On Fridays, I have lunch with two of my best friends. I can’t remember exactly what we talk about: weekend plans, mostly; homework, sometimes. We have a series of inside jokes that involve speaking in British accents. Occasionally, there is news: a fling, a breakup, a funny story. We chew over the details. If the story’s worth telling again, we repeat it the next week. “Do you remember that time when…?” Yes, usually. We laugh just as hard the second time.
I also have regular dinners with my former suitemates in Silliman. The references are different, but the patterns are the same. I have been ranking everyone in our Groupme, goes one running joke, but I refuse to tell anyone where they fall.
My text history is full of messages I expected to receive and messages my friends expected me to send. (“You’ve probably read this article, but…” “Have you seen this video?” Of course I have, I sent it to you yesterday.)
This is what Virginia Woolf might call “the cotton wool of daily life”: a collection of small sympathies, condolences and commiserations, a parasympathetic nervous system of friendships at rest.
We tend to spend a lot of time talking about the big moments in college because those moments make sense. There are the victories: finding love, solidifying a friendship, finishing a project; the crises: losing love, messing up a friendship, falling into a rut; and then there’s simply grace: the moments you remember for no reason at all. It’s impossible not to describe grace in spiritual terms: It appears in times of inner peace, bringing that upward trending, utter sense of belonging. In these big moments, Woolf argues, something tears through the cotton wool of our experience, “a token of some real thing behind appearances.”
I’ve found that most people spend time trying to make sense of these experiences. Everyone tries to communicate. Over lunch, at drinks or dinner, we polish events into stories, stories into anecdotes, and anecdotes, finally, into the sorts of things you can hold in a sentence: That time when I went to a naked party, when you lost your screw date, that article we wrote. That Valentine’s Day.
The more I think about it, the more the big and small moments come together. I can’t think of a story (a night spent playing drinking games, for instance) without also thinking of the way I told that story (exaggerating my drunkenness, faking embarrassment, hiding the things that really bothered me). We give such credence to the big moments, but they’re inseparable from the ways we come to know them. So much diffuses through the wool.
It’s dreary, sometimes, listening to everyone tell the same stories, working through the same dull preoccupations, revealing the same anxieties. It’s frustrating, other times, going through that same process, thinking about what you’ve revealed of your own limitations — because you can’t escape your own patterns. And it’s terrifying, realizing that your patterns also depend on bigger patterns. We float on currents beyond our control, whether economic, social or historical, in bubbles that we don’t fully understand.
But still, we talk. We try to escape our bubbles, and failing that, to measure their dimensions. We collide with each other. We have lunches, drinks, times before and after section, the lazy, pointless gatherings in apartments and common rooms late at night while the radiator buzzes on and off.
Until, of course, we don’t. The day this article goes to print will be my last day of classes (curse you, Friday computer science lecture). Many big moments approach us graduating seniors, but we have less time to process them. The scaffolding of predictable experience drops off, as life turns Evel Knievel and backflips over a succession of endings: finals, Myrtle, senior week, Class Day, commencement.
I feel weightless. What will I do without that routine, without those friendships, without that certainty? Where will I land?
Here is my only comfort: Eventually, after the parties and ceremonies, after packing up all my books and my clothes, after the last dinners and the last drinks, after the goodbyes and the promises never to forget each other, I’ll land in the cotton wool. I have to. A schedule will form, in some new apartment, in some different city. Once I’ve found new restaurants, a laundromat, a park down the street. Once I’ve built a new set of friends (some old, some new). Once I’ve started to forget the patterns of Yale — when the dining hall serves chicken tenders, the best use of a Durfee’s swipe, how long it takes to walk from Silliman to the YDN (in fair weather, snow and rain).
Then, there will be new big moments and new epiphanies, of a different kind than the college ones, colored more by responsibility and age. Then, we’ll tell different stories and, occasionally, pull out the old ones — though in new circumstances they will reveal new meanings, like dusty pebbles polished in a stream.
The stories from graduation too, will be stories that we tell. In that next apartment, in the city after that. Until we’ve found a routine so remote that we only feel the reverberations of our college anxieties at distance.
And this too will seem calming and stifling, ordinary and beautiful.
When I moved off-campus junior year, I was excited by the prospect of frequenting New Haven’s diverse eateries. I imagined the city as my tasting platter, though in fact my budget limited me to Mamoun’s and Basil and attempts to light my gas stove. Each feebly cobbled-together meal came to represent my march towards a nebulous adulthood, causing me to slow down and savor the caloric bites all the more.
Indulgence! is how I will remember college. Yale itself was a guilty pleasure. My parents had reluctantly allowed it, and they sensed, rightly, that I would choose all the indulgent paths: the English major, an extracurricular that doubled as my steadfast academic scapegoat, a career for energetic masochists — ahem, if The News Industry is a burning building (and it is), I’m giddily running into the fire.
On a clear night last October, I found another deplorable passion, one that required less energy but offered almost equal satisfaction. In short, I found Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen™. The glowing white and red sign on Whalley Ave. at once whetted my easy appetite and stirred my Canadian pride. I have been to the restaurant over a dozen times, and my order is always the same.
I crave things that make me feel like I’m somehow cheating; wanting to be a journalist makes me feel like I’m skipping past a generation in the immigrant narrative. I imagine that, when my parents brought my five-year-old self to Canada, they expected me to be “practical,” to choose the healthier option. The salad on the menu taunts: You were supposed to be the moneymaker, a lawyer or doctor. Let your kids be the dumb artists with no stable future in sight. But no one goes to Popeye’s for salad, and I guess I didn’t come to Yale to fit into some racial myth. As Eddie Huang, renowned glutton and the model to my minority, writes: “Asians like myself ate our hopes and dreams by the grain burnt at the bottom of a seasonal stone bowl,” or in this case, perennial Popeye’s take-out box.
Good metabolism is a cheater’s tool. My dad, who is as slender as a plank, will eat entire bags of Lay’s chips without glancing down at his girth. He also inadvertently tested into the most prestigious university in China. I’ve inherited only half of this genetic power, which means that I stay up late and rush assignments and finish all my fries, expecting few consequences and getting mixed results. We Yalies love to tempt fate, as if striking gold once meant we’ve got all the world’s luck on lock.
