Like most universities in the U.S., Yale awards more computer science degrees to men than women. Indicative of the so-called “leaky pipeline,” which describes the phenomenon in which women drop out of educational programs in STEM fields, this gender imbalance has long been a source of concern for Yale.
But the undergraduate organization FloatYale aims to be part of the solution to this problem.
According to its website, Float’s mission is to empower, inspire and celebrate women in computer science. Founded in January 2014 by Christine Hong ’15 and Victoria Nielsen ’16, Float promotes gender minorities in computer science through a mentorship program, workshops, speakers and an annual hackathon.
Hong said that her motivation for starting the organization was to create a support network for women in computer science — something that previously hadn’t been available to students at Yale. Additionally, she hoped the organization would be proactive in teaching practical skills, such as web development.
Current president Payal Modi ’17 said that while the organization is aimed at promoting women and gender diversity in computer science, the organization’s events are open to all genders.
“Including men in the conversation is important,” Modi said. “While it is important to have spaces that are gender- and minority-specific, it is important to include them in the picture and help them understand the things they can do to help and increase awareness.”
Others also expressed the necessity of having support networks for women. Six female computer science majors interviewed said that issues relating to gender diversity become obvious during office hours, as well as while forming project groups in higher-level classes. Several added, however, that professors in the department have become cognizant of diversity issues and are making a concerted effort to address them.
Although gender diversity has always been a priority within Yale’s Computer Science Department, discussion around this issue has occurred only relatively recently, according to computer science professor Holly Rushmeier.
“We don’t have a coherent plan [for diversity] yet because prior to 2008, this wasn’t even a thing,” Rushmeier said. “Our major was tiny with a graduating class of 15 people. Then, the problem with the pipeline was that we were trying to get anybody in the pipeline.”
Rushmeier attributed the sudden surge in interest in computer science during the last decade to a variety of factors, including the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of Facebook, and “The Social Network” film. She added that computer science departments around the world are overwhelmed all of a sudden by the number of majors.
Last semester, Float hosted its first town hall meeting. According to Modi, last semester’s meeting largely consisted of discussion and the group plans on hosting one town hall meeting every semester.
“Float did a great contribution by having the town hall last spring,” Rushmeier said. “It raised issues [the Computer Science Department] wasn’t aware of — the sorts of things that were making people uncomfortable. There were individual anecdotes that people were not aware of. It hadn’t occurred to us that this was affecting some populations differently and discouraging some people.”
Most recently, Float hosted a dinner for their mentorship program, in which upperclassmen computer science majors were paired with underclassmen mentees.
Sonia Gadre ’20, a Float mentee from Lexington, Kentucky, said she joined the program to find a community of people, adding that sometimes computer science can be intimidating in the beginning.
Jessica Pancer ’17, Gadre’s mentor, said that she originally joined Float for moral support in computer science. Pancer is also the founder of Women of 323, a group she created for female classmates in CPSC 323, a high-level computer science course.
Rushmeier said that last year’s events surrounding race and inclusion on campus raised everyone’s awareness about diversity. She added that there have been many conversations regarding the progress of the department with respect to these goals, as well as what else can be done.
The Computer Science Department is committed to diversity in both students and faculty, Rushmeier said. Currently, they are putting energy into hiring a diverse faculty and addressing a shortage in graduate students.
“There’s the perennial problem of the graduate student population and faculty recruiting. It’s not choosing the diverse people from the applicant pool, it’s getting applicants in the first place,” Rushmeier said. “We have to work hard to make it known to the people we want to apply, ‘Hey, Yale is here, and we want you to come to graduate school here, and we want to hire you.’”
Float will host its second town hall meeting on Nov. 4 from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.
In the viral video, “That’s Why I Chose Yale,” cheery Yalies sing about the merits of their suite camaraderie, in which a pair of roommates even have matching sheets.
But living in a suite of four girls, Adrien Gau ’17 almost never sees any of them, doesn’t have meals with them, and often doesn’t return there to sleep.
“I’d much rather hang out with my suite of guy friends every day,” they said. “It would’ve been much easier if I could’ve just lived with them.”
Gau has moved their schoolbooks and food into their common room, effectively creating a mixed-gender suite. Though on friendly terms with their four suitemates, Gau, who identifies as gender-neutral and prefers the corresponding pronouns, believes their living situation constitutes an unfair restriction of their choices.
“It is really dysphoric for me to think about how I’m forced to live with girls. It’s like a slap in the face from Yale,” they said. “It’s not that I don’t like girls, it’s just, that’s not me. I’m not a girl, but Yale doesn’t care.”
