Tag Archive: Scene Cover

  1. Are you there, God? It's me, Eli

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    When Sang Yun ’93 was a student here, he was one of only 10 or 15 active members of Yale Students for Christ. But when he returned as a Yale Students for Christ staff member in 1998, he already noticed a change. Now, the group has more than 80 active members.

    “There’s a broader spectrum of people who are eager to explore faith and eager to explore religion,” he said.

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    Founded as a religious training school in 1701, Yale College still required all students to attend daily chapel services until 1926. But by 1951, William F. Buckley’s ’50 polemic “God and Man at Yale” assailed the University’s apparent disregard for its religious heritage and hostility toward students’ religious beliefs.

    But the pendulum has swung back, students and religious leaders interviewed said. Rabbi Shua Rosenstein of Chabad at Yale said that the atmosphere now is more open to religion than when he first came to campus as a rabbinical student in 2002.

    “There’s a lot more comfort with religion at Yale than there once was,” Rosenstein explained. “The recent growth of religious organizations at Yale has really made it more accommodating for those who want to be religious.”

    There are currently 18 registered undergraduate religious organizations. One recently established religious group is the Hindu Students Council, founded in 2002, which opened its first prayer space this past month along with hiring a Hindu fellow to oversee the group. University Chaplain Sharon Kugler goes so far as to say that the common perception of Yale as a completely secular institution is unfounded. She said she has observed that the student body is actually more religious than at some other universities, which she attributed partially to Yale’s long history of being closely tied to religion.


    There are 28 member groups of Yale Religious Ministries, an umbrella group that brings together the chaplains of various religious groups, ranging from First & Summerfield United Methodist church to Indigo Blue, the center for Buddhist life at Yale.

    The religious groups can provide strong support for students looking to get more involved with religion in college. Ashish Bakshi ’10, a Hindu student, came from a high school with very few Hindu students and did not go to a religious center regularly at home. When he came to Yale, he found a larger religious community and has become more religiously involved. He is now president of the Hindu Student Council.

    “It gives me some sort of spiritual environment,” Bakshi said.

    Eight students interviewed said remaining religious in college requires a conscious effort on their part.

    Religious students also generally credited the Chaplain’s Office with providing the support they needed.

    A Christian from a conservative evangelical background, Matt Shafer ’13 said there is plenty of room for open discussion of religion at Yale. He said his religious views have become increasingly liberal, to the point that he no longer feels comfortable going to his evangelical church back home. But he said he has found a vision of Christianity in Yale religious organizations that is more in line with his own since it pays more attention to social justice issues.

    A peer liaison for the Chaplain’s Office next year, Shafer said the Chaplain’s Office encourages interfaith dialogue and celebrates religious differences.

    Kugler said the Chaplain’s Office programming works to foster genuine understanding, not just tolerance, of religion.

    “I try to make sure that spiritual wholeness, civility and authenticity have a big presence here,” she said, citing their support for religious rituals, religious organizations, educational and social programming and community service.


    Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, associate rabbi at the Slifka Center, noted that even in her three years here, she has seen religion taking on a more prominent role in student life.

    “Over the past three years, because our campus has been hit by crises, there has been a stronger use of religious leaders,” she observed. For instance, she said, chaplains often speak at memorial services for students, which has made religion a more visible presence at Yale. This is one thing that has helped make students feel that religion does have a place at Yale, Holtzblatt said.

    An active member of many Christian organizations on campus, Jared Baragar ’11 said he has been impressed by the religious life at Yale, which allows him to feel comfortable openly maintaining his faith.

    “It surprised me when I got on campus that there was such a vibrant Christian community,” he said. While he has heard of occasional situations in which religious students have faced disrespect, he said he has found that when his religion is discussed any challenges are usually respectful and provide him with the opportunity to constructively evaluate and refine his own beliefs.

    Even those who are outside of the religious community can sometimes feel its force at Yale. Fabian Ortega ’13, who was raised Catholic but is now agnostic, pointed out that Yale has not been the extremely secular place he expected.

    “I feel sort of in the minority, because a lot of people identify with a religion,” he expressed. “I feel sort of out of the loop.” He said he often feels surrounded by his friends talking about religion, going to services, fasting, or doing other things with which he does not identify.

    At the same time, he said this has made college even more of a learning experience for him. By having an Orthodox Jewish roommate for example, he has learned about everything from Jewish holidays to why he needs to turn the lights off on Friday nights.

    Vlad Chituc ’12, president of the Secular Student Alliance, said he doesn’t think there are many openly religious people at Yale, but rather a small, vocal minority.

    “There are a few people who are really passionate about it. They feel like a minority so they feel the need to speak up about it,” he said. “Religion is a private thing so displaying it publicly is kind of weird to me.”

    Chituc went through a lot of changes in thought about religion when growing up, from Eastern Orthodox Christianity to his current belief in secular humanism. He grew up with Eastern Orthodox parents from Romania, but did not often go to church since the nearest one was over an hour away.

    “My mom said, ‘Oh, you can still be religious. Read the bible.’ I read it when I was 12 and it made no sense to me,” he recalled.

    During his freshman year at Yale, Chituc met the two founders of Yale’s Secular Student Alliance, who he said taught him about secular humanism, which advocates human values over religious values.

    The group, which is officially registered as a social service organization with Dwight Hall, also works closely with the Chaplain’s Office and is planning to host joint events with the leaders of Yale Students for Christ. Although Chituc said not all members of the group support this cooperation, he thinks it makes sense because of their similar views and goals like community outreach and student support.


    None of the 18 students interviewed said it was difficult to remain religious, since, despite occasional challenges, their friends were generally accepting of their faith.

    Salah Ahmed ’11, who comes from a conservative Muslim background in Pakistan, said he has no trouble being Muslim at Yale and that being surrounded by nonreligious people only strengthens his own faith. Given his background, he said he expected to spend most of his time with Pakistani students at Yale. But he was surprised to find that he branched out, spending less time with Pakistanis and more time with his suitemates and friends in the Muslim Students Association. Now many of his friends are in the MSA because that is the main organization with which he is involved, he indicated.

    “Friendships are based on similar interests and same student groups,” he explained. “Of my Muslim friends, the reason we’re friends is because we’re in the same student group.”

    Many students believe that while religion or religious observance does not lead to self-segregation, religious organizations often provide people with a social sphere. In February 2008 student leaders of various religious groups on campus founded the Inter-Religious Leadership Council, which serves as a forum for religious discussion and communication among religious groups.

    Michael Haycock ’12, the vice president of the Latter Day Saints Students Association, who proudly mentioned that all of his ancestors since the 1850s are Mormon, said he enjoys having friends from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, which occurs naturally at an institution like Yale. Now a sophomore, he took two years off after his freshman year to go on a mission to Argentina, as all Mormon young men and women are expected to serve on a mission.

    “[A] dynamic that’s created by being in such a secular place is a unity among religious people,” he said. He mentioned he hopes to meet more people of different religions through his involvement in the IRLC. Despite different cultural norms, the challenges and benefits many religious students face are very similar, he added.

    Shira Aliza Petrack ’12, an Orthodox Jew, said that the main challenge she faces here has to do with the small Orthodox community. She contrasted her situation with that of many of her friends from her Jewish high school, who go to schools with such large Jewish communities that their entire circle of friends can be Jewish. While she never faced any intolerance, she said it is still difficult to be in a small religious minority.

    “I think it’s definitely difficult because no matter how accommodating people are, you always have to be explaining yourself, which is taxing,” she explained. Constantly being reminded that she is Orthodox makes her feel labeled and boxed in to an identity, which can inhibit her from fully expressing the other elements of who she is, Petrack said.

    But Husna Bayram ’13, a Muslim who wears a headscarf, said it was easy to transition to Yale from her often intolerant, secular high school in Turkey.

    “People in Turkey are not as welcoming to things like headscarves,” she noted. “I had to take it off because that’s the law. People openly expressed antipathy towards religion in general.”

    She said though most Yale students are not religious, they are more accepting and tolerant of her beliefs. The only time she has witnessed any intolerance is during some of her classes, she added.

    “In [political science] classes, I’ve heard a lot of factually untrue and insensitive comments about the Middle East and Islam,” she recalled. “For example, people will say that Sharia [Islamic law] does not support something, whereas the Sharia does. It would be a matter to read a book and find out.”

    While in most cases students said they didn’t feel that religion restricted their social lives, Oliver said students whose religious beliefs place restrictions on alcohol and sex sometimes find themselves with limited social options.

    Yishai Schwartz ’13 said he met his closest friends through Slifka, Directed Studies and the Independent Party. However, since he does not participate in the party scene, he feels less connected to some of his friends.

    “It’s hard to know you don’t share part of their lives and they don’t share part of yours,” he said.

    But Schwartz recalled an event that he felt illustrated the shift in attitude toward religion. In February, at his request, the Independent Party debated “Resolved, morality requires religious faith,” and the resolution passed. This, he said, probably would not have happened a few years ago.

  2. City on the hill

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    Beyond the School of Management, beyond “The Whale,” way past the food carts, beyond Kroon Hall and the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory, at the part of Science Hill where it stops being a hill and becomes a plateau, beyond even the Leitner Observatory, sits the Yale Divinity School.

    The Divinity School is composed of a single main quadrangle, the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle, designed in the early 1930s. The distinctive H-shaped configuration of the campus is built in a style that can best be described as the love-child of Silliman College and the Roman Forum, with Doric columns and semi-circular arches covered in the red bricks of the residential colleges “down the hill” or “downtown,” as the school’s students refer to anything before 314 Prospect St.

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    But the austere, Jeffersonian layout of the campus has historically been one of its most beloved features, Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge said in an interview this week. In the mid-1990s, when the school considered relocating to an available space downtown — the parking lot near the Joseph Slifka Center — alumni were outraged at the prospect of moving the campus. Finally, history of art professor emeritus Sterling Professor Emeritus Vincent Scully ’40 ARC ’49 stepped in.

    “Scully told The New York Times he’d sever his ties with the University if we had the audacity to touch the architectural masterpiece ceated by John Delano Aldrich on the top of Prospect Hill,” Attridge recalled. “The week after, University President Richard Levin said he’d keep the quad.”

    Almost intentionally, the Divinity School is a house of conflict and serenity. Ostensibly non-denominational, some students seek to become ministers while others pursue degrees in graduate studies. The division between intellect and belief creates a hotbed of academic thought and spirituality that is both meaningful and explosive for the students who study—and worship—there.

    In his 1630 thesis, “A Model of Christian Charity,” John Winthrop wrote: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.” The Divinity School, like Winthrop’s imagined colony, also seeks to set an example for the Yale community from atop a hill, creating a supportive environment dedicated to the pursuit of religious truth. And for many students, the Divinity School does just that.

    Judith Dupre DIV ’11 is an author and architectural historian who decided to attend divinity school to provide a liturgical background for her academic writing. Admittedly, she initially chose the Yale Divinity School as a matter of convenience: A single mother of two school-age children, Dupre needed an institution that was a reasonable distance from her home. Plus, her previous involvement at the Institute for Sacred Music — which is affiliated with both the Divinity School and the Yale School of Music and is dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of worship, theology, music and related arts — allowed her to attend free of cost. But the Divinity School soon became more than simply a prudent option for Dupre’s continuing education.

    “At the Divinity School I’ve met people of great faith and character. Those interactions, if you’re open to them, can’t help but shape you,” she said. “There is an immense amount of good will and compassion, a willingness to work for a common good.”

    Alice Hodgkins ’11 found the same sense of compassion at the Divinity School when she took a course in Biblical Greek there last year. Hodgkins, who was the only undergraduate in her class, said the other students were extremely welcoming and were very excited to see how she was interested in the New Testament and Greek. She maintains relationships with several members of the course, venturing up to the Divinity School as often as possible to attend morning prayer. She is even going to the wedding of one former classmate this summer.

    On the first day of “New Testament Interpretation,” professor Jeremy Hultin each year refreshes the memories of his students about how the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) contain conflicting accounts of the life of Jesus. Over the course of the semester, he shows them problems in the text, explains the contradictions and points out which interpretations he thinks are inaccurate and why. Hultin sets out to rattle the foundations of his students’ beliefs from day one, potentially marring what has been a life-defining text for many. He said he feels an obligation to force his students to wrestle with their faith, to help them to achieve mature views about their own history. But it’s not easy for Hultin either. Professors too struggle with issues of faith and with the most effective way to challenge their students.

    “Sometimes I wish I were teaching organic chemistry because I wouldn’t be troubling anyone. I could just explain my stuff,” Hultin said. “I know here that if I explain things exactly how I want to explain them, it’s going to be hard on some people.”