Sometimes we really did feel like nothing could contaminate our dining hall spa waters. I walked with friends through Gothic courtyards at all hours, stayed long past closing time in the JE buttery. We humored each other’s absurdities — classes and friendships alike were a stumbling race towards our closest approximations of truth. Sometimes, like on the first real day of spring, Yale is exactly what we were sold as precocious high school seniors. We have lain in hammocks, met personal heroes, put out student newspapers. Nobody deserves this. When you get an extra packet of barbecue sauce for free, the proper response, after examining the expiration date, is gratitude.
Imagine if every time you headed towards the exit, somebody asked you, “What are you going to order next time?” What are you going to do next year? It used to be that when I reached the last tender of my order, I felt dread. The food would soon be gone, the fatty bits of joy so quickly consumed and the container flung into a trashcan. But as a senior, I’ve learned to separate my anticipation of loss from the singular joy of a full combo before me. In these remaining weeks, I won’t think about closing time: midnight on weekdays, 2:30 a.m. on weekends, May on my college life. I’m just going to indulge.
I’m graduating in May. I don’t have any plans yet, but I know one thing. I’m moving to not-New York, and I’m sure it’ll be great.
Why does everyone want to go to that city? We can’t help ourselves we’re so attracted to it. My friends and classmates can’t stop talking about it. It’s a point of fixation as we get ready to graduate: who’s going to New York, who’s not going to New York — if not New York, then where else?
We’re in our early 20s, we’ve got big egos and we want pleasure and accomplishment in equal measure. But pleasure is fast, and accomplishment is slow. We want to be writers, artists and actors. We want to fall in love. We want to buy nice clothes. We want to, frequently, get drunk. And above all, we really want to be successful.
In New York, we can feel that we are achieving something just by being there. There’s a certain cultural capital, legitimacy and sense of importance that this city grants to the bright young people who move in every year. This is the cream of the crop, we think. All the people from our hometowns will envy us. (Instagram casual dancing on some Brooklyn rooftop. Instagram casual drinking at some Manhattan club. Instagram stunning office view.) New York is The City, the ultimate stage. We think we need to prove ourselves to New York: We have to demonstrate our originality and talent, but also style ourselves as savvy and world-weary. And if we pass this test, we can “make it” anywhere else.
Yale trains us for that city; it’s a microcosm of New York. We have our Upper East Side cliques, our off-campus Brooklynites, our well-dressed internationals. We’ve got our future gallery owners, bankers, lawyers and poets. A lot of us are aggressively self-conscious, relative thinkers. We’re constantly comparing and competing.
And I love it so, so much. But isn’t it time to grow up?
Freshman year, I went to New York every weekend I could. I thought New York was a miracle. The people who “don’t like New York all that much” — I thought they were entirely crazy. New York had everything, so it would have everything I could possibly want. And that was critical.
I’m beginning to think the meaning of youth and the meaning of privilege is this: the ability to leave as many doors open as possible, to revel in the power (and anxiety) of choice. Fancy restaurant menus with way too many entrees. I can never choose, so I ask the bartender what’s the best beer to get. We love to have choices, and we hate to decide. So we look to our friends and the people around us, trying to discern what the “best choice” is. What are they getting? Where are they going?
Most of my friends are unraveling, because truly we are lucky, and we could get most jobs in most places if we wanted to. But it’s so hard to choose that we feel like there aren’t enough choices. It’s this paradox that makes Yalies and New Yorkers such a perfect match. We hate to choose, and moving to The City means we don’t have to.
At Yale, what we have, among lots of other things, is visibility. We are told time and time again that we’re really good at what we do, that New York is our oyster. But by all accounts, New York isn’t easy. Yale’s never been so perfectly rosy either.
New York may still be some kind of cultural mecca, but I think the city can stunt us. It exercises an enormous curatorial force. We move there and we are shaped by New York — its tastes, fashions, preferences in literature, etc. We turn ourselves into sponges. But we’re smart, we’ve got our own ideas. We need to be more confident about curating our own independent experiences of the world. We are our own private gallery.
Of course, not moving to New York makes me nervous. I worry that I may miss out, lose touch and recede forever into obscurity. This is dramatic of me. A fear of missing out distracts us from another kind of fear — that of being trapped in something not quite right. Because when I am 25 and mildly dissatisfied with my job, my apartment and my boyfriend, I may not leave New York. I might feel that the risk of losing what I already have outweighs the opportunity cost of staying. I don’t want this Stockholm syndrome.
New York is both small and large at the same time. Sometimes, it’s so arbitrary how you meet people. I suppose I would really feel scared and crazy when I reach the outer rings of my social scene and what I find are just the ex-hookups of my ex-hookups, or friends of friends of friends of coworkers. I think one could live in New York for a long time and still be lost. And that’s what it is: I’m not afraid of getting lost, I’m afraid of feeling lost.
I have other friends who are not afraid, who are going to teach snowboarding in Switzerland or join the Peace Corps. If New York is Yale Part 2, then these people are actually graduating. They’re going elsewhere. I’m jealous of them: the truly free, truly mobile, truly brave.
We’re so young, we don’t have to be too cautious. I’d rather be completely wrong than almost right. What do we have to lose? Isn’t our 20s all about accumulating things that we’ll fear losing later (relationships, property, pets)? I expect to fall in and out of love at least four times before getting married. We’ve got to loosen our grip. Right now, I have the least to lose.
Dear class of 2014: Do what you’re gonna do, but I suggest going somewhere else. Let’s go to Cleveland. Or Beijing. Or Dubai. It doesn’t matter that much, I guess. New York is where you are.
I should have gone on a social media hiatus this month.
Instead, I obsessively trawled my feeds, which were filled with snapshots and comments about the start of the academic year. For many of you kids I like to call my friends, it was the “Last First Day.” For me and my 2013 cohort, it was the First Not-First Day. That’s right: I’m a graduate. School’s out … forever.