If Gau had entered the University one year later, they wouldn’t have had to move their books and food to their ideal suite. Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway announced the expansion of gender-neutral housing to the sophomore class on Dec. 9, 2014 — it will become an option this fall, affecting the class of 2018.
In a survey sent to a random sample of undergraduate students by the News, 91 percent of 104 students surveyed were either in support of or indifferent to the policy extension.
Helen Price ’18, for one, is seriously considering living in a mixed gender suite as a sophomore. She’s happy to be able to live with her best friend next year, rather than wait until her junior year, just because he’s not female.
Many upperclassmen wish Yale had offered them this choice earlier. Dayrin Jones ’16, who currently lives in a suite with four women, found the lack of choices during his sophomore year frustrating, and considered transferring colleges at the end of his freshman year.
“I thought about rooming options outside of [Ezra Stiles College] because I had few male friends in my college,” he said. “I almost ran out of time before I found a roommate sophomore year, because I had no possibilities in mind.”
The class of 2018, whether or not they choose mixed-gender housing, will at least have all the possibilities open to them.
Even students who don’t plan on taking advantage of this opportunity commend the change. Though Summer Kim ’18 has personal reservations about co-ed housing, she appreciates that it’s now available, especially at a place like Yale, because her concerns “don’t resonate with everyone or even a majority of students here.”
Despite the fact that 50 percent of freshmen surveyed expressed interest in mixed-gender housing next year, historically speaking, it has not been quick to catch on. In 2010–11, the first year with mixed-gender housing as a Yale College policy, only 39 seniors took advantage of it. Though Jones, Gau and Price have strong feelings about the issue, and though they have the support of the student body, they may be in the minority.
The greatest change may not be the number of students who live in co-ed suites, but rather the way the policy’s adoption affects campus culture.
Daniel Dangaran ’15, a freshman counselor in Ezra Stiles College, said his freshmen are very excited. One freshman told him he was glad the YCC succeeded in its task — even if he does not live in a co-ed suite next year, he’s happy the option is available to other freshman.
Dangaran knows that freshmen may hesitate at first.
“Only time will tell which freshmen will decide to take advantage of the policy and opt to live in mixed-gender suites,” he said, “but the option will help to normalize having friendships with people of all genders.”
Yale’s spaces seem already gender-neutral in many ways, with shared bathrooms, suites connected by fire doors (which are then left open, creating “double suites” of men and women), and even unofficial room swaps or permanent sleepover situations. But, Jones said, an improvised situation is not enough.
“In those instances, there still is a lack of the shared space that you would experience if you were living together,” he said. “With the policy change, I think campus culture will see an increase in respect for the opposite sex.”
The YCC has argued that co-ed suites will de-sexualize spaces — in a suite where men and women choose to live together as friends, the environment mitigates potential instances of sexual hostility. Price agrees with this assessment, adding that the policy change breaks down the symbolic barrier between men and women.
“Now I feel like I can live with my friends, and some of them just happen to be boys. Separating the genders seems very juvenile,” she said.
Alex Borsa ’16, former president of the LGBTQ Co-Op, meanwhile, believes that the policy change will not generate a massive shift in campus culture. The great majority of students, who have supported the policy even if it will never affect them, have already created a gender-neutral environment.
He added that the extension is a success for many queer and gender non-conforming students, and finds it ridiculous that it hasn’t already happened.
Only the official label has been missing. YCC Vice President and project manager for the issue Maia Eliscovich Sigal ’16 said that the administration’s approval was key.
“I think that the rules that they impose shape the culture we live in,” she said. “Through those rules they make it more open, and more flexible.”
Kim shared a similar perspective, adding that “the administration making it official recognizes how students at Yale already live, and how they would feel most comfortable, which is awesome.”
For most Yalies, the new policy merely adapts the suite, the cornerstone of university living, to fit the relationships we have come to rely on for late night food runs, inside jokes and emotional support. The friends we live with are the family we choose for ourselves, unobstructed by gender norms or bureaucratic policies.
Will there be any obstacles for freshmen next year, despite this seemingly perfect policy? YCC President Michael Herbert ’16 came up with one: “A potential mistake freshmen could make would be choosing to live with someone with whom they are in a relationship,” he explained. “Such relationships often do not last, which could lead to a very awkward situation.”
One set of connected sophomore suites, which became gender-neutral once the fire door was unlocked, saw the effects of one such relationship. The room by the door, the border between the men and the women, now has a sign. “My room is Sweden. Neutral zone.”