    Uphill, the coursework is intense. At the moment, the Divinity School is home to 389 students pursuing one of the three different degree programs. The most popular is the masters of divinity, a degree path just as ominous as it sounds: It takes three years and 76 credit hours to complete. At three credit hours per class, and an average of approximately 200 pages of reading per week per class, the 182 students enrolled must keep their heads out of the clouds. In fact, The masters of divinity is the most professionally oriented degree — around 85 percent of the graduates move on to a career in the Christian ministry in a number of denominations.

    Then there’s the masters of arts in religion, or M.A.R., for students looking for a program of advanced study in theology. The M.A.R. is essentially a master’s degree in religious studies, the younger brother of the Ph.D. program down the hill at the Hall of Graduate Studies. Except there is no religious studies master’s degree program at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

    The third type of degree is the master of sacred theology, or S.T.M. (M.S.T. was already taken). Only students who have already received a masters or bachelors of divinity can apply for this one-year program that offers advanced training for a specialized form of Christian service such as chaplaincy, foreign missions or ministry to the elderly.

    But all Yalies are used to academic rigors. The type of learning that goes on in the Divinity School is challenging for reasons that go beyond academia, or the purely intellectual. The real challenge is the constant foundation-shaking exchange of ideas that occurs among the different branches of Christianity present at the school. Students must be ready to defend their own beliefs while studying the topic of faith itself.

    Students often come to the Divinity School with a very personal approach to religion, Delfin Bautista DIV ’10, the president of the Divinity School Student Council, explained. Once students sit down in a classroom with 20 other people, religion becomes an intellectual pursuit.

    “People start to deconstruct their religion, to deconstruct their faith, which can be overwhelming,” Bautista said. “It’s a culture shock for some because a lot of the things you were told in the past, it’s not like they are not true, but now you see them from a totally new perspective.”

    Students said that it can be nearly impossible to set aside completely the emotional component when said pursuit happens to be the single most important thing in their lives.

    Sequestered away from the passionately secular Yale community, the Divinity School, in its non-denominational status, is above all a place for Christians. Even though admissions statistics boast a student population representing more than 40 religious faiths, of the 389 people enrolled this year, 140 are either Episcopalian, United Methodist or Roman Catholic, according to Divinity School Registrar Lisabeth Huck. The rest are a mix of Presbyterians, Lutherans, members of the United Church of Christ and other Christian denominations, and a small minority of students who self-identify as Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or Jewish.

    But other sources of diversity — including gender, sexuality, political affiliation and denomination — divide the student population in a more tangible way, creating tensions both in and outside of the classroom.

    According to Hultin, a certain gay professor regularly leads the discussion in a course on the New Testament about homosexuality. The students debate Romans 1:27: “And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.”

    The professor explains the different ways of interpreting the text, mentions what homosexuality was like in the ancient world, and offers suggestions of how to believe in a tolerant way. In creating a space where people are allowed to disagree, to passionately refute each other, and to have a healthy discussion, diversity becomes utilized for learning, Hultin believes.

    But controversy is not always handled so smoothly, especially when the debate is over such a hot topic as homosexuality. Three Divinity School students interviewed said that opposing factions of religiously liberal and conservative students are often unlikely to engage in constructive dialogue. While sitting in a classroom with Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics and students who do not belong to a particular denomination should contribute to an enriched learning experience, this is rarely the case, Bautista said.

    “I don’t think we’re comfortable enough to say, ‘Well, I disagree with you,’ out of the blue,” Rebecca Lenn DIV ’10 said.

    But the slightly blanched nature of some discussions at the Divinity School does not necessarily mean there is no debate at all, Lenn added. Rather, it is an indication of a strongly opinionated and fiercely intellectual community.

    “There is a divide, and some of us are trying to bridge it, but it’s very hard because of people’s beliefs and stances,” Bautista said. “And there are people at the Divinity School who do believe that homosexuals are going to burn in hell. And they’re not going to change their mind about that.”

    Even still, masters of divinity students have the option of going to a seminary affiliated with a specific denomination, while others can go to a secular theological studies programs. But all Divinity School students decided to attend an institution which, in a fairly healthy state of tension, combines both the seminarian approach to education and a more academic approach to theology.

    Ultimately, however, the Yale Divinity School has the potential to become outdated. The simple reality is that the Bible and Christianity are old and the study of theology even older. Even the Divinity School itself is getting up there in years: It was founded in 1822. When the skeptical questioning of Yale College’s liberal-minded undergraduates is added to the mix, the Divinity School runs the risk of becoming archaic fast.

    But it hasn’t yet. The Divinity School and the study of theology itself somehow manage to stay current.

    It turns out that theological debates still take place on an academic and intellectual stage, and while positions are chosen based on personal faith, the arguments that scholars raise are textually and pragmatically based, Hultin explained.

    Theologians start with a question such as, “What is the role of women in the ministry?” There are statements in the Bible that would seem to delineate the role, like in 1 Timothy 2, which states that “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” After consulting the liturgy, there is the “meta-question,” Hultin said, of how we even want to use these texts because they are not merely a set of instructions, but rather are actual letters that the apostle Paul wrote, or that someone wrote in his name. Hultin proposed other possible approaches to the passage: Should the text form a guide for contemporary life? Then the issue of Paul’s relationship to women leaders as compared to others in the first century can come into play, and one might argue that Paul was surprisingly progressive in his beliefs. But others might say that this is wishful thinking, that we’re just taking what we happen to believe about gender roles and are projecting that on to Paul to make him a proto-feminist. And yet another group might simply try to expose how negative these texts are to women, drawing from modern thinking when doing so. It’s far more sophisticated than, “Is this what I like?”

    The theological debates in which Divinity School professors and students engage have a stake in current issues of the day. These are the questions discussed not only in the classroom, but also in the dining hall or common room, much like the experience of undergraduates in Yale College.

    Greg Griffin DIV ’11 is pursuing his masters of divinity in order to become a minister in the United Church of Christ. Just one year away from graduation, Griffin has tested the waters a bit before settling on this career path. As a man in his sixties, he has been a lawyer, a photographer, a member of the United States Navy during the Vietnam War and a missionary in Turkey.

    For Griffin, one of the most widely discussed topics on campus is that of the environment. As the global spotlight focuses on the conservation of resources and biodiversity, Griffin said the Church, too, is going green.

    “We are supposed to be the stewards of the earth,” he said. “The question is, are we doing a good job?”

    One critical source for the school’s green-ward thrust, Griffin said, comes from Revelations 7:3: “Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees.”

    But perhaps the issue with the farthest-reaching consequences is the role religion plays in shaping the way political decisions are made today. From the original Puritan founders of the United States, to the current political atmosphere, religious beliefs have long permeated political decision-making. When asked whom he saw as his most important political philosopher, former President George W. Bush said Jesus.

    “Whether Jesus intended to put forth a political philosophy or not, people are finding a political philosophy in his teachings, so it plays a role enormously,” Hultin said.

    Indeed, President Barack Obama has said that his favorite philosopher is Reinhold Niebuhr DIV ’14, a Protestant philosopher who advocated for an aggressive stands against the Nazi regime during WWII. By openly citing Niebuhr as one of his influences, Obama is asserting himself as a Christian politician, at least in the eyes of Griffin.

    Religious beliefs, with their implications in sexuality, ecology and politics, are hardly out of date in the secular stratum. The Divinity School is Yale’s connection to this world of faith, the place on campus — up on a hill — where belief and academia overlap in quasi-harmonious diversity. An institution that cannot be for everyone, but tries its best to offer students a tolerant intellectual environment.

  3. Not your typical gap year …

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    When Michael Richter was assigned to Calhoun College, he didn’t immediately pull out his laptop and start joining Facebook groups like “Dontcha Wish Your Master Was HOT Like Ours.” He never logged onto the admitted students Web site to broadcast his favorite works of literature, and when the time came, he didn’t e-mail for a HounSib.

    Richter isn’t a technophobe or some jaded hipster undergrad; he’s an adult. Arriving at Yale with an Olympic silver medal for ice hockey, 15 years of professional play with the New York Rangers — and a wife — Michael was different from other freshmen. But as a member of Yale’s Eli Whitney Students Program, Richter took the same courses as any undergraduate.

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    Created in 1982 for people who do not complete college at the typical age, the Eli Whitney Program admits only eight to 12 people annually. Unlike other non-traditional student programs such as Harvard’s Extension School or Columbia’s School of General Studies, Eli Whitney students are enrolled exclusively in Yale College. Eli Whitney students don’t live on campus; but other than that, they do the same problem sets, write the same papers and earn the same bachelor’s degrees.

    Still, in some ways, Eli Whitneys have an advantage over teens and 20-somethings. As professor Charles Bailyn, chair of the Eli Whitney Student Advisory Committee, says on the program’s promotional video, “These students add something to the Yale community — the kind of life experience and perspective that no one coming out of high school, no matter how remarkable, can really offer.”

    Sure, you felt like an adult living on the Hill doing that internship last summer, but you can’t beat giving the 2008 plenary address at the International Conference on AIDS or being deployed to Iraq. These students have seen life on the outside. They also present an inside look we lack — a perspective on the meaning of an undergraduate liberal arts education that’s blurred by neither alcohol nor nostalgia.

    Move aside, gap-year kids. Eli Whitney students are the undergrads who — by choice or by circumstance — are navigating Yale’s least linear educational trajectory.

    David Ashcraft

    Standing in the newly furnished basement of Rosenkranz Hall Wednesday afternoon, David Clinton Ashcraft II GRD ’10 sticks out among the handful of sweatshirt-clad students slaving away on papers around him. In honor of Veterans Day, he is wearing a navy suit — what he calls his “army service uniform.” It consists of a sharply cut blazer adorned with epaulettes and golden pins, a white shirt and a pair of pleated trousers with bands of yellow satin running down the sides of each leg. There is no dust on his suit, no loose thread along his buttonholes, no misaligned pin on his jacket. He is, like his black patent leather oxfords, immaculately polished.

    At the age of 44, Ashcraft has completed a tour in Iraq, been stationed throughout the world from South Korea to Qatar and spent several years in France and Russia, gaining fluency in both of their national languages. He has trained as a rifleman in Fort Benning, Ga., and he has also jumped out of several airplanes (though always with a parachute). The active duty Foreign Areas Officer joined the army at the age of 29, and today, at 44, is completing a master’s degree in International Relations at Yale.

    “My time at Yale has been a formative experience,” he said. “I feel proud to be part of a tradition that goes back to 1701.”

    Ashcraft first arrived at Yale last August, landing in New Haven right on the heels of his assignment to the French military academy École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr. This semester will be his third at Yale and, he said, he already bleeds blue.

    “Technically I should wait until I graduate, but I do identify myself as a Yalie,” he said “For God, for country, and for Yale.”

    Among his six classes this semester is the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, taught by professors John Gaddis, Charles Hill, Paul Kennedy, Minh Luong and Jeffrey Mankoff. The seminar, known for its selectivity, is open to all members of the University, meaning that some of Ashcraft’s classmates are Yale College students in their early twenties. While Ashcraft, who is married and has a three-year-old son, must juggle a variety of extenuating circumstances with his heavy workload, some of his classmates are wiling away at Saturday nights at Toad’s Place. To Ashcraft, though, this adds a necessary diversity to his classroom experience, one that he does not take for granted.

    “The energy and enthusiasm and confidence the [College] students bring reminds me of how I was when I was 18 or 19,” Ashcraft said. “[Yale] is a place I’d like to send my kids.”

    But Ashcraft said his interaction with Yale College students is mostly limited to the classroom. Asked if he had ever attended a campus party, he lightheartedly responded with, “No, but tell me of one and I’ll go.”

    Sitting in a Rosenkranz classroom with his hands folded neatly over a table, Ashcraft revealed few memories of time abroad or his experiences with the military.

    “I’m a strategic thinker,” he explained, his voice unfaltering, his eyes focused. “I try to think ahead and I don’t think too much about the past.”

    And while his memories of initiations and military traditions are rich — he occasionally mentions silver bowls used to concoct beverages for nights of revelry on forts in desolate lands — he is careful not to release any personal information.

    He is an unshakable, insuperable military man, made of resolve, courage and possibly steel.

    Indeed, searching through his memories, Ashcraft revealed the one time he cracked was in high school, and the event only solidified his character as a strong, unwavering person.

    When Ashcraft was a 14-year-old freshman in high school, he was excited about KISS. Upon discovering one afternoon the band was traveling to Ohio for a concert, he jumped on his bike and rode from his home to the nearby laundromat to ask his mother for permission to purchase tickets. But, a car got in the way.