Sure, some people took gap years, or semesters off, or had unusual academic schedules. Whatever. In the end we are all bound to the biological clock of the classroom since age 5 (or younger), a solid 17 years of schooling in which summer came to a close at the end of August, marked by the annual trips to Staples for fresh mechanical pencils and the agonizing search for the perfect bookbag. (The phases were endless: classic Jansport backpack, glitzy leopard-print tote, hippie cross-body satchel…) And of course there was always the critical question: binders or notebooks? In college: Mead Five-Stars or Moleskines? This was followed by the equally grave transition from forgiving, erasable pencils to permanent — gasp! — pens. I can trace my growing-up — my personal journey to adulthood (or some semblance of it) — through the materials I chose to carry with me to school, the things I decided were worthy of storing my accumulating knowledge.
But this year, for the first time in memory: no back-to-school. Just another day out here in California. There’s something oddly final about missing out on that annual ritual. This must be what it’s like to be born on a leap year, when everyone just skips over your birthday. Or to miss New Year’s Eve while traveling across time zones.
Back-to-school is always more than just a day to show off some fresh kicks, your summer tan or a Lisa Frank sticker collection. Back-to-school is, each and every time, that most glorious of things: a new start. The night before, sleepless, I would resort to envisioning my new self for the year, reflecting with eager optimism on the bright possibilities. This year, I thought, I would be friends with her. I would hang out with him. I would talk like that. I would look like this.
This cyclical opportunity for reinvention is what gives school its everlasting charm, even as we get older and jaded by homework, studying, the mundane reality of the academic grind. Finish off a semester or a summer, and then, no matter what had happened, the First Day provides a blank slate.
Wise people will tell you that every day is a blank slate. Today, they’ll say, is the first day of the rest of your life. Whatever. I’m 22: I am not wise. I’m coming off of four years that were fueled by the energy of words like FOMO, YOLO, young-wild-free, live-while-we’re-young, we-can’t-stop, till-the-world-ends. These are powerful mantras for recklessness and immaturity, and they’re a hard habit to kick. Penny drinks are an objectively great deal, Box is just a block away, and a flirty text awaits your emoji-filled response.
The truth is, it’s not cool to be wise. It’s hard to be wise. It’s hard to remember, without the classrooms and changing leaves, that not going back to school can still bring about some kind of metamorphosis. But I have trouble feeling the fizzy anticipation of a fresh start without everyone around me doing the same thing.
On the flip side, though, now there’s a dark glamour in feeling personally responsible for any changes I might want to make to my life. (I’m hardly the first person to say this, but bear with me.) If this is the empowerment that comes with adulthood, it’s scary — but encouraging. As I go back through those social media feeds and see you kids these days having your back-to-school moments and settling into the rhythm of your semester, bringing in the year with a bang and plenty of booze, I’m not jealous of what I’m missing. I don’t envy your fun. Instead I envy how easy it is for you to engage in a structured reinvention of self.
You remind me that if I want to feel that First-Day fervor again, no one is going to serve it up to me. Like everyone else before me, I have to find it.
A funny thing happens the last few weeks of spring semester. One morning, magically, the grass on Old Campus turns green again and soft. The sun emerges exuberantly and all at once, anxious, perhaps, to forget a half-year of forced hibernation and relentless cat-and-mouse. The light teal of the clock face on Harkness Tower begins, finally, to approximate the color of the sky.
It’s a strange sort of trick Yale plays on us. Brief, intense moments of sun and warmth bookend the school year, from Camp Yale to mid-October and then again near Spring Fling. In fleeting pockets of blue sky and welcome humidity, we experience college the way it’s advertised online and in the brochures. We toss Frisbees on Cross Campus and then feast on Ashley’s before sunbathing on a friend’s roof at the top of Morse Tower. We wear sunglasses and sundresses. Time seems almost within our control; it slows for us, heightening the sensations of each moment and deluding us into thinking that these, the days we’re happy and carefree and wild, might last forever.
Of course in a way they do. That’s the thing about memory: We remember beginnings and endings but not so much what happens in between. It’s almost as though Yale intentionally places its best days at the start and finish so that, upon graduation, we remember Spring Fling and Myrtle Beach and Senior Week instead of final exams, midterm papers and the harsh, biting cold.
Today, finishing my last class of the year, I sat on Old Campus as light refracted off the High Street Gate and a pair of students played the fiddle. I was thinking that I don’t mind this willful amnesia, that what I want to remember about Yale after all are days like today, days of brilliant sunlight and cool breeze, of walking the longer route to class and lounging, after, in a choice spot of shade. It’s the Yale of the song: bright, happy, golden and — soon — bygone. Can that be all there is? I can’t help thinking we live so little of our time in beginnings and endings, that we live, by definition, mostly in the middle — and wouldn’t I be missing that?
In the end I want to remember more than the beginning, more than the happy and sunny and warm. I want to remember that time I opened my apartment door to find New Haven bathed in a sea of white. I want to remember the frigid nights my roommate and I ordered Alpha Delta and danced to keep ourselves from falling asleep. I want to remember the papers and the deadlines. I want to remember those crisp, fall days I sat on my Swing Space window ledge, watching the leaves redden and fall and talking to friends about things meaningful and inane.
It’s not possible, but I’ll say it anyway: I want to remember everything.
At a particularly low moment at the end of fall semester junior year, I sat on my housemate’s bed as she read aloud from Joan Didion’s “On Self-Respect.”
“Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself,” she began.
I cradled a mug of tea as she recited the instance of Didion’s first failure and its more brutal admission: the recognition that things would not always go according to plan.
It was the evening before my last final, one for which I no longer had the energy to study, a reality for which I no longer had the stamina to care, and my housemate had orchestrated this reading to help justify why this was not only okay, but right.
“The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others — who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without,” she continued. “To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that deals with one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening.”
I decided not to study that night, content with the fact that, in doing so, I was making a decision to respect myself. I went to bed early and did a light review over coffee and cereal the next morning before heading to my exam. It went just fine. Perhaps it would have gone (just a little bit) better if I’d done just a little more studying, uncertain as that outcome seems. But I wouldn’t have been better. As small of a concession as that might seem, it is the pattern of such small concessions that can lead to the feeling of powerlessness.