Zachary Blickensderfer ’16, a Jonathan Edwards housing representative, dismissed these pitfalls.
“The question of ‘living with significant others’ as being a legitimate concern is absurd, because the University should feel no obligation to prevent couples from making that stupid decision,” he said.
Dangaran is enthusiastic about that freedom, arguing that those who create their suites with all genders will forge trust-filled bonds in a comfortable setting, without gender as a barrier. Dangaran stresses that those who do not wish to live with suitemates of the opposite gender will obviously have their wishes respected. To him, the change in policy won’t be an obstacle to their campus welfare.
As YCC project manager for the issue, Eliscovich Sigal never encountered any opposition to the change among fellow students. And not a single student interviewed objected to the policy. They all briefly endorsed it, almost surprised that I had even asked.
Blickensderfer agreed that the policy is just common sense. “Living with people you like is fun. It’s as simple as that.” Simple, but a complicated process.
In 2013, Holloway told the News he was not in support of mixed-gender suites for sophomores.
“There was a feeling that developmentally, sophomores are not ready for mixed-gender suites,” he said. “There are a whole host of cognitive and social abilities sophomores are still forming, and I think many are not quite ready for the interesting complications that may arise from gender-neutral housing.”
Yet, by the end of 2014, the administration had decided that the complications were secondary to the benefits of the policy.
The possibility of change was first brought to the administration in December 2007, after the LGBTQ Co-Op led demonstrations like a public “sleep-in” on Cross Campus in the snow. The YCC followed, with formal reports that would soon become a staple in their efforts to expand the policy.
From the beginning, the YCC found that “support for gender-neutral housing at home was wide: some Yale students needed gender-neutral housing and virtually none were opposed,” according to Eliscovich Sigal’s letter in the Winter 2014 newsletter. In 2010, after three years of lobbying, the Yale Corporation extended the option for seniors, but some in the administration still considered it an “experiment.”
Since 2010, half a decade has passed, in which the YCC has often returned to students, and heard universally positive experiences from those who chose mixed-gender housing. Herbert explained that at the beginning of this academic year, YCC chose their issues of focus, which included divestment, financial aid, mental health and improving Yale’s sexual climate.
“But of all of the important subjects, the one with the most straightforward fix was the expansion of mixed-gender housing to sophomores,” he said.
Former Yale College Dean Mary Miller had concurred, leaving a recommendation for her successor that the plan become a reality.
So when Herbert and Eliscovich Sigal brought up the issue at their weekly meeting with Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry in September, they were astonished to be told that the option had been taken off the table due to logistical impossibilities. Herbert was floored, feeling that the “sentiment of permanence had not been communicated to students, and … we did not really understand what “logistically impossible” meant.”
At this point, Yale was “the exception, not the rule, in the Ivy League,” so Herbert and Eliscovich Sigal reached out to residential college deans, and to Holloway. They then asked both the YCC Council of Representatives and the Freshman Class Council to vote — both voted unanimously in favor of the policy change.
Herbert lauds campus enthusiasm for the issue, citing various op-eds from students, and the FCC’s engagement with the freshman class, the first to be affected by the change.
Throughout the fall of 2014, Holloway worked with the YCC, citing reasons for the length of the process: difficulties in housing configurations due to more possible options, the readiness of new housing software, and the various administrative channels the policy had to pass through before a decision.
Herbert and Eliscovich Sigal returned to the drawing board, as their predecessors had done many times since 2007, trying to galvanize support from the administration and students. Herbert found Dean Holloway to be receptive and engaged, and the students and administrators collaborated throughout the fall. Eventually, the Council of Masters approved the policy without obstacles, culminating in this major coup for YCC.
Eliscovich Sigal considers this “a victory to be celebrated by every Yale student as a triumph of student voice. Only we know our experiences here.”
I was surprised when the public service announcement warned: “This play may offend white people.” It was an odd start to a play that aimed at breaking down racial barriers.
“The Dance and the Railroad & Bondage,” a back-to-back showing of two plays by David Henry Hwang, is the first Yale performance to focus on Asian-American identity, explains Assistant Director Elaine Zhang ’17. True to its goals, the plays definitely force audience members to explore how painful and complex race and gender can be.
The production is undoubtedly provocative, and in that way could be offensive to many people, regardless of race. But crossing the line of what is socially acceptable is necessary. The plays lack adventure and plot. The conversation is sometimes dry; the characters basically discover themselves, on stage, through conversation. But the play is redeemed because it is a risqué, straightforward and honest discourse on identity.