    When Ashcraft regained consciousness, he noticed his left thigh sagging. His femur was broken.

    For the next six months, Ashcraft had to relearn how to walk, how to run and how to ride his bike. And when the cast finally came off, he didn’t hesitate to return to his normal activities, including riding his bicycle through the streets of Maritta, Ohio.

    “I had to do it to show that I wasn’t scared of riding my bike,” Ashcraft said. “I never felt afraid to ride my bike.”

    This fearlessness continued with him, helping him through the perils of military training — obstacle courses, 25 mile marches and drill sergeant miseries. Reflecting on his time during training, Ashcraft said, with a slight smile, that there was never an obstacle course, never any task in fact, that scared him.

    It’s this sense of fearlessness that allowed him to follow his own path through life — taking five years off college to pursue language studies and work, joining the army on the brink of his thirties and now taking classes with those nearly half his age.

    “It’s my Sinatra Doctrine,” Ashcraft said. “I did it my way.”

    —Amir Sharif

    William Chmelar

    William Chmelar’s ’12 life is running in reverse.

    Before he embarked on his first ever Yale shopping period, Chmelar had already worked as a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley, overseeing approximately $70 million in client assets. Before that, he worked at A.G. Edwards, a financial consulting firm, where he hired and managed a staff of two. Before that, he sold cell phones to customers at Verizon Wireless. And before that, Chmelar was a used car salesman, with all of the underhanded wheelings and dealings such a title implies.

    “I embodied the car salesman stereotype,” he said, “Las Vegas is a shady town.”

    While many typical Yale students work furiously in high school for the opportunity to leap ecstatically into college, proceeding to plug through their academic careers with vague (or not so vague) ideas about entering the world of investment banking, and then, finally, becoming legitimate workers of the world, Chmelar had little interest in going to college straight out of high school.

    “I was just going to take a gap year,” he said. “But one thing led to another and some early career success led me to toss the dice and just continue.”

    In a lot of ways, it sounds like the plot of a crazy movie: 18-year old moves to Las Vegas, pursues dream.

    The reality was not quite as seductive. Lured away from A.G. Edwards to Morgan Stanley, Chmelar was the youngest in the office by 15 years. And, for the majority of his four-and-a-half years in Sin City, Chmelar was underage.

    “I was a borderline workaholic,” he said. He worked over 60 hours a week at the car dealership and comparable hours at Morgan Stanley. “Work consumed my world and my interests at the time.”

    But though the monetary compensations of this existence were considerable, Chmelar found the work to be “intellectually unsatisfying,” with “very little thinking involved.”

    His transition into academics was gradual. Initially enrolling in Pasadena City College for six months, he eventually ended up at Columbia University for a year, before deciding to transfer to Yale.

    Originally, Chmelar planned to transfer as a regular undergraduate. Then he discovered the Eli Whitney Program through the Internet. The program, though offering the exact same degree, offered Chmelar “specific administrative support” as an older student, as well as “a really strong sense of community.”

    That atmosphere is what drew Chmelar to Yale in the first place. Living off campus at Columbia, he felt segregated from the college community and found himself falling back on friends he had previously known. Though the early stages of the walk from Union Station to Hillhouse Avenue initially deterred him, he was eventually won over by Yale and New Haven.

    “Yale is not cloistered like other places,” he said, praising the “down-to-earth aspects” of the University’s open campus.

    As an Eli Whitney student, Chmelar’s experiences are, in most ways, strikingly similar to those of the ordinary undergraduate. During this interview, Chmelar was engrossed in his “Cold War” reading. Right now, he’s also taking “The Science of Brewing” (for his science credit), introductory Chinese and an introductory international relations class.

    When asked what he’ll major in, Chmelar answered, “political science,” before thinking about it, then demurring – “I could change my mind.” Before arriving at Yale, he thought he would major in economics. Then, he read the course catalogue and changed his mind. Sound familiar?

    Though the Eli Whitney students meet up once a week at Rudy’s, Chmelar is committed to being a part of the general undergraduate community, he said. He described himself as “closer to a traditional student” than most of his fellow Eli Whitney students, some of whom study only part of the week. Chmelar lives in the Taft and is a member of the cycling team, as well as the Society for Intellectual Growth and Reinvigoration, a cigar club.

    Michael Knowles ’12, the head of SIGAR, recalls having no idea that Chmelar was not an ordinary student.

    “I thought he was a regular freshman,” he said, “Then I found out he was my year. Then I found out he was 25.”

    But Chmelar is “down to earth” about it and has already ascended to the board of the group, Knowles said.

    Chmelar acknowledges that the decision to return to school for four years in the middle of an already thriving career was a huge leap.

    “I used to have a secretary and an office with a view,” he said.

    Yet Chmelar is already in love with the Yale mystique and is eager to take part in its history and culture. In fact, he’s already checked one important Yale tradition of the list: last week he went to Wednesday night Toad’s for the first time.

    —Amy Lee

    Robert Johnston

    For Major Robert Johnston ’10, an active duty officer in the United States Army, education and military service were intertwined since the beginning. Johnston, now 35, explained his twisting path through schools and war zones, beginning with his birth to a military family stationed in Panama.

    He grew up in Los Angeles and at age 17, followed in his father’s footsteps by enlisting with the Army after graduating from high school. He served as a private for three years, at which point he was offered the opportunity to take an entrance exam as a part of the “Green to Gold” program, which gives army members the opportunity to earn college degrees. Because of his achievement on the test, the Army offered to pay his way through George Washington University, where he was an active member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Through the “Green to Gold” program, he became an officer, bypassing the traditional enlistment process.

    Johnston described his 10-year term as an officer as a valuable and eye opening experience. He moved from Fort Drum, New York, to Germany and then war-torn Bosnia. He said he came away from the trauma of war with a new perspective that he can transpose anywhere in life, even the classroom.

    “I can bring something to the classroom that many people can’t — eyes on the ground,” Johnston said.

    Unlike many visiting lecturers at Yale, who are often high-ranking generals and present abstract topics like “Iraq strategy,” Johnston described his own experience as almost journalistic.

    “You get a very personal, tangible little vignette of what’s happening in those countries,” he said.

    Yet this was only the beginning. Johnston was deployed in Afghanistan and then Iraq, proudly noting that he played a role in the budding democratic processes of each country.

    Johnston was a part of the 2002 Afghani loya jirga, a Pashto phrase meaning “grand council.” The assembly brought together delegates and leaders of each tribe to forge a new constitution. Ironically, he found himself in Iraq three years later during the country’s first constitutional election as well.

    “You know, in 2005 when you saw pictures of Iraqis waving around purple thumbs — I was doing security for that,” Johnston said.

    Such first-hand experience contributes directly to his current graduate work in European and Russian studies.

    “Among my peers, most have been to [either Iraq or Afghanistan] and not the other,” Johnston explained. “Having been to both and being able to compare them helps me bring a lot to the classroom.”

    He took a class last year relating Europe, the United States and Iraq, for example, and said he felt better able to contribute and learn from the class because of his experiences.

    Johnston said he was drawn to Yale predominantly by the University’s recognizable name. The school’s global reputation, he added, is especially important for someone in Johnston’s military position, which requires close work with foreign officers.

    “As a European studies student, I have access to excellent professors, the Yale library system and the academic freedom that it provides,” Johnston said. “The resources were one of my main reasons for coming.”

    That is not to say that matriculation to Yale has been easy for Johnston. The army has no pre-academic training, so officers studying in master’s programs “hit the ground running,” Johnston said, remembering his first semester as a time of panic. The stress of academic work is compounded by the responsibilities of raising a family as well.

    Yet Johnston described his friendship with the four other active duty officers currently enrolled at Yale as a strong community and a source of support.

    “It’s hard to relate to other graduate students because they don’t have families and live closer to campus,” Johnston said, adding that he feels a much tighter bond with the other officers in programs similar to his. “I’m jealous of the undergraduates, who are able to focus only on college and really take advantage of it.”

    Although he said he certainly has no regrets, in retrospect he would ideally have had more time to just “have fun and drink some beer.”

    “I don’t feel integrated into Yale,” Johnston said. “I wish I had done more things during my two years here like going to symphonies or plays.”

    His two children, one of whom was born at Yale-New Haven Hospital, he added proudly, have caused him to have a much different experience than most graduate students.

    He has taken advantage of some of the youth-oriented aspects of the University, particularly the Peabody Museum, which his three-year-old son “goes crazy for,” and the various children’s activities at the Yale Center for British Art, including a “Pirates and Princesses Day.”

    Despite his disconnectedness from the majority of the student body, Johnston said Yale is preparing him for what is to come.

    “I’m looking forward to going back [to the Middle East],” Johnston said. “I believe that the work the U.S. is doing over there is really valuable.”

    —Matthew Claudel

    Gregg Gonsalves

    Twenty-four years ago — the first time Gregg Gonsalves was an undergraduate — students at Tufts University occupied an administration building for three days to urge divestment in South Africa. Gonsalves attended the protests for as long as he could. But part way in, duty called, and he picked his way past hundreds of students sprawled out on the floors, past the cops surrounding the building and down the hill toward one of Tuft’s laboratories. He never made it. In a moment of clarity, he rushed back, diving through the ring of policemen to get back inside.

    Gonsalves was a student of Russian literature, and he liked Russian poetry. But politics were beginning to eclipse academics. He kept thinking, “God, this is so irrelevant.” And politics didn’t just mean apartheid. A young gay man during the heart of the AIDS epidemic, Gonsalves was starting to sense something exploding outside the walls of his college, “a wolf at the door.” The future looked unclear.

    So to the dismay of his parents — both New York City schoolteachers — Gonsalves dropped out.

    “I don’t want to do this. I don’t have to do this,” he said. “And I was right.”

    After stints waiting tables, Gonsalves joined Act Up Boston, a direct action group committed to ending the AIDS crisis. From there, Gonsalves went on to become a leading figures in AIDS activism and health policy, winning the $100,000 John M. Lloyd Foundation AIDS Leadership Award in 2008 for over 15 years of contributions to the field. He sat on panels for the Food and Drug Administration, authored “Basic Research on HIV Infection: A Report from the Front” and briefed President Clinton on HIV policy. In 2003, he founded the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition to advocate for AIDS treatment in over 125 countries. Five years later, Gonsalves was the first non-scientist chosen to deliver the general address on AIDS treatment at the International Conference on AIDS to an audience of over 20,000.

    But lately, Gonsalves’s been focusing on his lab reports. A year and a half ago, he sent off an application to the Eli Whitney Students Program, with a little recommendation from the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He was accepted.

    At the time Gonsalves was working in South Africa, his life in upheaval, as outbreaks of xenophobic violence turned his organization office into a proxy-Red Cross.

    “I wanted a chance to be able to think and not be in the crisis of AIDS in South Africa or AIDS in New York City or dealing with the Bush Administration,” he said.

    Since leaving Tufts, he’d always been self-taught. For someone who spent his life in activism and advocacy, Gonsalves saw this as a chance to do something for himself. A full undergraduate course load is his version of sabbatical.

    At Yale, Gonsalves has immersed himself in the sciences — chemistry, physics, evolutionary biology — that have always informed AIDS work. He’s stayed away from anything too close to his areas of expertise, but the past invariably informs the present. In the early 90’s, Gonsalves was involved in discussions about people that contracted the HIV virus and never get sick; at Yale, he wrote a research paper about the Sooty Mangabey, a species of monkey that does not succumb to the simian version of HIV.

    As can be expected, being a middle-aged college kid has its funny moments of disconnect. Gonsalves recalled sitting in section one day, and having his TA announce he’d just turned 23. “Oh woah, I just turned 46,” he thought. Another time, on a walk down science hill, he consoled a distraught teenager about her grade on a biology test. He promised in 10 years it would all be fine.

    You can count on good ol’ Wikipedia to tell it as it is. The last two sentences of Gonsalves’s page read:

    “At the International AIDS Conference, held in Toronto, Gonsalves gave a powerful speech on the 25 years of AIDS. Gonsalves is currently Physics Lab partners with Tomoki Kimura, a student at Yale University.”

    Between fact-amassing and family life, writing reading responses and heading up a few lingering advisory boards, there’s a bit of something Gonsalves calls a “psychic divide.” Some of his colleagues don’t understand his choice, but he’s not bothered by it.

    “My life’s been very improvisational,” said Gonsalves.

    Like many Eli Whitney students, he’s not ashamed of switching gears.

    —Kate Lund

  4. Landlords: School’s out


    When Chris Scavone ’11 opened the door of his newly-renovated off-campus apartment at 162 Park St. this summer, something was terribly wrong. As he entered the aging brick building, he was struck by a strange odor, a smell that housemate Chris Labosky ’10 would later describe as “steaming piss.” Set of keys in hand, Scavone began to explore the house and soon discovered he was unable to unlock the door to the first-floor apartment. He assumed there had just been a mistake; after all, he and his friends had leased the entire building.