Over the course of the next semester and the year following it, I didn’t always respect my limits. Pushing them drove me more times than once beyond comfort and exhaustion, into a place of physical and emotional defeat. What’s more, it brought me to resent myself and to resent the external circumstances that I felt were propelling me into this state.
Perhaps I should have been more stringent with the limits that I set. But — what’s more important — in choosing to defy them, I needed to be making an active choice, instead of passively submitting to perceived pressures.
I don’t know anymore about conquering everything. I’ve felt too conquered in the past four years — by stress, by too-long workdays, by feelings of inadequacy and failed academic/social/extracurricular attempts, by unsatisfactory campus regulations and the persistence of unkindness and abuse — to maintain notions of total possibility, which now seem arrogant. I believe this is just the sort of loss of innocence that Didion wrote about. What I hope for now, though, is something brighter and more challenging in its own quiet way: I hope to exhibit confidence in my efforts, commitment in my endeavors and self-awareness in my resignations.
I think that this is especially important in a time of transition, because adjusting to new circumstances and reflecting on the old means re-evaluating your limits. Right now I am facing a big transition in my life, but I’ve faced big transitions in one form or another around this same time in each of the past three years, something that I think is true of everyone in their college years.
Self-respect is less grandiose than triumph or unending praise; it requires more of you and guarantees less from your environment. It matters deeply and truly only to you, and only you can assess whether you have it or not. But in the end, respecting yourself means facing your No. 1 person on equal terms. And that is something bigger than any external measure can bring.
For me, it was on Jan. 14, 2013. In the drowsy hours of that Monday afternoon, my canine brother and best friend wandered off to wag his ever-thumping blonde tail against the tops of clouds rather than our hardwood floor.
If you’d asked me that same question about childhood on Sunday the 13th, my answer would have been a quick and simple one: Never. But childhood does have a definite end, and mine came at the advanced age of 21 with the final day of Orwell Wallabell Holmesie’s steadfast friendship of 95 years (13 and a half by human measures). That’s not to say that I’ve lost my inner child, with her incurable curiosity and penchant for eating things off the ground — no, I intend for her to stick around ‘til I’m just as wizened. But Monday marked the end of an era, with a heavy sense of conclusion.
It’s hard to put the sensation into words, but I suppose in that moment, I felt a bit like Charlie Bucket after his spectacular tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory comes to an abrupt end and he’s just sort of standing there, the only schoolkid left. Charlie — simple, scruffy, bright-eyed Charlie — has reached the end. He’s inhaled the wafting aromas of chocolate waterfalls, eyed with confusion the Squares that look Round and questioned the science behind Everlasting Gobstoppers. Industrious squirrels, Oompa-Loompas and a girl-turned-blueberry blend into the backdrop when all of a sudden you’re just standing in front of Wonka’s executive desk, waiting for the mastermind to look up. Congrats, you’ve made it — but made it where?
Orwell will always claim a special nook in my left atrium, and at least for a little while longer, large swatches of hair on my sweatpants and fleeces. If you think a puppy can’t substitute for a sibling, you’ve clearly never seen one playing alongside an 8-year-old only child. Over the years, from my first bus ticket closely followed by my first bra, through growth spurts and acne outbursts, Christmases and college applications, Orwell listened as I narrated each phase of growing up. I whispered worries into those soft, golden ears, asked him whether I was making the right decisions, sat on his doggie bed while I embarked on hourlong conversations with whichever invisible guests had lent their company for the afternoon. Friends who did not love Orwell were no friends of mine.
It’s not just Orwell, though. Recently, many others — humans — have been leaving too, and with them, a bit more of that infectious, unadulterated optimism of childhood. These past few months, I’ve noticed the passing of more grandparents than I have ever before. I lost my last living grandparent in November, and in the months that followed, it seemed as though every fourth person was sitting beside me in the same dinghy, bobbing slightly more slowly and soberly in the waves.
Once you’re past Augustus Gloop and Violet Beauregarde, the Inventing Room and the Television Room, Wonka will finally look up from his desk. He leans forward, squinting, your eyes caught in his gaze. He tilts his head towards the door. It’s time, then, to get in the glass elevator.
Many of those around me appear to have made it through Wonka’s factory far more quickly than I did — perhaps they were more eager to reach the end, or didn’t have the luxury of remaining so long. They wipe the chocolate off their chins and tighten their ties, sit down across from Wonka to be sized up and evaluated. Wonka seems to like Yalies; he generally shows them gladly to the elevator door, where they press one of the buttons with a combination of real and feigned conviction and go crashing up through the roof and soaring away. They shoot off, out of childhood and into a new, adult world of employment and voluntarily eaten vegetables — a world equally fantastical, but with less candy and far fewer Oompa-Loompas.
At some point, I’m going to have to get in the elevator as well. I can’t hang out in Wonka’s office forever, or keep sneaking back to nibble the edible buttercups along the chocolate river. And while I may not be able to take Orwell with me as I wobble and blast into the sky, I’ll be damned if I don’t bring along a few bars of Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight.
Our alma mater brings tears to my eyes, sweet memories of laughter, emotional conversations, late-night debates about human nature and comfort from friends. I’m about to leave this place — a place that has helped form some of my most precious relationships — but to be completely honest, the song’s lyrics do not hold true for me. I hope to God these are neither the shortest nor the gladdest years. College has been an uphill battle, to the point that I am getting the words, “Never give in!” engraved on the inside of my class ring, words used to uplift and inspire a bruised and battered nation in wartime. I am proud to be a Yalie, and I am so grateful for every challenge, victory and defeat I’ve experienced here, but I reject the premise that these are going to be the best years of my life. They cannot and will not be the best. I refuse to let my identity as a Yale graduate be the defining characteristic about myself even for a second.
I know myself; I’m lazy and kind of a scaredy-cat. It would be so easy to move to New York and hang out with Yale people for the rest of my days. Meeting new people is hard. But you know what? I hate rodents with all the revulsion of a 18th-century French aristocrat walking through choleric London, and I literally feel the anxiety tense my shoulders the moment I step off the Metro-North. I would be miserable. I would have a built-in community, sure, but I would be profoundly unhappy.