The backdrop is a simple white sheet painted with the outline of mountains and sun. In a matter of seconds the serenity is broken by Ma, a young, naïve boy who comes up the mountain during a strike to learn opera from Lone, a recluse. In a subtle twist, Ma is played by a girl, Stefani Kuo ’17. The gender switch is an excellent move; Kuo’s high-pitched voice and youthful enthusiasm captured Ma’s boyish naïveté. Gender becomes neutral, following the production’s aims.
At first, the dynamic between Lone and Ma is a bit awkward; as the tension between the jaded and the ambitious collide, the actors almost do not know how to deal with their historic roles. I did not feel a tangible relationship between the two — it seemed like two individuals in stilted interaction. Perhaps it is the nature of the script, which focuses on individual identity at the expense of realistic dialogue. Either way, with time, they warm up and begin to seem less scripted.
“Eight-hour day good for white man, also good for China man,” Kuo delivers in broken English. The meek delivery of the line poignantly captures the defeat, the exploitation, the cultural barriers and the racism that pervade the play. While the text was a bit dry, the actors brought the characters to life, making the production surprisingly captivating.
As the scene fades out, the painted sheet abruptly drops and club music comes on. All that remains is a glow-in-the-dark sign that reads BITCH. The change of pace is a false promise, because the next hour is another round of conversation between two people. With the new set comes a new play, “Bondage,” and a completely new perspective on the racial tensions in America. The play transitions 100 years from the historical, external obstacles immigrants faced to the internal identity issues of modern-day Asian-Americans.
While in many plays the setting is three-dimensional but the Asian stereotypes lamentably two-dimensional, these plays feature minimalist, two-dimensional sets to call attention to the many dimensions of the characters and their complex dialogue.
“Bondage” is not action-packed. It is not unpredictable. The setting is provocative, but not sensual. The real strength of the one-hour play is the way it explores territory where most people will not go. Its setting is an S&M parlor. Both characters, who are regular sexual partners, hide behind black ski masks and completely black clothes.
Its characters are playing with chains, whips and collars the entire time. It’s quite novel.
The premise of the play is that racial dynamics, like sexual dynamics, can have catastrophic consequences on people’s identities. At times the sexual atmosphere seemed to be unintentionally awkward. For a few moments it was powerful and jarring, but after an hour it had lost the shock factor that brought people in, and the dialogue dragged.
Director Crystal Liu explained that the two plays were meant to blur gender lines. In the gender flip of “The Dance and the Railroad,” the production was successful. I didn’t even realize Ma was supposed to be a certain gender until well into the play. In “Bondage”, however, the playing with sexual dynamics and gender seemed a bit coarser. Both the female and male parts were played by women, but this seemed to ignore the male-female dynamic that was meant as a metaphor for the dynamics between races in America.
While the deeply ingrained prejudices addressed can make the issue seem hopeless, Hwang leaves the audience with this thought: “The rules that govern the behavior of the old era are crumbling but the ones from the new have yet to be written.” The play is raw. It is unfiltered. Which is important, since the play is about digging below pretenses. It exposes “political correctness” as a masquerade of true racial acceptance, which means that nobody is safe from scrutiny, not even the “liberal.” This play is worth seeing not because it is funny or particularly well-written, but simply because it offers a fresh perspective on race and identity.
I had lots of expectations for senior year. Back in my youth, I’d heard upperclassmen describe it as a golden era, a time of bucket lists and day-seizing and buying wine legally. I’d imagined I would spend it hosting terribly grown-up dinner parties, reading philosophy in the bath and swanning about campus wearing something glamorous.
It seems I was wrong. So far, my senior year has confusingly turned out to be, of all things, a hotbed of casual sexism.
Cut to Friday night, late August. I’m zipping down Chapel Street in heels. As always, I’m horribly late, but is that going to stop me from checking myself out in the Rite Aid windows? I’m all dressed up, and Avril Lavigne circa 2001 is telling me how fly I look. I am, in fact, feeling pretty fly. That is, until the homeless man on the corner turns and yells at me, “Too tall! Go home!”
Take it from me: Nothing shakes the old confidence quite like being called an eyesore by a man wearing an empty sriracha box for a hat. I complained to another tall friend about the injustice of this. “You think that’s bad?” she asked. “One time in Chicago, someone said the same thing to me. Then he spat on me.” Charming.
Now, I am a head above many ladies; I’ll give the nice man that. But I don’t think that means that I should have to stay home. This isn’t the Dark Ages; I feel like in 2014, being 5’10” isn’t some deformity you have to hide in a cloister. Particularly given that 5’10” is the height of the average U.S. male. Somehow, I find it hard to believe that Mr. Sriracha stands on the corner of Chapel and Temple flipping off every average American man that passes.
