 

That striving defined the rest of my years here. If I just put my head down and focused on collecting accomplishments, I figured I could gain enough power and influence to make change — I wouldn’t have to wait on institutions like Yale to listen to me. But I failed to realize that striving for accolades from Yale would change me. Learning this university’s language of success, what was prized here and what conferred power in elite spaces like this, meant implicitly internalizing the values that undergirded that system of recognition. It made me much more sensitive to where I stood in relation to others. It raised the stakes of every misstep and failure, and it led me to take every success for granted. So much of the potential beauty of my college experience was lost to that striving. 

This year was a reset of sorts. I have accounted for what I have lost. Though coming to this understanding was a gradual process, there was a moment when what I had learned became especially clear. I spent one of my evenings during Black History Month at an Af-Am House event where we traced our genealogy. Sitting in the House’s high-ceilinged, wood-paneled E-Room, the workshop leader said something that placed my experience of Yale in context. 

In brief, he said there are versions of success and ways of being recognized that exist beyond this university. I understand now this is the case with the values I grew up with, and I see that in deferring to the terms Yale set for greatness I discounted the wisdom of home. I diminished the deep investment in community that made Chicago feel more welcoming than Yale ever has. I took as given the respect and care people gave willingly back home, and the solidarity offered in nearly every environment I entered. But now, having spent four years in a place where community isn’t heralded as much as individual greatness, where deference is rarely given to those not seen as leaders, I recognize the value in that which is not legible to this university. 

I have finished my four years in the Ivy League, and I realize there is very little here for me. I have certainly benefited from the resources this institution has offered me, and for that I am grateful, but my moral instruction has occurred in spite of this place. I no longer want to be great as this university defines it. I want to be great in the eyes of those back home –– the people who taught me what it means to invest in others, act selflessly, and give care and respect because that is what everyone deserves. In the place of my lost hope has come a new faith –– in the beauty and power of community, and the people, both in and outside of Yale, who strive to win their communities the kinds of resources and esteem this university has, but does not deserve. 

CALEB DUNSON is a graduating senior in Saybrook College. He was an Opinion Editor for the News during the 2021–22 school year. Contact him at caleb.dunson@yale.edu. 

Caleb Dunson is a former co-opinion editor and current columnist for the News. Originally from Chicago, Caleb is a senior in Saybrook College majoring in Political Science and Economics. His column "What We Owe," runs monthly and "explores themes of collective responsibility at Yale and beyond." Contact him at caleb.dunson@yale.edu