Relying on Yale to provide all of the employment and camaraderie I could possibly need for the rest of my life sounds so easy, and not growing up sounds so ideal — it removes the uncertainties I have after May. There is a Yale community in every corner of the globe joined by common experiences and love for this place. In LAX before Camp Yale freshman year, a man approached me in the airport and asked about my Yale sweatshirt. I told him that I was a freshman and he told me that he was Branford something-in-the-’70s and, “Welcome.” How beautiful is that? We all have a built-in community almost anywhere we go. It’s such a comfort in a lot of ways, but it is also extremely limiting. We are more than our collective experiences at this institution, and to rely on the Yale banner to provide community prevents us from forging our own paths, which is exactly what maturity means to me. So in the second-semester senior tradition, I will try and collect as many memorable moments as possible, including writing this article while two of my favorite people in the world sing Jewel in the background off-key, but I cannot pretend to be unhappy about graduating, forging a life outside of this claustrophobic bubble.
Still, every time I think about not having to come back next year, I want to skip and jump and jump and laugh. Oh joy! I will have to pay for my own everything next year, isn’t that exciting? All of the people out there to meet, the ideas not yet encountered, the stories I haven’t heard. Nothing seems more exciting than to get lost in the chaos of the world and then create a haven within it. For all the fears and reservations I have about not seeing the people I love with all of my heart, I am overcome with a sense of relief about not having to come back to New Haven, and not having to be anywhere in particular, really.
Yale, I love you, I really do, but I have had my heart broken so many times because of you, had so many panic attacks because of you, felt the highest highs and the lowest lows, all because of you. I am ready to create my own community and no longer let the lifestyle, beliefs, motivations and expectations of this community influence my opinion of myself and others. (I’ve become rather snobbish in my years here.) Peace be upon you, I wish ye well, I’ll send you a check when I can, but seriously goodbye, farewell, until we meet again (in 10 years at the reunion).
For each installment of their new column, Max and Susannah will interview and profile a recent Yale alum, in order to show our readers what life after college is really all about.
“The bummer is Yalies trying banking.” Drew Westphal ’10 is adamant when it comes to consulting and investment banking as career tracks for recent graduates. “If the fact that you need something to do is the only reason you’re a consultant, then I don’t think you should be a consultant. I did that for a while, and I had to pay $10,000 to quit.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, Westphal, like many of his classmates, moved to New York to begin a career in consulting. He was competent at his job, competent enough to earn a $10,000 bonus, which was contingent on his staying with the company for two more years. After nine months in the office, however, Westphal realized he would not make it another 15; working as a consultant had made him despondent. In his own words, “crying in a cubicle gets old after a while.”
It was at this point in his career, less than a year out of college, that he decided to throw caution to the wind and quit his prestigious, high-paying consulting job. Where he landed next, no one could have predicted.
“Life has a way of surprising you,” said Westphal in a phone interview. “Being a Whiff literally changed my life. For. The. Better.” Westphal described the sequence of events following his exit from consulting as weird and unexpected. By a stroke of fate, a sold-out Whiffenpoofs concert at Woolsey Hall drew audience members from around the country, including geek humor gods John Hodgman ’93 and Jonathan Coulton ’93, the latter an alumnus of both the Spizzwinks(?) and the Whiffenpoofs.
A year later, during the process of quitting his consulting job, Westphal contacted Coulton, known as an Internet presence and comedic musician. Of the drunken conversations that led Westphal to a job as Coulton’s fan mail answerer, Westphal simply says, “Once a Wink, always a Wink!” adding that if we could see him through the phone, we’d see him giving us a big, warm wink.
A few months into working with Coulton, Westphal helped the musician design his website and drove his tour van, eventually taking on the title of Coulton’s general manager — or “Scarface,” as he is known to Coulton’s numerous fans (if you want to know why, check out JoCopedia, the Jonathan Coulton Wiki). Westphal manages the official Scarface Twitter and occasionally turns up in Coulton’s music videos, including one in which he is run over by a zamboni.
Of course, when you spend your time around Internet-famous comedians, you experience your fair share of Web-fueled high jinks. Before a show on one of Coulton’s cross-country tours, Scarface tweeted that Coulton’s tour bus needed a cat and asked fans to bring stray cats to the show for adoption. Coulton tweeted right back that he didn’t want a cat for the bus but rather a pig. At the next show, one die-hard fan gave Coulton two beautiful, plastic, hand-painted German figurines — a cat and a pig — to that night’s show. Since then, Bus Cat and Bus Pig have been active tweeters (under the handles @RealBusCat and @RealBusPig), and the two have garnered a following that includes such esteemed fans as singer-songwriter Aimee Mann.
Westphal’s post-Yale journey has been a dynamic one, and he encourages graduating seniors to think about their immediate future not as a fixed time but one full of change and discovery.
“Everyone’s going to make you feel like shit because you don’t know exactly what you’re going do with your life,” he told us. “By the end of the second semester, there’s this atmosphere of who-are-you-going-to-be, as if you have to have an answer — and that’s bullshit.”
Westphal is quick to say that his current career — managing musicians — is not what he ever envisioned for himself, and he is not sure he wants to continue doing it forever.
“I’ve been doing stand-up in the city for the last couple of months,” Westphal said, “but I think you might have to be depressed to make jokes for a living, and I don’t think I’m depressed enough.” For now, Westphal is content to keep his stand-up on the side while he focuses on managing Coulton and the many adventures that come with his job.
We asked Westphal what parting words of wisdom he has for soon-to-be graduates. His advice? “Get good at Excel. And treat yourself to something sugary and scrumptious each day.”
“Unless you landed a job with a salary so high you couldn’t possibly spend it all, you need to begin thinking about developing a reasonable monthly budget.”
“Life After Yale” booklet, page 1, 2011 ed.
Keep reading or skip right ahead to the “Million-Dollar Retirement Advice for the Future Millionaire” chapter. Published annually by Undergraduate Career Services, the “Life After Yale” primer is teeming with morsels of insight, from filing taxes to preparing salmon with dill cream sauce — every piece of practical information recent graduates need to know, in 102 pages. This survival guide, though, operates under the tacit premise that those doing the surviving will be headed for a metropolitan apartment in search of employment, or with a job already in tow.