    Suddenly, Scavone heard yelling from inside.

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    Scavone, Labosky and housemates Alex Harris ’10, Matthew Bogdan ’11, James Wyper ’11 and Peter Vizcarrondo ’11 soon discovered the cause of the trouble: they had a squatter.

    The occupant of the first floor of their home was an elderly man who, under the protection of the government’s Section 8 Rental Voucher Program — which provides assistance to low-income, elderly and disabled persons — could not be evicted. And now, more than four months later, their unwanted tenant has still not left due to legal complications arising from his old age.

    Having an unknown octogenarian on the first floor of one’s home is a completely different situation from living above classmates or writing tutors, which is the case in the residential colleges. The residents of 162 Park have never seen their mysterious housemate, except for Scavone, who claims to have seen him scowl through the blinds once while barbecuing in the backyard this summer. (Scavone said the old man looked like Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino.”)

    “No one goes in, and no one comes out,” Wyper said. “We’re not really sure how he gets his food.”

    The old man’s presence is felt, and heard, even beyond the ubiquitous “piss smell.” He shouts at his neighbors periodically and listens to conservative talk radio — ironic, Bogdan said, because he is living off public housing benefits.

    “It’s unnerving to know he’s down there,” Harris said. “He could come up and murder us all.”

    Because the old man has refused to leave, two housemates have been relocated to an apartment down the street indefinitely, and the rent has been lowered accordingly. When the issue came to a head, Harris and company did not think to call Yale for reinforcements; instead, they threatened the property management company with a lawsuit.

    Once students move off campus, they retain their residential college affiliation, their relationships and their connection to Yale as a whole. But when the ceiling begins to drip or the heating starts to falter, off-campus Yalies begin to understand what it means to live independently. Now, they have to deal with maintenance and upkeep instead of awkward bathroom encounters and creaky bunks. Away from college comforts, they have to trust in their landlords’ generosity or prepare for a protracted legal nightmare. Once they leave Yale’s stewardship, ready or not, students have to grow up.

    Independence Days

    Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry said Yale provides off-campus students with next to no legal assistance in dealing with housing issues.

    “I would assume that students who enter into an off-campus living arrangement are bound by a contract, and it would seem that if there is a dispute between the landlord and the tenant or vice versa, then it could be taken up in court,” he said.

    Laura Gottesdiener ’10 has lived off campus since her junior year, and said she “loves” the added independence and the thousands of dollars she saves each year. Recently, however, Gottesdiener and her roommates have run into some serious problems with their house, problems to which she said their landlord has paid little attention. Laura’s roommate sent the following letter to their landlord last weekend to detail these issues:

    I’m writing because last night our bathroom ceiling caved in and fell all over our bathroom. There was a lot of water leaking that smells bad and is brown. We don’t know where it’s coming from. Also because our toilet is filled with ceiling, we are unable to use it. We are concerned about the leak, and we would really like to be able to use our bathroom…


    P.S. Alex told us that we might be evicted because the fire marshall [sic] came last night? Please let us know if we should find alternative housing for the next few days.

    The issue, Gottesdiener said, stems from leaky old pipes in the ceiling that dripped so much that she would often wake up drenched. She and her roommates told their landlord about the leaks, and the company responded quickly. But the landlord’s solution was not to fix the pipes; instead, he placed a pan beneath the leaks to collect the water before it dripped through the ceiling. It worked without a hitch until the pan overflowed and became too heavy a load for the ceiling to bear. Gottesdiener was walking to the bathroom when the ceiling collapsed, sending forth a cascade of sewage accompanied by the stopgap pan — a deluge that missed her by mere moments.

    “Now we’re joking a lot about how if anybody had been sitting on the toilet, they probably would have died,” Gottesdiener said.

    But jokes aside, Gottesdiener and her roommates have been entirely on their own in handling these issues — they didn’t even think to ask for Yale’s help.

    In fact, the administration seems to be more involved in the regulation of students’ behavior rather than that of the landlords’, Associate Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs, Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93 said. His office occasionally deals with complaints from non-student residents regarding noise or trash relating to late-night parties. In these instances, his office and others in the administration communicate with the students involved, but he has not yet had to deal with disputes between landlords and students.

    This independence in dealing with housing problems, Gottesdiener said, has been frustrating in the past. Often, complaints about broken windows or missing locks have gone ignored for months.

    Still, complete independence is something that off-campus students should welcome, Gottesdiener said, even with the irritation it can bring.

    “I don’t think that it’s because landlords in New Haven are bad,” Gottesdiener said. “Yale kids are just used to having things done for them all the time. It’s a little jolt of what it’s like to live in the real world without much money. It’s the same way as if I go to the dining halls and there’s something wrong, they’ll help me. But if I get a shitty sandwich at ABP, that’s my problem.”

    The face behind many names

    Off-campus students can no longer rely on Yale’s support system to help to change a lightbulb or fix a broken faucet, so they must look elsewhere for solving their routine housing difficulties.

    Carol Smith is the leasing agent for Pike International, a property management company that owns more than 200 units around the Yale campus. The name “Pike” may not ring any bells, but that’s probably because the group has undergone several name changes in its 12-year history. Ever heard of Saturn Rentals? Preperty LLC? Different names for the same thing.

    But it isn’t sketchy, Smith promises; the company officially changed names this past summer when the corporation underwent a package refinancing and decided to re-launch as “Pike International.”

    “Preperty was just too hard to say on the phone,” Smith explained. “People would always think we were saying ‘property.’ ”

    Smith began working for Preperty in February 2008 when she moved to New Haven from New York City, giving up a job at Christie’s auction house to mitigate the four hour commute to work each day. Her husband, Jason Smith GRD ’10, is a doctoral candidate in the philosophy department at Yale.

    “I had to choose between a dream job and a dream man — I chose the dream man,” she said, smiling.

    But Smith’s move to New Haven was more of a homecoming than a new phase in her life. Her father was a voice major in the Yale School of Music in the 1970s and she grew up in the Elm City. Her familiarity with the area helps her to be an effective landlord, she said, because she can help to direct newcomers to the city to the right areas for them.

    “If an engineering student from out of state calls asking for housing on Howe Street, I’ll tell him about options that are closer to the engineering school,” she said. “For students, proximity is important.”

    But Smith is only one layer of the Pike bureaucracy. The property management company is owned by Rabbi Shumlly Hecht, who, along with a group of students that included Newark Mayor Cory Booker, founded the Chai Society, now called Eliezer — an elite semi-secret Jewish society. Hecht could not be reached for comment after repeated e-mails.

    Working under Hecht are Evan Schmidt, who is in charge of rent collection, Eli Hecht, Shmully’s brother and the company’s property manager, and Smith. Eli deals with maintenance issues and complaints along with a team of about seven workers who help with day-to-day problems, but Smith, who is responsible for all leasing of properties, comes most often into contact with Pike’s student tenants.

    Nine students interviewed said they have found Smith to be a helpful, caring landlord willing to accommodate many difficult situations. Jay Lundeen ’11 moved into the Fence Club (formerly the fraternity Psi U) house on Crown Street this year and works with Smith whenever issues arise. At one point, he said, one of his housemates was unable to make rent for two months, and the group accrued a debt of around $1,400. Smith made little fuss, Lundeen said, charging the housemates only a small fee, and relations between Pike and the tenants continued amicably.

    Beyond typical off-campus problems with plumbing and fixtures, Lundeen characterizes his off-campus experience, including his relationship with his landlords, as a positive one.

    “I’m really liking it,” Lundeen said. “But you realize that if you have problems, you’re gonna have to deal with them on your own.”

    Smith too said operations generally run smoothly with tenants, insisting that she has never had any serious problems. She attempts to cultivate “mini relationships” with those who live in her units.

    “See that guy there?” she said, waving at a man crossing Park Street across from Jojo’s Coffee and Tea. “He’s a grad student. He lived in one of my buildings last year.”

    Smith insisted that she has never heard of any problems of corruption or of major issues between landlords and their tenants, but the influence of the Yale administration has nothing to do with it. Instead, it is government safeguards that prevent things from going awry, Smith said, adding that Pike is constantly regulated by tax forms, the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies. On one occasion, Smith recalled, some Environmental Protection Agency inspectors randomly dropped by the Pike office on Howe Street demanded to see 25 forms about lead-free paint. Luckily, Smith said, she had the forms ready and on-hand.

    Notwithstanding her large number of student tenants, Smith said she would never consider contacting the Yale administration in dealing with tenant issues, although she said she has encountered few situations that would demand it.

    “My tenants are good people,” she said.

    ‘Keep it professional’

    Competing property management company Off Broadway Inc. is also a family business, owned and operated by the Ornato family and headed by David “DJ” Ornato.

    Leasing to students can be complicated, Ornato said, because tenants accustomed to living under the watchful eyes of Mommy, Daddy and now Papa Levin have developed very high expectations for their apartments. But Ornato, who rents to undergraduates, graduate students and professionals alike, said expectations have little effect on how he deals with problems in his buildings — problems ranging from clogged drains to broken light bulbs, dysfunctional heaters to parking passes.

    Ornato did say Yale students, especially undergraduates, do tend to have more questions than other tenants, simply by virtue of their inexperience with apartment living. First time renters often do not know, for example, that you have to make sure you turn the gas on for heat. Ornato said he attempts to make the transition to apartment living as painless as possible, and noted that there is a definite learning curve as students become more acclimatized to independence.

    “I give them a full instruction sheet ahead of time and go over it with them,” Ornato said. “I review what the gas company number is, what the cable company number is. Ninety percent of people remember and 10 percent people forget — but it’s their first time renting, so what do you expect?”

    And Ornato, for one, is happy to help students to turn on the gas or change a light bulb — he calls his tenants “admirable.”

    Still, unlike Smith, Ornato does not seek to cultivate a personal relationship with his tenants beyond what is required in his role as landlord, although he said he usually gets to know his potential tenants at least on a basic level in order to determine whether they are qualified residents.

    “Let’s keep it professional, if you don’t mind,” he said.

    The good, the bad and the ugly

    Brendan McCook ’10 lived in the Elmhurst last year but moved to the Taft Apartments on College Street this fall. He said he prefers the landlords at the Taft because they are very friendly and approachable. From their office situated right in the Taft’s lobby, they greet their tenants with a smile and are always willing to help, McCook said.

    Three students interviewed who live in the Yale-dominated Cambridge Arms on High Street said they have a good relationship with the building’s landlord, Kristie Tafael. Jonathan Gordon ’10, who lived in the Oxford on College Street last year, said that Tafael is quick to respond to maintenance requests made by tenants. But, like a residential college dean, she is also quick to notify students who are partying too loudly.

    Unlike a dean or master, of course, these landlords and property managers are not affiliated with the University. And most students interviewed repeated Gottesdiener’s assertion that they would be unlikely to contact Yale were they to have a problem with their living situation.

    “I probably wouldn’t talk to the Yale administration because it’s a private lease, so Yale doesn’t really have any jurisdiction over it,” Gordon said. “I’d probably talk to my landlord first. If something egregious were to happen, I guess I would have to look at the terms of the lease I had signed.”

    But others said they would contact an administrator, noting that residential college affiliations help students stay connected to campus.

    “I feel like all the resources of Yale are still available to me if I’m off campus,” Schepps’s housemate, Lauren Pippin ’11 said. “I’d probably talk to my dean. He’s really cool.”

    Staying connected, staying alive

    Just because they can no longer trek through basement tunnels to get to the dining hall each day, students who live off campus are still a part of the Yale community. Lundeen said that he’s actually become more involved with Calhoun College after moving out; he now makes a concerted effort to eat in the dining hall several times a week and currently serves as one of Calhoun’s buttery managers. Harris is a Master’s Aide and said he hangs out with other members of the Branford class of 2010, and Gottesdiener rows for the women’s crew team and writes for campus publications. Still, she said, she doesn’t eat in the dining halls often anymore and has lost touch with the more casual friends she met in her college entryways in years past.

    But while off-campus students feel less superficially connected to the campus’s blond wood and vaulted ceilings, Gottesdiener said, they still play a significant role in campus affairs.

    “There’s a big subculture of people who live off campus,” Gottesdiener said. “They’re not any less a part of Yale.”

    Ben Lasman ’10 has lived off campus for two years, and in this time has served as editor-in-chief of both “Volume” and “The New Journal.” He said that because students opt to live off campus, they are not generally involved in activities that require being on the campus itself.