I wouldn’t mind this brush with casual sexism so much if it were an isolated incident. But it’s not. I moved off campus this year, and my new landlord must have put me on some sort of local misogyny Tinder. The minute my lease began off campus, seemingly every benevolent sexist in the Greater New Haven area has swiped right on my doorstep.
When I moved in, I found that one of the neighbors had left me a cream pie on my back stairs — which should have been all the warning I needed. Taped to the pie box was a note that began with “Sweetie” and offered me $150 — on the condition that I spend it only on, and I quote, “lubricants or toys for me and Kamil.” The note was signed, alarmingly, “Dad.” I still don’t know who Dad and Kamil are, but I immediately regretted asking my mother to help me decipher the handwriting.
Soon after came the real struggles. My landlord is notorious for leasing apartments that fall apart around you and not deigning to fix them. Sure enough, for the first week of classes, I had to choose between having my bedroom lights permanently on and killing power to my entire apartment. I called my landlord several times to explain politely that using a circuit breaker as a light switch wasn’t ideal. No dice.
So, eventually, I toddled down to their offices for a serious chat. I had thought that chat would be between a dispatcher and me, but it was actually between a dispatcher and my chest. Then, when I called again the next day, the man answering the phone told me that he remembered me: “the pretty English girl.” Dude, I was wearing PJs, was sweating profusely and had circles under my eyes the size of a pumpkin because my lights won’t turn off when it’s time to sleep. The same man then told me he would send me an electrician, “But only because English girls are my favorite kinds of girls.” Thank you, good sir, for giving me access to a service you are legally obliged to provide, on the condition that you can describe me as a sexual object! No, really, you really shouldn’t have.
I think the kicker came later that day, when my electrician, a gentleman missing four teeth, asked me to let him know personally if I ever needed a light bulb changed, because, as he reliably informed me, girls can’t do that for themselves.
Which brings us to the million-dollar question of my senior year. How many SWUGs does it take to change a light? Evidently, fewer than there are sexists in New Haven, reaching for your bulbs.
Contact Eleanor Michotte at firstname.lastname@example.org .
I don’t remember when I first started to notice, but it was hard to stop hearing these things once I did. I was hearing this word, I was hearing it everywhere and I had next to no idea what it actually meant. On a campus full of people with bizarre study habits and sleep schedules, what does it take to get called “crazy”?
In an unscientific survey conducted in Blue States and dining halls, students told me they think we’re all very sensitive when it comes to talking about our peers’ mental health. Conversations about mental illness take place in hushed tones, full of sympathy and euphemisms. They do not involve big, loud words like “crazy.”
“I think in my experience when I talk about people with mental illnesses, it’s pretty sympathetic,” said Maggie Zhou ’15, a member of my random sample. “The enemy is always Yale Health.”
Students I spoke with had a wide range of horror stories about Yale Mental Health Services: waiting up to four months for an appointment, encountering therapists who didn’t recognize their patients, who cut them off in the middle of sentences when their time was up, who pushed medication on them after two sessions, who prescribed the wrong kind of medication, who made them feel judged.
On the surface, we’re trying to fix this. Every Yale College Council presidential candidate in recent memory has made improving Yale’s mental health resources a prominent part of his or her platform. When Cameron Dabaghi ’11 jumped off the Empire State Building in the March of 2010, we wrote op-eds and talked about boosting access to mental health services. When Zachary Brunt ’15 committed suicide two years later, we did much the same thing.
We hear that Yale’s mental health services are failing us. The failures are big and gaping and scary.
But we also hear about the stigma that makes so many students reluctant to seek help, or even articulate their suffering in the first place. The source of this stigma seemed a little mysterious to me at first. Yale is famously inclusive, extremely PC. But then there’s the hard truth that based on the numbers, at least one in every two people we have no problem calling crazy on this campus have visited Yale Mental Health at least once during their Yale careers.
We hear that we don’t talk about mental health enough. But maybe we need to listen to what we’re saying.
* * *
Abigail*, a junior who has struggled with clinical depression, insomnia and anxiety during her time at Yale, can describe, immediately and at length, the kinds of qualities that comprise craziness here.
“I hear the words ‘chill’ and ‘crazy’ so much at Yale, and it’s a problem I have had for a very long time,” she told me. “Crazy has the connotation of a girl who doesn’t really have a handle over her emotions … and chill is the positive way to be, if you can be chill and act like things don’t affect you.”