(This assumption is reasonable. According to the Office for Institutional Research’s most recent study of alumni activities one year after graduation, in which overall response rate ranged from 68 percent to 82 percent, 75 percent of members from the class of 2010 are employed.)
But first, start from the beginning — flip back a couple of sections, to the part about how to dress to impress. Let’s say it is a balmy November afternoon in a Caribbean city: what should you wear to the office? If you’re Gerald McElroy ’09, you wander the streets of Santo Domingo in a Superman costume. Business casual.
A red cape, fake pectorals and a stunning set of synthetic abs in lieu of a tie and blazer. This is McElroy’s dress code for the day. The scene, as baffling as it seemed, epitomized the nitty-gritty of his job: face-to-face interactions, colloquial approaches, donations from drivers and pedestrians. His post-graduation stint as a Fulbright scholar in the Dominican Republic revolved around his work for local charity organizations. He currently acts as development director for the Yale-founded student organization turned 501(c)3 nonprofit, Yspaniola.
McElroy’s choice to chase after his own international projects led him to some of the most uncertain waters Yale alumni can tread after college. Many seniors suit up every year to partake in the well-oiled recruiting machines of Wall Street and Teach For America. On the other hand, it proves nearly impossible to determine the number of Yalies who go down non-traditional avenues following their senior year (“non-traditional,” of course, within the Yale context — meaning, any option outside of graduate school, the finance and consulting sectors, or teaching.) Be it the arts, journalism or civic work, careers outside the popular tracks can take plenty of forms for a considerable demographic of post-graduation Bulldogs. Taking this plunge into foreign territory after shedding your cap and gown involves a myriad of considerations: social groups, vocational interests, chance encounters, fellowship applications. The paths to finance, consulting, or graduate school are quite clear in comparison.
“I know lots of seniors, myself included, who are planning and thinking about doing very non-traditional things abroad,” said Catherine Osborn ’12, a Latin American Studies major hoping to work in development and urban policy in Brazil. “But we’re very hesitant to announce them to the winds because who knows? We might not get funding and have to change our plans.”
Yalies who opt to go abroad after graduation do so after accepting and understanding the risks inherent in their personal decisions. What remains a little tricky is pinpointing the common denominator anchoring these experiences, what ultimate set of values determines their decision to pursue the alternative.
Many postgraduate fellowships awarded each year offer students the opportunity to mold their post-graduate experiences around their needs and long-term plans. While the Center for International and Professional Experience houses its own Office of Fellowship Programs (OFP), other available channels of funding include residential colleges, the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
More than 100 postgraduate fellowships were either won through the OFP or reported to their office in the 2010-11 academic year, said Kelly McLaughlin, director of fellowship programs and outcomes assessment.
“Veering off of well-known paths requires students to be prepared to deal not only with more uncertainty and challenges but also potentially, often happily, to find a much better fit for their interests and talents in the long run,” he added.
While most of these challenges take place once students arrives at their destination, the phase leading up to the actual experience can be nearly as stressful for applicants.
Yet Osborn said that candidates have a great deal of control over the process since the applications include written essays and proposals that they can refine, and interviews for which they can prepare. She has applied for the Fox International Fellowship through the MacMillan Center and the OFP’s Parker Huang travel fellowship, among others.
The risk in planning a postgraduation project that relies on fellowship funding from Yale “is more in the fact that all the deadlines are later,” she said. “So you might be ineligible for other potential jobs.” The success of these fellowship applications usually depends on how students can balance this process with other available opportunities.
McElroy has been heavily engaged with Yspaniola since his freshman year of college. Even before then, he harbored an ever-growing affinity to languages (he speaks fluent French, Spanish and Haitian Creole) and Latin America, and he mostly surrounded himself with Yalies who had kindred interests.
“I felt comfortable in pursuing what might be perceived as non-traditional to some,” McElroy said. “During my time at Yale I met many other idealistic individuals like myself who shared the belief that we can go forth and make a positive impact in the world.”
After spending his first year out of Yale working for a law firm in Paris, France, he has made a second home of the Dominican Republic for the past two years through his Fulbright research on microfinance and his involvement in Yspaniola.
Yspaniola encourages sustainable advancement and empowerment in marginalized communities of Dominicans and Haitians in the Dominican Republic. Headquartered in the northern cities of Santiago and Esperanza, the bulk of their work occurs in the nearby Batey Libertad.
Bateys are rural communities in the Dominican Republic that originally expanded through the sugarcane industry in the first half of the 20th century as plantations increasingly employed unregulated Haitian migrant labor. At present, providing these communities with basic public services is an onerous task mired in red tape.
McElroy described how Yspaniola has evolved from its Yale roots, sponsoring several service-learning trips from the U.S., while also developing a women’s leadership institute, a microenterprise project and a tutoring program. Initiatives start on the ground and come about organically, he added, the product of collaboration between Dominicans and Haitians living in the batey.
A university scholarship fund, one of Yspaniola’s main projects, was established by Jonathan DiMaio ’09 on a Yale Parker Huang Fellowship after graduation; he is now the organization’s executive director. Two high school graduates from the batey receive generous stipends, academic support and leadership training each year to study in nearby Santiago, with the expectation that they will return and serve as local leaders.
“We recognize that the people from the community know what’s best for them,” said Julie Gladnick, Yspaniola’s local program director, as we took a stroll in Batey Libertad. Poverty, much like the dust on the ground, covered every inch of the area. As I looked around I felt like a stranger in my own country, and I could notice my cheeks flushing.
The 6:45 a.m. bus ride from Santo Domingo to Esperanza proved uneventful. I sat in the back row, knowing that no one ever dares to use the claustrophobic bus bathroom. I closed the shades and shut my eyes. I wouldn’t be missing much by ignoring the scenery rolling outside my window: mountains beyond mountains, the occasional mattress strapped on the back of a shabby motorcycle.
I arrived. Gladnick introduced me in Creole to many community member as “un ami de Ge Ge,” McElroy’s friend. Everybody there knows him. She had an answer to every minor inquiry and curiosity: on the residents’ personal histories, on the racial tensions within the batey.