    “The people who move off campus move off campus for a reason,” Lasman said. “The people they choose and the activities they choose aren’t necessarily tied to on-campus culture.”

    Residential college deans and masters said off-campus students still play a visible role in college life.

    “They are and will always be Piersonites, and both Master [Harvey] G[oldblatt] and I encourage [off-campus students] to come to Pierson and be directly involved in our community,” Pierson Dean Amerigo Fabbri GRD ’04 said. “Even if they only stop by for candies in both the Master’s and Dean’s offices, we are extremely happy when that happens.”

    Fabbri did acknowledge that Pierson is located very close to several off-campus housing options just across Park Street, making participation in the college community easy even if students no longer live within the college’s red brick walls. But Saybrook Master Paul Hudak said off-campus students often come to Sunday’s “Family Night” dinner in the dining hall and Berkeley Master Marvin Chun additionally said that Berkleyites remain active in college life, even when living off-campus.

    Even though students living off-campus can still stop by their Master’s offices for the occasional jolly rancher and dose of TLC, when it comes to housing disputes, Yalies have to figure it out and face the situation without the Yale support network. They’re all on their own — but that might not be a bad thing.

    “I brought these issues upon myself,” Gottesdiener said. “But I can handle them by myself too.”

  5. In Between Dreams: Sleep at Yale


    On the occasional morning, Lydia Stepanek ’12 wakes up as a 30-year-old mother on the way to a baseball game with her son.

    She rises abruptly out of bed at the sound of her alarm clock, her packed collegiate schedule no longer allowing her the time to awaken fully before bolting for class. And the result has been that, at least for a few seconds, she will confuse her dreams with reality.

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    “Three seconds after I wake up, I usually realize I’m not actually 30,” Stepanek said. “And then I feel kind of sad.”

    Stepanek, regularly finding herself awoken amid the last dream of her seven-hour sleeps, has been mistaking the lifelike impression of a dreamt motherhood — of driving her children around, from school to Yankees games — with the reality of her collegiate life at Yale.

    She speculated that she began dreaming of herself through an older alter ego as a result of her subconscious mind’s preparation for college while in high school. She started imagining herself as a college student during her freshman year of high school, around the time when she embarked on her college search. And now that she’s at Yale, her dreams have jumped a decade, preparing her for her next phase in life as a mother, she said.

    “I feel older than I am,” Stepanek continued. “I’m not sure why, but seeing myself older in my dreams is making me feel older.”

    For Yalies, busy schedules, extreme ambitions, stimulating conversations and drunken nights often cause irregular sleep patterns, which in turn interfere with or result from dreams. Students, like Stepanek, may be able to differentiate their dreams from tangible experiences just after waking, but their realities are inevitably altered by their dreams.

    “It’s hard to draw a line between dreams and reality,” Stepanek said. “The two are just so intertwined.”


    The mechanisms that allow Stepanek to remember her dreams in such rich and seemingly realistic detail puzzled scientists for centuries.

    First coined by sleep researchers Nathaniel Kleitman and Eugene Aserinsky in 1953, Rapid Eye movement (REM) sleep — the period when a person’s eyes shift beneath closed eyelids — was identified as the phase when dreaming occurs. A secondary discovery of Kletiman and Aserinky’s studies revealed that later REM cycles allowed for longer and more detailed dreams. Thus, allowing sleepers to experience more REM cycles before waking up lets them remember dreams in more vibrant detail.

    According to researchers, sleepers do not reach their first REM cycles until they have passed through at least an hour of non-REM sleep. Meanwhile, the average sleep pattern requires a period of approximately three hours of non-REM sleep before they can experience dreams long enough to be memorable.

    With some students sleeping in staggered periods of 20 minutes, and others cutting their sleep down to two or three hours a night, dreaming is virtually eliminated.

    For Yemile Bucay ’13, three to four hours of sleep a night is more than enough. But, she has noticed that she doesn’t dream on a regular basis.

    “Actually, I dreamt last night,” Bucay said after dinner Wednesday. “But that was only because I had had three days of only getting two hours of sleep a night and I just crashed.”

    By “crashed,” Bucay went on to clarify, she meant she had slept for six hours. During this time, she said, she dreamt of “a creepy guy from [her] philosophy class who showed up at [her] house” and would not leave until he fully discussed the merits of each piece of art in her family’s collection.

    She has noticed that whenever she gets more than four hours of sleep, she dreams, and those dreams reflect sights and thoughts from her daily life.

    While her dreams generally reflect nothing of particular importance, Bucay said, the strong emotional effects of her dreams often color her mood for the remainder of her waking hours.

    “Two weeks ago I had a dream that made me really sad when I woke up,” she added. “I remember I felt sad for the rest of the day, and I really couldn’t help it.”

    As Dorothea Leicher, a Philadelphia psychoanalyst, explained, “There is an overlap between the subconscious of waking life and dreaming life … A lot of what we consider intuition is what Sigmund Freud described as ‘primary processes,’ which are ways of processing information that don’t follow our declarative force of logic.”


    For Justine Kolata ’12, dreams prior to arriving at college were reflections of deep-seeded memories of hardships she had seen while living in Bulgaria between three months and seven years of age. She recalled heading out onto the streets on Christmas with her family, seeing amputees and homeless people being ignored and neglected in the gutters. As she grew older, her dreams began to compound an inner sense of helplessness, which emphasized her pessimism about the state of the world.

    “It wasn’t a good state of mind,” Kolata said of her negativity.

    But upon arriving at Yale, Kolata found herself dreaming differently. Inspired by her professors and peers, by her newfound opportunities and the kindnesses she saw students expressing, she began to see the world as a more hopeful place.

    “I stopped dreaming about amputees,” Kolata said.

    Instead, she began to see images of her peers speaking with homeless people. Rather than seeing isolated instances of goodwill, Kolata said she saw large groups — representations of society — helping one another, in her dreams.

    “I would pick up on simple things,” Kolata added. “That’s when my dreams became more colorful and vivid and began to motivate me to do positive things in the world.”

    Inspired by her unconscious visions of small positive actions cascading through a crowd of negativity, Kolata founded the Movement for Beauty and Justice this year, which she hopes will breed global justice.

    Kolata’s productive dreaming, inspiring the blueprints for her ideal world, is common among visionaries, according to Barbara Condron — the author of two books on psychoanalysis and a faculty member at the national School of Metaphysics, a not-for-profit educational institute based in Missouri. Condron said our dreams have the potential to be great tools for great achievements, from inventing the sewing machine to attaining enlightenment and creating global religions. She stressed the significance of cooperating consciously with the inner, subconscious mind, which she said was reason for taking our dreams seriously.

    “Dreams are not only revelatory — in terms of your state of awareness — but there are historical accounts, across the board, of scientists who have used dreams in their work,” Condron explained.

    For example, while he was researching structures in organic chemistry, German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé dreamt of serpents holding their tails in their mouths. That particular image — the way it came across and the way he remembered it — sparked the idea for the hexagonal structure that became the Benzene ring.

    Another of humanity’s advancements, the sewing machine, came into being after Elias Howe had a dream about cannibals. He was about to be eaten, and the ravenous men were using long spears, which had small openings at the end, to pierce him. The design of the spears inspired him to create the lockstitch sewing machine design which is now used worldwide.

    “The fact that we are now remembering more dreams as a society, as a people, rather than just a select few, shows an evolution of consciousness that’s happening across the planet,” Condron stated. “And that is a very exciting prospect in terms of where we are headed as a species.”


    But some Yalies do not dream as productively, or as beautifully, as Kolata.

    Under the pressures of junior year, Chloe Gordon ’11 said, she has been finding it difficult to fall asleep — unless she watches episodes of the television show, “How I Met Your Mother.”

    At the start of the semester, Gordon found herself staring wide-awake in her bed for nearly four hours before finally drifting asleep. She attributes her mild insomnia, which she said was a new development since returning to college this September, to an overwhelming workload and extracurricular life.

    “Junior year is when you become the editor of your paper, or the president of your organization or whatever,” Gordon, the editor-in-chief of Rumpus, explained. “I have about three times as much to do in a day than I can get done in 24 hours,” she added. Gordon also remarked that she is easily overwhelmed.

    But since beginning her regimen of watching three to four episodes of the show every night, she hasn’t been having problems falling asleep.

    “It puts me straight to bed,” she said. “But it doesn’t bore me to sleep — I really like the show.”

    “How I Met Your Mother” stars Neil Patrick Harris, formerly known as Doogie Howser, M.D., has apparently continued to solve medical mysteries.

    “One of the most useful tools in falling asleep is to establish a daily nighttime routine,” University Health Services clinical psychologist Carole Goldberg said.

    But while Gordon was able to resolve her own sleep disorder, many students find themselves requiring the aid of professionals.

    One Yale junior, who asked to remain anonymous to protect the privacy of his disorder, said that after feeling excessively tired throughout the day, despite experiencing a full-night’s sleep, he was sent by his doctor to consult with the Yale Center for Sleep Medicine. Through a number of diagnostic examinations, the Center was able to determine that the student suffered from narcolepsy. He has since been treated with stimulants similar to those given to ADHD patients.

    “What helps you focus is also what helps you stay awake,” the student said.

    The Center for Sleep Medicine, located inside the 40 Temple St. building on Yale’s medical campus, is not well-known to many students. In fact, none of the more than two dozen students interviewed, except for the junior treated by the Center, knew of its existence.

    Functioning as both a research and treatment facility, the Center for Sleep Medicine cures everything from sleep apnea and narcolepsy to snoring. While the facility offers a smorgasbord of treatments, students comprise only 5 percent of the patients treated at the Center, its director, Dr. Vahid Mohsenin, said.

    At 10 p.m. this past Tuesday, two security guards daydreamed behind a lone table inside the building’s locked doors. But the Center for Sleep Medicine was just beginning its research in suite 3C, where the test rooms are located. As five patients trickled in, the guards led them to individual bedrooms where they prepared for slumber. There, a lone sleep technician, Diana Miller, attached the patients to sleep monitoring sensors to track their vitals throughout the night.

    “I’m here because I snore,” Fairfield, Connecticut’s Notre Dame High School football coach Theodore Boynton said. The Milford resident has come to the Center to seek treatment for the condition to placate his wife and diagnose deeper health problems associated with his snoring.

    While more than half of the students interviewed said they saw much room for improvement in their sleep schedules, none had discussed their sleeping difficulties with professionals, saying that they were unsure how much improvement they could expect in their sleeping or dreaming patterns.

    While these sleep disorders obstruct dreaming, their cures often get in the way as well. Gordon said her dreams have been overtaken by the cast and plotlines of “How I Met Your Mother,” while Boynton said the various tubes that resolve his sleep apnea prevent him from dreaming as he had before.


    One evening, Tess — a sophomore who asked to have her last name withheld for the sake of her future employability — went down into the basement of her home to see her pet rodent. But when she came upon her beloved rat, she noticed something strange: it was hairless, and it had a human head. She was, of course, dreaming.

    “At the time, I was very drunk,” she said, “And I have very weird dreams when I’m drunk.”

    Tess, who did not drink prior to college, said such dreams are unusual deviations from her otherwise unremarkable dream life.

    “When students first come to college, one of the tasks that faces them is to become more independent and to realize who they are,” said Jim Leckman, the Neison Harris Professor of Child Psychiatry and Pediatrics at Yale. It is this fundamental change that is responsible, Leckman said, for many of the changes students experience in their sleeping and dreaming habits.

    While the content of Tess’ dreams may not be indicative of her immediate reality, her surreal subconscious visions suggest that college has had a transformative effect on her state of being. But Tess said her dreams had done little to change her perceptions of her pet rodent, or her Saturday night habits.

    Condron explained that over-indulgence in drugs, alcohol and even some foods, can blur the line between the subconscious and conscious, which doesn’t always translate to a positive dream process. She said that the body has to go through a cleansing process, which affects thinking, memory and the conscious mind’s ability to distinguish between inner reality and the outer world. In this way, nightmares and strange dreams — particularly those seemingly detached from reality — become common occurrences for college students after nights of debauchery.


    Rather than merely seeing a pet rodent transform into a monster, imagine controlling that transformation — and the entire world — while dreaming.

    A few years ago, Lisa Tran ’12 was grocery shopping with her sister when she suddenly had an epiphany.

    “Lilly, this is a dream,” she blurted out to her sister. Lilly’s response was a confused look, followed by a conclusive, “No Lisa, it’s not.”

    But Tran was convinced, and she wanted to prove her sister wrong. So she hoisted herself into the air and flew around the supermarket.

    Her extraordinary experience is known as lucid dreaming — a phenomenon that occurs when a person realizes he or she is dreaming, and then takes control of the fantasy’s direction.