Thirteen students interviewed were unanimous about one aspect of “crazy”: Girls get called crazy more often and more casually than boys do. Many identified strikingly similar characteristics that mark a “crazy” Yale woman. Eleanor Michotte ’15 said it can mean going out too much or not enough. But she said that it’s applied especially often to girls who exhibit too much “clinginess” in romantic situations. Andrea Villena ’15 told me “crazy” is typically used to refer to girls who seem overly dramatic in dealing with their relationships. Abigail said these are girls who seem immature or insecure, who publicly and dynamically react to things. They are clearly socially anxious. They don’t seem chill.
Jay Pabarue ’14 said the word is used so much and so generally that it’s hard to identify just one meaning. But he too associates the term with girls who seem to have a “pathological way of dealing with social scenes.”
The only guy Abigail has heard called crazy at Yale is “legitimately crazy,” she said. Several students said that calling a boy crazy is more serious than calling a girl crazy: It suggests more about their actual psychological state. When asked why they think so many girls do get called “crazy,” many blamed unjustified cultural stereotypes about girls being more neurotic and hysterical.
But the World Health Organization tells us women are far more likely to be afflicted with anxiety and depression. And they are twice as likely to develop generalized anxiety and panic disorders as men, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
These disorders are also more tied to external influences than any genetic or internal predisposition, which means the environment we collectively create on campus each day matters. Psychology professor Tyrone Cannon, who is presently teaching a course on the neuroscience of mental disorders, said that depression and anxiety are only 35 percent determined by genetic factors, with environmental influences accounting for the remaining 65 percent. He contrasted this with disorders not particularly associated with one gender over another, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which are 85 percent determined by genetic factors.
“I think the mechanisms are similar across men and women,” Cannon told me. “The question is, are those environmental factors experienced differently by genders, and the answer is probably yes.”
According to June Gruber, one of Cannon’s colleagues in Yale’s Psychology Department, girls begin to experience the social world differently at a very young age. Their parents encourage them to express their emotions. Girls mature more quickly and develop a strong social orientation earlier. They tend to be more ruminative. But all this introspection comes at a cost: Girls are much more likely to become depressed as they grow.
All through high school, 2013 grad Jessica* dealt with anxiety and insomnia. The summer after her freshman year at Yale, she found herself having panic attacks and even more extreme anxiety. She took a year off. Jessica doesn’t think her experience of depression and anxiety can be divorced from her gender and the way she grew up because of it. It’s something she’s been thinking about a lot post-Yale.
Jessica began feeling “very body conscious” at age 10 — and the feeling never went away. She believes those concerns helped feed her anxiety at Yale. When she was 20, she went to the beach and a male friend made a rude comment about her body. Jessica remembers going home, sitting on the floor of her bathroom and crying for hours.
“I think there are these social expectations for girls to be a certain way, to act a certain way, to not be weird, to be attractive. A part of the education as a preteen girl is to learn how to be attractive to boys. A lot of my friends and I are going through this experience where we’re unlearning that,” she said. “Definitely there is a direct physiological connection to my mood and my body consciousness and anxieties about being a woman.”
Such feelings may be exacerbated on campus. Michotte said people at Yale, and girls especially, seem much more intense about their appearance than in her native England (an issue she discussed in one of her “Crit from the Brit” columns for WEEKEND). “I think there’s appearance inflation. As everyone grooms more, works out more … suddenly everyone falling short of that standard stands out, and the collective average creeps up and up,” she said.
Abigail thinks a lot of the girls she knows who get “crazy” thrown at them probably have mental health issues that people too easily overlook. She doesn’t think she’s crazy; she thinks she’s someone who feels things deeply and has problems with her brain chemistry that she’s working hard on.
“I’m sure people call me crazy, though no one’s ever called me crazy to my face,” Abigail tells me suddenly, 20 minutes into our conversation at the Hall of Graduate Studies dining hall. She sounds as though she is articulating this thought to herself for the first time.
In a culture where there’s so much silence about people’s diagnoses, it’s hard to know who might be suffering. Pabarue cited one girl he knows who often gets called crazy in an unsympathetic way by people not aware that she has a problem.
After a bad breakup her freshman year, Abigail found herself breaking down and crying multiple times a day, for several months. It never occurred to her that she was “actually depressed”; she thought she was just another girl who had been dumped. She’s always been someone who experiences higher highs and lower lows than other people, and the line between grief and illness wasn’t obvious.