The littlest toddlers poked fun at me: “Américain, américain!” I found it endearing — worse things have been said about my pallor. I kept meeting new faces, seeing naked babies sitting on the dirt. I accompanied a mild-mannered woman with joint pains to the local hospital. Everybody was welcoming, devoid of the bitterness I expected in a deprived environment. I began to understand what may drive Yalies back to these places, the Batey Libertads of the world.
Once he receives his Yale diploma Thomas Smyth ’12, along with two other partners, will board a one-way flight to Zambia. He will be going to his new home.
Under the Leitner Fellowship, Smyth traveled to Zambia the summer before his senior year, he identified a huge demand for small energy sources in rural areas off the grid, even with the near ubiquity of cell phones. Out of this trip, he came up with Zamsolar, a new company aimed at distributing solar products in under-electrified communities. Despite the venture’s social and environmental mission, he said, making Zamsolar a for-profit enterprise will help it get its products out to more citizens.
As with any startup, Zamsolar’s founders will be expected to put sweat, equity and capital into their operations. Smyth will earn enough to cover daily living expenses, he explained, while every other dollar from his investors will go toward the business.
The risks intrinsic to this undertaking did not deter him, in part due to the smorgasbord of academic and networking services provided at Yale.
“It would be much scarier for me if I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I was doing,” Smith said.
In fact, Smyth claims that our generation has a fundamentally different attitude in regard to uncertainty than generations before us. His senior essay, titled “The Riskless Generation,” tries to trace the genesis of this anti-risk mindset.
“We are more risk-averse in terms of everything,” he said. “People are closing off doors that could lead them to incredible opportunities.”
If the Office of Institutional Research’s post-graduation employment surveys are any indication, Smyth might have a point. Whereas the study shows that the percentage of employment following graduation has steadily gone up from 16 to 75 percent starting with the class of 1960, the percentage of “others and indefinites” has oscillated since that same year, from 13 percent, peaking at 41 percent for the class of 1973, and currently standing at 4 percent.
The sheer number of graduates flocking more and more toward safe and gainful employment, at least in the past five years, could be logically pegged to the turbulent economic backdrop.
“There is some evidence consistent with those who graduate in recessions being more risk-averse,” said Lisa Khan, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Management known for her research regarding the effects of recessions on college graduates’ decision-making and salaries. “However, a number of other factors could also explain that behavior.”
Graduates may also be avoiding entrance into a toxic economy. Application numbers for fellowships nationwide have risen noticeably in the wake of the recent financial crisis, according to Kelly McLaughlin, director of Yale’s fellowship programs and outcomes assessment. Yale has been no exception, with a steady increase in applications for both national and Yale fellowships.
For those who instead choose to enter firms during a recession, Kahn has found they are less likely to leave, relative to their office peers. These workers are unsure of the probability of finding another job, she said, even if it doesn’t provide conclusive proof of more risk aversion.
She continued: “I have seen some work showing that those who graduate in recessions are less likely to start their own companies at early stages in their careers — again, possibly suggesting increased risk aversion.”
That being the case, Smyth’s endeavors may stand as a distinct rarity among the already rare. A political science major with no previous start-up experience is setting out into another country to build a business from the ground up. At the very least, the fledgling Zamsolar enjoys the nurturing assistance of mentors and investors.
“We couldn’t make this project work without people in the finance industry,” Smyth acknowledged. “My business would not be possible without access to capital.” (McElroy echoed a parallel sentiment: “Not everyone who does finance is a sellout, just like not everyone who goes into development is a saint.”)
But if Smyth’s hopes are any indication, this risky new venture runs not only on capital but on shaky idealism. Smyh said he has “no idea” what he will do after Zamsolar, intending to stay in the continent until he “makes it work.”
Tully McLoughlin ’11 breathed in and then paused.
“I think there’s a small percentage of those who graduate college that know exactly what they’re doing, and take a small step in pursuing what they want to do for the rest of their lives,” he told me. Eloquent, young and peppy, he appeared to have all the answers.
“I don’t fall into that camp.”
McLoughlin is currently in Accra, Ghana, partly to be out in the world, partly to test his own capabilities. Through Yale’s year-long Cohen Public Service Fellowship, McLoughlin works as a project officer for Farm Radio International, a nonprofit focused on improving food security and agricultural techniques for African small farmers.
He is now halfway through his year abroad. As a Yale senior, he explained, it was important for him to escape the urgency to apply for something by default.
“There’s a lot to be gained from the undefinable challenges of living and working in a foreign country,” McLoughlin said. “But it’s also the reason why it’s so hard to persuade people to do it, especially to people graduating from college now who are looking for something to seek their teeth into and know what they are facing.”
Indeed, once abroad, not everything is indicated in the job description.
“Going from a structured college life, filled with pre-cooked meals, registrars, advisors and organized extracurricular activities, to a foreign country without anyone really looking out for you or giving you feedback was a little bit scary,” said Zachary Fuhrer ’11, who lives in Brazil under the Gordon Grand Research Fellowship researching the politics of prostitution in the United States and Brazil from a human rights and public health perspective.
Fuhrer studied abroad in Northeastern Brazil during his junior year, took five semesters of Portuguese classes at Yale and wrote a senior thesis that required him to read original 19th century Brazilian texts. In his quest to feed his growing interest in the South American nation, he primed himself for his postgraduate experience.
The offices of Morgan Stanley near Times Square did not strike anyone in our tour as decidedly miserable. As a recent Yale alumna — a bouncy Humanities major turned stockbroker — led our group into a conference room furnished with sandwiches, fruit and beverages, it was easy to forget how I got there. The feeling did not last long. It was quite glaring: all the Yale freshmen and sophomores in the room were present on account of their Latino or African-American heritage. This was our tailored day trip, not just any kind of recruitment session. The Kool-Aid, however, tasted no different than the one I drank during an earlier visit to Goldman Sachs.
Major investment banks and consulting firms have the time and the resources to fine-tune their recruitment strategies down to an absolute science, including lucrative offers, countless panels, and meetings that cater to minority students.