    “It’s one of my favorite dreams,” Tran said. “But I haven’t had one since.”

    Lucid dreams are recognized as extremely rare occurrences — most people only recall a handful of such dreams over their lifetimes, according to Melissa Lavoie ’12.

    But for a group of Jonathan Edwards students, including Lavoie, lucid dreaming is an activity that shouldn’t be limited to off-chance luck.

    The Lucid Dreaming Coalition (LDC), founded last year in a Farnam suite, has been working to develop a systematic method to inspire lucid dreams. The group, which has a core membership of 15, has been sifting through the copious literature available on the subject to find successful, efficient techniques that would help them catch their dreams, mid-dream.

    “When you’re in a dream, there may be a lot of indications that you’re in a dream,” Coalition member Lavoie explained. Common indications include irregular numbers of fingers on hands and irrational time changes.

    While awake, members often check for these indicators, regularly reading clocks and counting their fingers, so that the habits develop to be second-nature. In this way, the hope is that the dreamer will naturally count his digits or read a clock and discover that he is indeed dreaming. After overcoming this initial hurdle, the vision then becomes limited only by the imagination of the commanding dreamer.

    Acting as an antithesis to the countless peers whose dreams are subject to inebriation, strained sleep schedules and everyday worries and experiences, this band of lucid dreamers has taken a decidedly different approach to its slumber: They’re in control.

    “I think lucid dreaming can be very positive,” Lavoie said. “Aside from its sheer awesomeness, it’s very empowering to be in a world that’s controlled only by your imagination.”

    Lucid or not, Coalition member Kate Mayans ’12 highlighted the significance of psychoanalysis, which has fueled her interest in dreaming.

    “There’s a lot of debate about whether dreams can inform our wakeful experiences,” Mayans said. “But I think [psychoanalysis] certainly does enhance our lives in general — dreams are a big part of us that we’d otherwise miss when we’re asleep.”

    Indeed, the consensus among professionals and students is a cold awakening: Pay attention to your dreams, Yale.

  6. The nature of genius

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    Every so often, even at a place like Yale, we are reminded that some people are smarter than others. Someone, like Thomas Steitz — a Sterling professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and, as of Wednesday, the winner of a Nobel Prize for Chemistry — will come along and make us wonder what makes these people different from the rest of us.

    Some people call them “geniuses.” But genius is just a label — a word for people who seem to have a natural talent for one thing or another, such as learning birdsong, investigating why elderly people fall or crystallizing cellular organelles smaller than we could even imagine.

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    “Genius is a useful human construct,” said music professor Craig Wright, who has taught the freshman seminar “Exploring the Nature of Genius” for three years. “It’s just an idea like justice or liberty.”

    The label can come in the form of awards. Not only was Steitz given the Nobel, but three weeks ago Professors Richard Prum and Mary Tinetti were both awarded MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, popularly known as “genius” grants.

    Even when called a “genius” by a board of authorities, it’s hard to get someone to say that he or she is one.

    When Steitz was asked whether he was a genius himself, just a day after hearing he had won the Nobel for his work developing an exact model of a ribosome, he responded: “Genius? I don’t know. Einstein’s a genius. It’s hard to put that label on everybody.”

    Despite his reluctance, it could be easy to call Steitz and his entire family geniuses. The Steitz clan has a pretty intimidating intellectual record. Thomas’ wife, Joan, is also a Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and was the first woman to matriculate at Harvard University’s graduate school program in biochemistry and molecular biology. His son, Jon, was drafted to Major League Baseball with a 97 mile per hour fastball, but after an injury, went to Yale Law School and now works at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Oh, and he also was a Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry major.

    “Obviously how smart you are, just like other sorts of exceptional talents, comes from genes,” Joan Steitz said. “I’m a strong believer in genes.”

    “Genius” can also appear in the arts. Case in point: Drama School professor and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, who won a MacArthur grant last year for her ability to “reflect the nature of the play” in the lighting.

    But what makes society place the label “genius” on certain people? As exhibited by Yale’s recently anointed “geniuses,” genius is, combined with natural ability, simply the ability to take what’s right in front of you and deny that we have to take it at face value.

    While genius is most certainly not quantifiable, there are some recurring traits exhibited in the people we call “geniuses” — people like Tinetti and Prum.

    See for yourself.

    Old people fall down. They fall in their homes, sometimes tripping over clutter. They fall because they lose their balance. Sometimes falling is no big deal. They are fine. But sometimes the result of a fall is much worse. One out of 10 times the fall results in serious injury, such as a head injury or hip fracture But still, it happens. They just fall. Nothing can be done about it. Right?

    Not quite, says Mary Tinetti, the Gladys Phillips Crofoot Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology and Public Health and Director of the Yale Program on Aging.

    For Tinetti, who won a MacArthur grant this year for her research, old people falling is not that simple, not something that should be accepted.

    “Everybody thought it was something simple as your grandmother tripping on the sidewalk,” she said sitting in her office on the Yale School of Medicine campus, the walls decorated with both honors and messy marker drawings her children did when they were younger. “When it’s simple, we very often ignore the complexities underneath it. I would look at your grandmother and say, ‘Why did she trip on that sidewalk at that particular time when she might have walked on that sidewalk a thousand times and didn’t?’ So that’s when you take something that’s right in front of your face that everyone thinks they understand and look at it in a different way.”

    Most recently, Tinetti has been researching clinical decision-making with geriatric patients with more than one disease.

    Instead of treating all of the diseases equally, which may not be the best thing for the patient, she says, Tinetti advises finding out how the patient wants to live and choosing a treatment based on that.

    Oh, and now there’s the little matter of having “genius” attached to her name for her work.

    Tinetti is a smallish woman with a round face and a brown bob parted just off center that harshly juts out on each side. If Tinetti is a genius, she is a genius that looks like your mom, clad in khakis with sheer stockings and sandals, a beaded necklace against her bright orange T-shirt.

    Tinetti does not only like old people, mind you. Old people, to her, are not people to be loved because of the great stories they tell, they are just like everyone else — “all different.”

    “It wasn’t so much the patients, it was really much more the knowledge base,” she said. “It is really the content of the interactions.”

    American medicine is good at treating diseases, Tinetti said, though she noted that this does not necessarily make a patient feel better. Geriatrics seemed to her a field where doctors could best match the actions of doctors to the desires of their patients.

    But it wasn’t only that. She decided she wanted to work in geriatrics because it was a new field in 1981 when she was a third-year internal medicine resident at the University of Minnesota.

    “The irony,” she said, “is taking care of older patients is one of the newest areas in medicine.” Tinetti, who received both her B.A. and her M.D. at the University of Michigan, was going to go into general practice when she realized that geriatrics offered a place for her to be a pioneer in a field. “It was really being able to be on the ground floor,” she said.

    Tinetti becomes excited when she speaks about her research. Her arms sometimes flail about. She’ll shift in her chair sometimes facing the table, sometimes sitting sideways. Sometimes she’ll extending her legs and lean back in her chair as if preparing to take a nap. When she finds something funny, she’ll laugh. Her laugh is short and piercing, like a quick whirring, a cackle almost, but not sinister. Her tittering is more akin to Glinda the Good Witch than the Wicked Witch of the West.

    She first decided to research falling after her mentor at the University of Rochester, T. Franklin Williams, suggested the field to her when she was completing her fellowship. Tinetti recalls that Williams felt that falling was something that had been ignored.

    “Very often what you find is the thing that’s right in front of you, you don’t see,” she said. “We know a lot of older people fall; we know that they get a lot of trouble when they fall, but nobody thought it was something you could investigate and do something about.”

    So after Tinetti came to Yale in 1984 she set about investigating falling. The first of her studies, started the year after she began, was observational. Tinetti and her team went into the homes of about 1,000 elderly people in the New Haven community and took note of their surroundings. Were they on medication? How was their vision? Was there clutter in their homes? She had every person record on a calendar every day for three years whether they fell or did not fall that day. By analyzing which people fell and which did not, Tinetti could then determine the likelihood of falling based on the characteristics she had originally detailed.

    Her next study was interventional. She followed a different group of slightly over 300 elderly people over the age of 70 for two years, changing half of their situations to reflect her observations in the first study. The half with the intervention was much less likely to fall.

    “So, we were able to go from saying falling is an inevitable thing that happens when people get older,” she said, sounding out the words to emphasize the point of her study, “to falling is predictable and preventable.”

    The next step was taking those findings and not just leaving them published in dusty journals but incorporating them into clinical practice — going to doctor’s offices, physical therapy offices, hospitals and senior centers and talking about the research. To this end, Tinetti’s research team started the Connecticut Collaboration for Fall Prevention.

    And basically, that’s why you might be able to call Tinetti a genius. It’s her ability to take a problem that is obvious — old people fall — and decide that it isn’t obvious, it isn’t something that should just be accepted.

    The associate director of Yale’s Program on Aging Joanne McGloin, who has worked with Tinetti since the latter came to Yale, said Tinetti’s work is creative.

    “I think Mary thinks outside the box,” McGloin said. “She’s not afraid to ask why. She challenges assumptions … I think there’s a visionary nature to that — not to just take things for granted.”

    This ability to look beyond the obvious (falling old people) is what Tinetti herself said might have been the reason she got the MacArthur grant. But, Tinetti said she still does not feel like a genius.

    Dorothy Baker, a research scientist in the department of internal medicine at Yale worked with Tinetti on her falling studies and emphasized the financial consequences of falling on families. In the current health care system, Baker explained, Medicare hospital insurance only covers hospitalization and skilled nursing care. Many people who fall need home care, but are ineligible to have it paid for by Medicare. If genius can also be determined by the impact one’s work has on the greater population, then perhaps Tinetti is a genius by this measure too.

    “More and more families are experiencing not only the fall but the financial consequences,” Baker said, explaining how, based on the studies done by her and Tinetti, 30 percent of people aged 65 years and older and 50 percent of people aged 80 years and older are likely to have a fall. By showing that the fall can be prevented, Baker said, Tinetti is relieving the financial burden on people around the country and around the world. The world’s population is getting older, Baker explained, and Tinetti is preparing it for the “silver tsunami” in which every place is “going to look like Florida or Arizona.”

    Tinetti herself said she hopes her research can influence the health care debate raging in the country by showing where money can be best allocated in order to benefit the elderly.

    She approaches her work with a “multifactorial ideology,” Baker said, describing how Tinetti brought together researchers in medicine, nursing, rehabilitation, statistics, economics and social workers to look at all aspects of the problem. This, Baker said, was “a stroke of genius.”

    Both Baker and McGloin said Tinetti has also stuck with her research even when it was difficult or not the “in” thing to do, but does that make genius?

    The genius might just be that she studies the obvious and makes it not obvious.

    Richard Prum dreams in birdsong. In dreams, he will be walking around the hills or fields of New England, perhaps in his hometown of Manchester, Vt., and he will hear woodpeckers drilling and blackbirds scolding and wood-warblers whistling. Or he will hear the song of a manakin, a compact South American bird he has studied since the beginning of his career. As he walks on, the music slides into his head like an oft-hummed song, always there but never quite acknowledged. In dreams, he catches birds’ songs note for note; awake, he can barely hear his students speaking in an auditorium.

    “Sometimes you go through your regular life, and you wouldn’t even recognize that there’s music playing, but suddenly you recognize, oh,” he says and pauses, “I know that. It comes into my consciousness that way.”

    In his office near Yale’s Peabody Museum one afternoon, three weeks after he has won a MacArthur “genius” grant, Prum is tilting his head to one side and looking up at the ceiling through spectacles as he imitates an indigo bunting — a small, brilliantly blue bird, about the size of a sparrow — “sweet-sweet, chew-chew, sweet-sweet, chew-chew. Zeep!” He raises his hands and waggles his prickly red eyebrows. His voice is not musical, but he leans forward and spreads his fingers as if performing an aria, or preparing to hop onto a branch.

    It is the closest to real birdsong he will hear when conscious, for Richard Prum, a self-described “bird nut,” an ornithologist who spent 20 years learning bird songs, has been almost completely deaf for 14 years.

    After the virus hit Prum’s right ear in the late 1980s, extinguishing most of that ear’s ability to sense high-pitched noises, Prum had to reinvent his birdwatching technique. Then Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder, struck his other ear, degrading its hearing over 15 years until he was completely deaf in his left ear, and he had to reinvent his way of life. He had a biology degree from Harvard, a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, years of birdwatching in every continent but Antarctica and an undiminished obsession with birds.