“When your boyfriend and you have a really bad breakup, the time when you’re crying and mourning that’s not called clinical depression,” she said. “I thought I was just really sad.”
But though few students interviewed believed girls were legitimately at a greater risk for developing any mental disorder, society has no problem making judgment calls based on gender when it comes to one commonly reported disorder: eating issues.
When Sally*, now a junior, developed Crohn’s disease her freshman year, she lost 18 pounds in a month and was constantly vomiting. Yet as she sought treatment, she found herself under attack from all sides.
“Everyone was saying I was anorexic,” Sally said. “People at Yale Health, people at Yale. People just wouldn’t believe me when I was saying I was in pain.”
Sally had friends trying to force her to eat, commenting on how skinny she was and telling her that it “didn’t look good.” She knew that people were talking about her behind her back. The experience made her close down and withdraw into herself. She began simply avoiding people altogether.
Pabarue experienced the opposite problem when he developed anorexia as a freshman in high school. For months, he saw his pediatrician in a clearly unhealthy state. He remembers being told to drink more Boost and Ensure and that it seemed like his metabolism was simply getting faster. He was 6 foot 1 and 112 pounds when he fainted in the shower and was rushed to the emergency room.
* * *
In her first year at Yale Law School, Elyn Saks LAW ’86 remembers thinking that she could kill hundreds of thousands of people with her thoughts alone. The TV was giving her commands. Throughout all this, she believed that she alone had a “special premium on the truth.”
For years, she struggled against receiving medication for her schizophrenia. She was very reluctant to accept the diagnosis of being mentally ill and “needing a crutch,” but now she looks back on accepting her diagnosis as the key to liberating herself from the disease.
“For me, a schizophrenic episode is like a waking nightmare, but you can’t just open your eyes and make it go away,” Saks said.
As a law professor at the University of Southern California studying the treatment and rights of the mentally ill, Saks lives a life her diagnosis had once seemed to preclude. There’s nothing she prefers about her unmedicated state.
But for others, navigating the threshold between normal and not normal is much less clear, and accepting a diagnosis an ongoing struggle. The language we use to discuss mental illness — or the lack thereof — only makes this process harder. “People who are sensitive and well-meaning and would never use racial slurs, use the words ‘nutcases’ or ‘looneytunes,’” Saks said. “I’m happy to be called a patient. I have an illness; the words people use are hurtful. Even just changing that would be a small change to changing the culture around mental health disorders.”
Having more precise language to talk about mental health isn’t just about sensitivity — it’s also about helping inform people who may be vulnerable. Jessica did not have the words to describe what was wrong the first time she started crying for no reason. It was the middle of the day and she was sitting in a café. The experience terrified her. After searching her symptoms online, she concluded that she was probably bipolar. This diagnosis did not prove to be correct.
“I felt like my feelings weren’t justified, and I didn’t have the language to express that,” she told me says. “I didn’t know what was happening, I didn’t have a language for understanding it. I thought something was wrong with me, that something was very, very wrong.”
Now she realizes that her diagnoses are not at all uncommon. The more she talks to people, the more she realizes how many people have similar stories. She doesn’t feel so abnormal anymore.
Alison Greenberg ’14, who has struggled with depression at Yale, said the prevalence of terms like “crazy” has to do with the fact that people’s ideas about mental health are vague at best.
“Crazy is sort of a catch-all term for not normal, and normal at Yale is I think very different from normal in the real world,” Greenberg told me.
While Jessica was struggling with depression and anxiety at Yale, she found herself constantly worried about trying “to appear normal.” She felt she was doing everything she could to hide: She was seeking help, she was accepting all kinds of medications and therapies. At one point, she was on five types of medication. It seemed excessive, but she did what her doctors told her to so as to appear “alright.”
Ellen*, a junior who has received many diagnoses over the years, said that the social norm at Yale is to appear high-functioning even when we’re “hanging by a thread.” In a culture of glory tales and desperate work ethics, it’s easy for someone who is really suffering to think that their suffering is normal, too. Among her group of friends, a normal state of mental health could include low-level depression, or mania or suicidal thoughts.
Within these standards, labeling someone as “crazy” ends the conversation about him or her, Pabarue said. It’s a way to explain someone else’s behavior without engaging with what might be driving it. It lets you put a label on them, and move on with your own, non-crazy life.
“I think a lot of the failings are among us or born out of the way we talk about things,” Pabarue said. “It’s too easy to blame the institution alone.”
Ellen says she won’t get offended when someone sad tells her that they’re feeling depressed. She understands words can take on different meaning in a casual context. Still, she has occasionally been upset by the glib way many at Yale discuss mental health.