“The difficult thing is when you compare living and working abroad to moving to New York City,” McLoughlin said. “The New York path is much clearer, it’s a simpler sell. Finance firms make it seem like a no-brainer.”
Not only is it an easier sell, but a much more noticeable option. Undergraduate Career Services Director Allyson Moore recognized in an interview that financial consulting firms claim the upper hand when it comes to having a more visible campus presence than other employers.
In response, Moore has partnered with Dwight Hall and other community service groups to brainstorm additional ways to heighten student awareness and increase the visibility of less moneyed firms in the nonprofit and public sectors. UCS and Dwight Hall have also agreed to co-sponsor a nonprofit career fair during the next academic year.
But in fact, the largest employer of Yale graduates for the past few years happens to be a nonprofit, Teach For America — 24 percent of the class of 2010 survey respondents listed in the OIR study went into education, the highest percentage in any category. If there is any resemblance between the appeal of a TFA position and a Wall Street job, McLoughlin said, it is the streamlined process of employment. Any Ivy League student can recognize and adapt to the methodology of “applications” plus “interviews” equals “competition”, and as McLoughlin himself quipped: “who at Yale doesn’t like to win competitions?”
The debate around job recruiting, though, often overlooks students’ financial circumstances, career motivations and even the likelihood of having a genuine interest in finance or consulting.
Pragmatism drove one Yale senior away from the development sector and into a desk at the prestigious management consulting firm Bain & Company after college. This senior, who will be referred to as Lindsay in this article, asked to remain anonymous out of respect for her family’s economic situation.
Lindsay had spent two summers working for Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), a nonprofit founded by Yale economics professor Dean Karlan that measures the impact of international development programs. She expected to work for the organization after graduation.
Her thinking eventually began to shift for a few practical reasons. Although she is morally and personally committed to development as her ultimate career path, she opted for a consulting job that could provide her with specialized know-how for future work in her field of choice. Moreover, the realistic pressures of paying off her student loans weighed on her shoulders.
Her plan is to work for Bain for two or three years, she told me, and learn about the managing and scaling of different projects. Later on she will apply this set of skills toward development initiatives, where her true passions lie.
“You’re always thinking of risk when you’re thinking of unconventional paths: Will it be the best thing that will further my professional goals?,” Lindsay mentioned. “Maybe the objective of my work [at Bain] is not going to be personally exciting, but the mechanisms of that work are what I’m interested in.”
Lindsay said she gets a fair amount of flak from some of her friends working at nonprofits for going to “the dark side.”
“Dark side.” A Yale colloquialism reserved only for jobs in finance, consulting, banking and business. At some point, the joke must end and its underlying criticism begins to unravel.
“The world needs your commitment to public service,” University President Richard Levin told graduates at the 2006 Baccalaureate Address. “We at Yale expect it.”
For some, this commitment does not necessarily mean going into finance. On Nov. 15, around 50 students picketed a Morgan Stanley information session outside of the Study Hotel on Chapel Street, where it was being held. Right across the street, an “alternative info session” took place.
The goal of Occupy Morgan Stanley, according to an email announcement sent the day before, was to “make students think more critically about what they’re going to be doing next year in a broader context.”
Volunteers carrying posters and rallying calls filled the sidewalk as their peers walked past them and went inside the hotel. By questioning — or “demonizing,” depending on whom you ask — the recruiting event, the demonstration became Yale’s translation of the global Occupy movement.
“Twenty-five percent is too much talent spent!,” the protesters chanted.
It turns out that oft-touted statistic might be a bit inflated. The 25 percent figure refers to the respondents of a survey on employment sent to recent alumni, Moore said, not the total number of graduates of a given class. For instance, the data collected from the class of 2010 shows that only 869 of the approximately 1,280 graduates replied to the survey, 68 percent of the class.
But to solely focus on the facts and numbers would be to miss the larger picture. Whether a future banker or an aspiring artist, most Yalies admit to an appreciation of a campus atmosphere where the ideas and decisions of their friends do not stand unchallenged.
“I think it’s always great to have a conversation about it and not take anything for granted, be aware of all opportunities,” said Smyth, also an attendant and observer (though not a protester) at Occupy Morgan Stanley.
“What will you do with your privilege?”, read one of the signs in the protest. If anything, questioning students’ vocational paths shines a light on a perceived moral component of a Yale education, one that is gradually becoming more salient in the public forum.
Over kosher shawarma at a Diamond District Israeli restaurant, Fuhrer had lunch with a former Fulbright scholar in Brazil who is now his mentor. During their conversation, Fuhrer received a piece of advice he still keeps with him.
“He said, ‘Nothing matters until you’re 30’,” Fuhrer recalled. “This was not meant to discredit any of the work you do in college and your immediate post-grad life, but to encourage a spirit of risk-taking, as in ‘You’re young. You have plenty of time to sit at a desk in Brooks Brothers slacks and wax poetic about your bright college years over summer trips to Martha’s Vineyard.’”
This advice suggests a step-at-a-time mentality, one which is adopted by most recent graduates abroad. For McElroy, he now aspires to get a master’s degree in development. McLoughlin still remains unsure of his next move.
Back at Yale, how normal such non-traditional paths seem depends on students’ undergraduate life, the friends with whom they socialize and the extracurriculars they cherish. Seniors tend to overemphasize what their peers are doing right after graduation, Osborn said, so they ignore the possibility of changing career choices down the line.
“It is hard to pass moral judgment on other Yalies based on their first year jobs after graduation,” she said. Osborn learned this past week she received the Huang fellowship for post-college research. She can temporarily accept the award, pending notification from another fellowship in April.
At this stage in the academic year, several seniors may lack concrete plans. Recent alumni, in turn, have spent enough months out of Yale to put their experiences into perspective. Since their first postgraduate decisions are not likely to dictate the course of their entire career, the only thing that remains certain in their futures is the desire to get “somewhere.” Wherever “somewhere” happens to be, they agree, there is no dearth of time.
“I do love the [African] continent and there is so much more to explore,” McLoughlin said, the excitement ringing in his voice. “For now, in my twenties at least, this is the time to have adventures.”