    And, now, Prum has a hearing aid. “After being a lifelong bird nut, I had to figure out how to remain connected to my own life’s work, which is not only an incredible personal challenge but a great professional challenge. You invest a lot in your skill set and how do you go about …” he begins to explain, trailing off.

    Actually, Prum is not averse to changing his skill set or interests. He is too hungry for knowledge. In the three weeks since he won the MacArthur grant, becoming one of the country’s latest “geniuses,” the normally gregarious Prum has found it difficult to talk to journalists because they ask him to tell them what it is exactly that he does. Even the MacArthur Foundation’s Web site struggles to discuss all Prum’s research endeavors and areas of expertise (“developmental biology, optical physics, molecular genetics, phylogenetics, paelontology and behavior ecology,” and, later, “applied mathematic[s]”) for 243 words before faltering and concluding, “and he continues to open new frontiers with each subsequent project.”

    In truth Prum is both impossible to characterize and absurdly easy to place. He has never really studied anything but birds: he is an ornithologist and Yale’s only professor of ornithology. Though the onset of deafness, coming in the middle of his career, forced him to stop studying birds by just watching them, Prum wasn’t daunted. He was going to examine them from every angle, re-imagine them as highly evolved dinosaurs, compare the evolution of avian sexual ornamentation to the evolution of human aesthetics, reduce their feathers to a coagulation of protein and air bubbles, solve the mystery of why ducks still have penises and other birds do not.

    “There have always been little pots on the stove, and when certain things became not possible, they moved from the back burner to the front burner,” he says, moving with ease into an analogy, as he often does with students and journalists alike. “This might have been a great thing, because maybe they were more interesting than what I was doing before. So I think in some sense the breadth of my curiosity really helped me out in that period.”

    To explain what exactly it is that he does, Prum says he studies birds in the same way a Latin American studies scholar studies Latin America: everything from its geography to its culture. And yes, Prum says, birds do have culture. Today, he is most excited about his research on the physics of feather coloration, which required him to learn about not only feather forms and evolution but also optical phenomena. The blue feathers on a blue jay, the green on a hummingbird and all the colors of a male peacock shine because of the optical interactions of light with proteins and air bubbles in the feathers.

    “We’re basically trying to apply fundamental principles of physics to all the things nature is already doing and doing better than us,” says Hui Cao, a professor of applied physics, of the import of Prum’s work. Cao says she thinks he is a genius because of his intuition in physics: “Rick is a biologist, but I learn physics from him.”

    In the vast white room that houses the Peabody’s bird collection, where Prum is the curator, he opens one of many white, wide, shallow drawers and plucks out a stuffed manakin — the slender legs folded at one end, a short beak at the other.

    “See that? Those are structural colors,” he says, stroking a feathery patch of robin’s-egg blue.

    At one time, he studied manakins’ courtship rituals; now he studies the structure and colors of their feathers.

    Of manakins, Prum says, “ ‘Manakins’ comes from the same root as ‘munchkins,’ actually — so, little people.”

    To find the little men, Prum had to fly just about as far away from Vermont as Dorothy did from Kansas. Traveling to the Andes to document manakin behavior for his dissertation on the evolution of bird courtship, Prum found birds “who,” he says, were then unknown to scientists, and he learned their songs too. He has hours of tapes of their songs, but they are silent to him now.

    Before he had tapes he recorded himself, Prum had vinyl records he used to play on his family’s stereo in their Manchester home, like Peterson Field Guide’s two-record set of the birdsongs of South America. Prum began devouring bird records when he was about 10, the same year he received his first pair of glasses. He was in fourth grade.

    “I got this pair of glasses, and within a month I became a birdwatcher,” he says. “The earth came into focus, and in the distance around me there were suddenly details that were interesting.” Before that event, he had devoted his not inconsiderable powers of concentration and memorization to learning the Guinness Book of World Records by heart and abusing his siblings’ patience by forcing them to quiz him on various records. Some of them he still remembers. After the glasses arrived, he dropped the Guinness Book and began watching birds constantly, learning their chirps, peeps, warbles and skips like some people learn the radio’s top 40. His parents paid no particular attention to his interest in birds. It grew undisturbed, first into a hobby, then an addiction.

    For Prum, birdwatching is a hunt, one conducted in quiet but barely contained surges of exhilaration, and with binoculars and ears.

    “I realized that when you study with a prepared mind, when you went back outside you could actually find this stuff,” Prum says, eyes wide and darting back and forth. “That was such a buzz. It was incredibly addictive.” It was also, for some years, his social life: By fifth grade he had a gaggle of middle-aged and retired friends who brought him along on birdwatching excursions. There were, too, a couple of young men who served as birding mentors, and a hippie named Tom Will ’68, who had graduated from Yale and was hanging around southern Vermont teaching school to escape the draft. By seventh grade Prum was leading birdwatching walks every Saturday morning at the nearby Emerald Lake State Park. He enrolled at Harvard, where he discovered travel, went to Michigan for a graduate degree, taught at the University of Kansas for 12 years, and came, finally, to Yale.

    Is Prum a genius? Well, with his early expertise in birds, it’s easy to call him a prodigy. But many people love birds. Anyone can listen to them, watch them, learn their habitats and culture: birdsong is all around us, if not in all of our dreams. But few people, or even ornithologists, treat birds both as a point of entry and as an intellectual end in the way Prum does. Louis Pasteur said that “chance favors the prepared mind”; Prum learns every scientific discipline he can find to decipher birds, then applies what he learns to still further rounds of research.

    “There’s a great advantage to not being frightened by your ignorance,” Prum says. To make progress on complicated scientific systems, a scientist has to narrow in on just a few processes. But to make progress on a bird — the optical physics of its wing coloration, the way its feathers grow, how it learns to sing ­— Prum has pulled many disparate fields together.

    “It ain’t genius,” he says, breaking into a smile as he surveys the Peabody’s masses of birds, his intellectual library of 100,000 distinct organisms. “I decided early on that I couldn’t suppress this aspect of my intellectual life because it was critical to pursuing happiness.”

    There is no suppressing Prum, so much so that the label “genius” seems to limit him. He flits between his office in the Environmental Science Center and the Peabody collection several times a day, thinking endlessly of birds. And when he goes to sleep, birds follow him.

    ¬ ¬ ¬

    So what is genius? And is it even possible to define it?

    Even Immanuel Kant could not define genius — he only said it is “a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given.”

    The prize-winning, honors-laden people interviewed do not call themselves geniuses. And that is only right: The people whom we call geniuses cannot, by their very nature, fit into one set of criteria. Their genius is no more than a passion for revealing the intricate behind the obvious.

    When Mary Tinetti sees an ailing retiree, she knows he or she does not have to suffer, although society often says that is the norm. When Richard Prum sees a bird, he wants to examine everything from its family history to how its wings grew to how it learned to sing.

    Tinetti and Prum see the everyday, in ways most people never even consider. So what? It’s a bird. So what? She fell down. She’s old. The same goes for Steitz. The ribosome is one of the central parts of cell biology, but no one examined it fully until Steitz and his colleagues.

    In a way, their “genius” better fits Charles Baudelaire’s definition: “Genius is nothing more than childhood recovered at will — a childhood now equipped for self-expression with manhood’s capacities and a power of analysis which enables it to order the mass of raw material which it has involuntarily accumulated.”

  7. Esk Economy Eric

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    Dear Economy Eric,

    Help! The economic crisis has hit, and hit me hard! I’ve lost my job, my house is getting foreclosed and my twin daughters are starting college in the fall. My newborn child is currently nestled in a bed of soft straw in our mailbox. I’d ask my wife to help me, but she recently left me for our financial advisor, Marty. Needless to say, Marty hasn’t been returning my calls. Is there any way I can get my life back on track in the current economic crisis? I don’t remember what bread tastes like.


    Dog Food for Dinner

    Dear Dog Food,

    Fun name! One penny-pinching technique that’s never led me astray is a seven-letter word that’s a synonym for savings — that’s right, I’m talkin’ ’bout coupons! Coupons can be found in any local newspaper and can be used for just about anything, from yams to Gatorade. So next time you’re in doubt, give a coupon a shout!

    Happy Savings!

    Economy Eric

    Dear Economy Eric,

    You smug bastard. I can’t believe I took your advice! My life is totally gone now, and tons of people are totally pissed at me. Money saving techniques, my ass. Who ever heard of a ponzi scheme anyway? You’re a fraud, I tell you, a fraud!


    Hapless under House Arrest

    Dear Hapless,

    Would a fraud suggest always getting plastic bags instead of paper at the market? When re-used, they can store just about anything, and you can save up to twenty dollars a year! Pretty nifty, huh?

    Happy Savings!

    Economy Eric

    Dear Economy Eric,

    Meredith Viera here from Millionaire. Danny’s in the hot seat and shooting for the $32,000 question. Here you go.

    Eric, I’ve got 30 seconds. If I don’t win this money my mom can’t get the liver transplant. Who wrote Don Quixote? Was it A: Lazarillo de Tormes? B: Juanes? Is it C: Cervantes? Geez, I’ve only got two seconds left! Is it —


    Already Asked the Audience

    Dear Already Asked the,

    A good way to read books for free is to check out your local library. Instead of wasting money at Barnes and Noble or on Amazon, why not just sign up for a free library card? In a matter of minutes you’ll gain membership to a lifetime of learning!

    Happy Savings!

    Economy Eric

    Dear Economy Eric,

    My economic case came about under very unusual circumstances. Though the age of my assets continues to grow, the value of them steadily decreases year after year, not unlike my physical frame. Sometimes I wish I could turn back the clock. With the button industry in the gutter, I have no idea how I will be able to buy diapers when I get old. Baby diapers. My question is this: How curious is my case?


    Old Baby

    Dear Old Baby,

    Though your case at first sounds curious, upon reflection, it is boring, bloated and a waste of $10. Seriously, a backwards clock? Subtle.

    My Money’s on Milk!

    Economy Eric

    Dear Economy Eric,

    Despite the economic crisis, this Tuesday I’m starting a new job in a new city. There are pretty high expectations and, to be honest with you, I feel a little in over my head. I’m a words guy, not a numbers guy! Do you think the economy can be inspired by speeches? I’ve written several and I have to say, they’re pretty powerful. But I still have my doubts. I don’t know if we, in fact, can. What is a bailout anyway? I miss Hawaii.


    Doubtful in D.C.

    Dear Doubtful,

    Ha ha ha! Not to worry my friend! We’re in good hands with President-elect Obama. Did you hear he’s friends with Bono? Also, I think “Bail Out” is a video game.

    Happy Savings!

    Economy Eric

  8. Yale's secret social fabric


    “It has its faults. But it’s the best system there is …”

    “… And it makes Yale what it is today.”

    [ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”913″ ]

    This is how savvy sophomore Hugh Le Baron explains the world of Yale to freshman Dink Stover his first night on campus in 1900 in Owen Johnson’s 1911-12 serial novel “Stover at Yale.” For the Stovers of the time, the society system was the reason to attend Yale — the reason, even, to exist in “a crowd you’ll want to know all through life.” The lists of those “tapped,” selected by the graduating class, were published in The New York Times every year until the 1970s.

    The great and the best. The politicians and the powerbrokers. And practically all of Yale’s most illustrious alumni. To be tapped is to be, on Yale’s campus and around the world, what Stover would deem “a big man.”

    100 years have passed since the time of Stover and Le Baron. Today, most Yale students do not wear letterman sweaters and tweed. Yale’s big men are no longer all white, Anglo-Saxon and class-obsessed. Indeed, they are not even all men. When women were admitted to the school in 1969, all but the senior societies at the top of the social hierarchy allowed them to join.

    And when the members meet, dine and debate on Thursday and Sunday nights, they do not drink 15-year old scotch; they drink Keystone Light or, in the case of Skull and Bones, Snapple. Times have changed, and perhaps the role of secret societies has evolved. Or maybe, just maybe, the old boys’ clubs have failed to adapt to the modern world.


    The first senior society, the Order of Scull and Bones (yes, “Scull,” not Skull), was created in December 1832. Two seniors, Alfonso Taft and valedictorian William Huntington Russell, both 1833, founded the order after Russell did not receive an invitation to the prestigious academic secret society Phi Beta Kappa.

    Scroll and Key, the second senior society, was created in June 1842. It was founded by William Kingsley 1843, John Porter and William Huntington, both 1842, who were dissatisfied with the fact that Huntington had not been tapped for Bones. Members met in rented rooms that burned down in December 1842, forcing them to relocate. Keys, which holds the values of “Truth, Beauty and Troubadour,” adopted C.S.P and C.C.J for their secret letters.

    The two senior societies dominated school life for the next 41 years.