“The casual context mental health is treated can hurt, anything that’s internal, anything people can’t see on the outside, can make you feel undercover in enemy waters,” she explained.
Crazy sets up a dichotomy between normal and everything else. For many at this school, deciding where you fall on this spectrum can be very difficult. Ellen said she feels herself intellectually and emotionally pushing back against the idea that the various mental health diagnoses she has received over the past four years — clinically depressed, bipolar 1, bipolar 2, anxiety — are legitimate. She doesn’t like the idea of the boxes these words create.
Some abandon the pursuit of normal altogether. For his entire freshman year, Charles* said he threw himself into the prescribed way of experiencing life at Yale. He described buying into the “cultural hegemony” of what a weekend is supposed to look like, of how he should be dealing with drinking, sex and drugs.
“There’s kind of a dominant narrative of what your first year is supposed to be,” he said. “You’re shopping classes, you’re shopping friends, you’re shopping organizations. You’re kind of walking around the campus consuming everything. … It’s very oppressive. I’m saying all this because I was the first to do it.”
All through freshman year, Charles was also taking medication which treated his narcolepsy and hypomania (a milder form of bipolar disorder). The medications made him feel dull, productive and “sterile” throughout the year. He did his reading. He did what he was told to do. But when he ran out of pills one week his sophomore year, he decided to see what would happen.
That spring semester Charles wrote all five final papers — about 80 pages — without sleep, as though in a trance. He described the papers he wrote that semester as “the greatest work I’ve ever done.”
When he’s in a low phase, he can barely bring himself to do any schoolwork at all.
Still, he prefers this to the “stale,” consistently productive feeling he had on medication.
“It makes for a really intense form of existence. I know I suffer because of it. I know I could have a more tranquil, sterile kind of life,” Charles said. “I don’t want to be told that I’m sick; I think my life is so beautiful.”
After going on and off multiple medications, Ellen said she has come to accept that medicine can improve her quality of life. Now she is on a daily medication that changes her mood and behavior. She said she has had to learn to accept some degree of uncertainty in not knowing if what she’s doing is right.
“A lot of us have been given diagnoses … but not too many of us trust those diagnoses. There’s this terrible uncertainty in terms of if what you’re doing is right when it comes to your own mental health,” Ellen said. “Finally settling down with a treatment and accepting that as part of who you are is a really adult struggle, one that people don’t really talk about.”
Are you a man? Are you totally hopeless at all things female? A new blog might be able to help.
By Yale Women for Yale Men is a blog started by a group of Yale women for the benefit of Yale men. The blog pursues a MENagerie of topics from how to be friends to the best places to have sex on campus. The blogs creators asked to remain anonymous, but they told Cross Campus they began the blog after one of them broke up with a Yale man after “a several month relationship… in which he did everything wrong.”
Since it launched last week, the blog has been updated with several new posts each day. Seems like Yale men are giving the writers a lot of material.
“We write mostly from personal experience and from those of our friends. Some of us are in long-term relationships, while others want to avoid feelings altogether,” the creators said in an email. “We feel that this allows us to write on a wide variety of issues from random hook ups to serious commitments.”
But it’s not all your fault, Yale men. The writers said the blog is mainly about communication, something we all need to work on.
Maybe once the guys get ByYaleMenforYaleWomen up and running, both sides can start communicating in real life.
The Yale College Council wants to expand gender-neutral housing to next year’s juniors, according to a report sent out Monday morning.
The report cited a November 2011 survey of the classes of 2013 and 2014, which showed that 92.7 percent of respondents were either supportive or indifferent to gender-neutral housing, and that 67.1 percent would considering living in a mixed-gender suite.
“It is our hope that the Class of 2014 will have the option to live in gender-neutral suites during the 2012-2013 academic year,” the Council said in a Monday morning email.
The YCC worked with at least two students from each gender-neutral suite as well as Melanie Boyd, assistant dean of student affairs and DUS of women’s gender & sexuality studies, to develop the report, according to the email. The report stated that gender-based housing is intolerant of LGBTQ students, since it implicitly denies the existence of homosexual, gender-queer and transgender students.
The YCC’s report also said that gender-neutral housing would support a healthy sexual climate on campus by eliminating potential sexual implications of “going back with someone” to their single-gender suite, according to the report.
In a letter included with the report, Boyd said she believes gender-neutral housing will impede the “dynamics of assault” by helping students develop deeper relationships with people of different genders.
Gender-neutral housing has been available to the senior class since the 2010-’11 school year.