    Wolf’s Head was founded in June 1883 by William Lyon Phelps 1884 and friends in defiance of the “Poppycock” of the other two societies. Initially, the “Greyfriars,” as members were known, chose not to be a secret but rather a private club. Greyfriars wore their pins face-out and were encouraged to tell others about the society. But certain members shortly chose secrecy over privacy and the doors of the Wolf’s Head tomb were closed.

    The societies grew in power and number — students at the Sheffield Scientific School created their own societies: Berzelius and Book and Snake. Soon, the chosen members shaped all aspects of Yale life; more than two-thirds of the members of the Yale Corporation — the University’s highest-governing body — from 1872 to 1936 were alumni of Skull and Bones or Scroll and Key.

    Since 1832, students have created new societies on a regular basis. Mace and Chain, the youngest “landed” society (a society that has a tomb), acquired their property only two years ago.

    And a four-year society, which initiates refer to only as C&W, was founded by members of the class of 2011. Its members said they will tap freshmen in February.

    “I mean, it’s the sense of community that’s important, clearly,” one member said. “There’s a sense of exclusivity and upper-crust Yale society, which people try to recreate in these mini biomes of social superiority, which really mean nothing, but on some level have a psychological effect.”

    Another member argued that the society was formed because it seemed the senior societies were not relevant to Yale’s social structure.

    “Honestly I don’t think it affects it [the social structure] that much, because by the time someone’s been tapped for a [senior] society, they’ve already stopped being part of extracurriculars,” the member said. “By that point, they’re just fat seniors and not part of the scene anymore — they’re just off it, on the range: it’s basically like a retirement home.”

    Leviathan, a senior society, was founded by the class of 2007. A current member of the two-year senior society said the reason for founding the society was simple, really, but that the proliferation of societies has lead to less reverence of the system overall.

    “If all of your friends get tapped and you don’t, you might feel left out and want to form a society with other people in the same situation,” they said. “Precisely because there are more societies, the whole thing seems, at least to me, less prestigious than it once was — so the idea of making your own society, and not taking it that seriously, doesn’t seem so strange.”


    Around the time of Stover, Tap Day occurred shortly before Commencement. “Several hundred students, and ladies with their escorts” gathered to witness the ceremony, W. E. Decrow wrote in his 1882 book “Yale and ‘The City of Elms.’ ” Senior members approached the chosen junior and asked him to go back to his room. There, the student was offered an invitation to a group, which was, Decrow states, “practically always accepted.”

    Yale historian and the Larned professor emeritus of history and Bonesman Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 told The New York Times in 1991 that he has felt the presence of senior societies throughout his time at Yale.

    “Up until the middle of the 1950s, all juniors who had aspirations to join a secret society gathered like cattle in a college courtyard,” he told The Times. “There were students who felt that life was over if they didn’t get accepted into a society.”

    Now the effects of tap night rarely shake the campus up, although it is rumored that the occasional (real) wolf’s head turns up by Wolf’s Head founder Phelps’s grave on tap night. And to be sure, juniors interviewed for societies and big men on campus still wait in their suites for a masked man or woman.

    The society system is still very much a part of the University’s psyche. Being tapped is both an invitation to be a part of a Yale tradition and a stroke of the ego. Now, on that hallowed Thursday in April, underclassmen scurry through ranks of howling seniors in masks and robes leading around baffled juniors, usually costumed and blindfolded.

    Yalies, of course, are intrigued by senior societies. What student wouldn’t be?

    Seventy-five percent of the 374 students who responded to a poll created by the News this week said they would consider joining — or already are in — a senior society. Only one student said he or she did not know the societies existed. And more than half of the students recognized the names of at least five secret societies.

    Case in point: In an attempt to experience the mystery firsthand, students try and break into society tombs all the time. The first break-in to Skull and Bones was by a society that called itself File and Claw in 1877. They published a pamphlet which told of the myriad memorabilia and strange decoration of the tomb’s interior. More recent break-ins describe the tomb as “something like a German beer hall.”

    The Bones garden is described as an “Oxford-esque cloister,” with a statue of a knight and a few barbecue grills strewn about. A tunnel is also described by these explorers, at the end of which can be found a chamber with a coffin. The towers are empty and contain a chamber with candles and a chopping-block, a basin with two carved skeletal figures leaning over it full of red liquid and lots of bats.

    Keys and Wolf’s Head have also been infiltrated. In the former, students give reports of stained flags above a round table in the inner sanctum. Member “B—” ’90 is recorded as the one responsible, having flicked ice cream onto the flags one night. In Wolf’s Head’s seemingly decrepit tomb, on Yale Daily News reporter observed a rather clean lobby; stairs leading down to a basement on the right, a bulletin board of Egyptian gods split into two groups (“In Egypt” and “Out of Egypt”) to the left and a bust of a female feline head on the wall (perhaps that of a lioness?).

    Countless TV producers and movie directors have presented their own visions of what a society is and what a society can be. About half of the students polled said they first learned about the society system from popular culture.

    Even now, we watch our “Gossip Girl” and laugh as Chuck tries to infiltrate what he calls “the crème de la crème of secret societies,” Skull and Bones. We watch our “The Skulls” DVDs. We listen to the conspiracy theorists, and we think that these societies might control the world. We imagine they masturbate in coffins. But is it possibly true?


    Alexandra Robbins ’98, author of “Secrets of the Tomb” (2002) and “Pledged” (2004) and a member of “Keys,” said that the fascination with societies has been promoted by the members themselves, especially by members of “Bones.”

    “How secret do they really want it to be when members are (were historically) supposed to stand up and leave the room when someone brings it up?! Me thinks the pretentious doth protest too much,” she said in an e-mail. “It’s like when someone says, ‘I have a secret! But I can’t tell you what it is.’ ”

    But, she added, “Society life is a lot more dull than people think.”

    Members of the societies have written dry, official histories such as, “The Founding of Wolf’s Head,” by John Williams Andrews ’19 and “The First Hundred Years of Scroll and Key,” by Maynard Mack ’32.

    Even a former Yale President has written one — A. Bartlett Giamatti ’60, a Delta Kappa Epsilon brother and member of Scroll and Key, published a history of his society in 1978 for his fellow members. He claims that, to some extent, the group “reflects Yale College.”

    “To tell of Yale is therefore to impart a good deal about the Hall,” he concludes.

    To an extent, Yalies now agree. Two out of three students who responded to the News poll initially thought senior societies are at least somewhat important to the Yale social scene. And one in five respondents initially thought they are at least somewhat important to the Yale education.

    But perceptions sometimes change. One in three Yalies who responded to the News poll said he or she found the society system to be less relevant to the Yale social scene than originally thought, and one in four now thinks the system is less relevant to the Yale education.

    It is not uncommon for seniors to decline taps today because they feel they have many time commitments and existing social obligations.

    “I just wanted to be back and enjoy the friends I’d made, and I wasn’t ready to form a whole new bond with 11 people,” a senior who declined a tap from one of Yale’s landed societies said. “I just wasn’t ready to take that risk.”

    The decreased relevance of senior societies on Yale’s campus can in part be attributed to the shift of extracurricular power from seniors to juniors. As juniors lead the clubs of the school and seniors worry about the job market, the power structure of the college has moved somewhat away from the fourth-years.

    The fact that societies are closed and inaccessible to more than a small group of Yalies suggests that, on its surface, society life has little to do with Yale’s social scene. Indeed, many underclassmen have no contact with the societies until tap night.

    And apart from the naked parties hosted by the Pundits, a prankster senior society, only Manuscript and St. Elmo’s throw parties in their tombs on Halloween and then sporadically throughout the year. Manuscript hosts events with distinguished alumni that are open to guests of members, and three-year society Delta Psi, now known as St. Anthony Hall, also organizes in-house lectures and social events.

    Somehow, the secret atmosphere at the Halloween parties gives Yalies a chance to unwind in environs as novel as Manuscript’s tomb: elegant, modern and sleek inside with a Japanese water garden and a good deal of fine art; or St. Elmo’s: an old-fashioned fraternity house.


    There once were freshman, sophomore, junior and senior societies to structure the social scene of the University.

    The freshman societies, which tapped promising students in their senior years at the leading boarding schools of the time and fresh off their first train to campus, were short-lived. There were two secret societies, Sigma Epsilon and Delta Kappa, and one open society, Gamma Nu.

    The sophomore societies were very powerful: if accepted, entrance to a junior, and even a senior society was almost inevitable. In number, they were three: He Boule (founded 1875), Eta Phi (1879) and Kappa Psi (1895).

    The juniors had fraternities. Each of them had 35 members, considerably more than the sophomore and senior societies. DKE and Psi Upsilon inhabited windowless tombs (later seized and demolished by the University). Today, only St. Anthony Hall, besides the frats and the one or two junior societies, taps anyone younger than a junior at Yale.

    Without the rigid social structure imposed by many years of organizational hierarchy, Yale, unlike Harvard with its finals clubs and Princeton with its eating clubs, has shifted towards a more fluid social structure where interactions between the classes are marked by few, if any, barriers.

    And Yale freshmen feel as free to do what they want as the seniors.

    “Freshman year for Harvard guys is shit,” a Harvard freshman said. “We can’t get into the clubs to party and the upperclassmen have first pick on the girls.”

    The freshman did not want to be named for fear of endangering his chances at a finals club.

    Certainly, Yalies now enjoy a far different experience from the hierarchy that societies and clubs emphasize. But that was not always the case. In 1882, there was a quota for Skull and Bones.

    Two members needed to be from the Yale Literary Magazine. One or two came from the baseball, football or boating teams. One joined from the Yale Daily News and other Yale publications. At least one was set for high scholarship. This was done to, as Decrow put it, “secure representative men from all the leading student interests in the class.”

    In 2008, the demographics were noticeably different. For the 2007-’08 class of Bones, one member was a ornithologist, a handful were from the cultural and international student communities, one was a Yale Daily News editor and several had accomplished large-scale community service projects.

    To be sure, the “tap lines” no longer play much of a role in society choices.

    Clay Dean GRD ’00, current president of Manuscript and a vice president at New Haven’s New Alliance Bank, said his society has assembled a wide variety of intellectual tastes to ensure lively night-time discussion.

    “It’s an ideal student group,” Dean said. “It’s a kind of utopia because it’s the best combination of informed conversations in an ideal setting — which is to say, around a dinner table.”

    Social status and alumni connections no longer entitle one to a tap for a senior society. While they might encourage consideration of a candidate, they no longer offer assured membership.

    Secure taps in undergraduate organizations have also declined. Rowers were reportedly outraged when their captain’s Skull and Bones tap-line was broken last year, when the society decided to tap a non-rower. On tap day, last year’s captain, Bonesman Jack Vogelsang ’08, was away at a tournament.

    It is, however, rumored that the tap lines that ran through the fraternities are still alive. Certainly, George W. Bush ’68, as a beer-guzzling DKE brother stood a high chance of becoming a “Bonesman.”


    When a group of 15 students are selected for their talents, rather than their social status, intellectual sparks are bound to fly. In many societies, members do not know each other before they are inducted. Society members interviewed said the societies allowed them to meet new people and discover new interests. And the collaboration can, in some ways, be helpful to the Yale community.

    “The Yale community and even the greater community are positively affected by these kids and what they learn,” Clay said. “What they get out of Manuscript, they share with their friends.”

    A current Scroll and Key member, however, thought that the scope of societies’ influence was smaller.

    “It only structures the lives of those people who are interested in being in a society, as they’re trying to position themselves to be in one,” the member said. “But I don’t think that it structures the lives of people that don’t really care.”

    A current member of one of the oldest landed societies said he or she thought the society system to be an “invaluable” part of the Yale experience because meeting new people through a senior society is exciting and informative.

    “Unlike being thrown into a randomly assigned college or suite or sports team, here you made the choice to commit to this group of people,” the senior said. “You go in with an open mind, and you force yourself to confront these people. These people will challenge who you are — emotionally, politically, racially, etc. — in ways that your friends never would. Not only does it force you to see the world through completely different lenses than the ones you were used to, but it also forces you to rethink your ideas through these lenses, altering them or finding ways to make them stronger.”

    The senior said the “bio” section of his/her society, the time when members gather to tell their life stories is rewarding.

    Other society members said they chose to be in societies for precisely that reason.

    “The thing that societies have maintained is this philosophy that if you get to know people, their core, their life story, you’ll grow to like these people,” a current member of Mace and Chain said. “That’s the reason I was drawn to societies because I thought it was a beautiful ideal.”

    But let’s not forget the conspiracy theorists. Ask them, and they too will tell you the societies have the same power as they did in former years.

    For them, the power of societies is not a social good but a social evil.

    “This is no old-boy network, this is no I’ll pat your back and you’ll pat mine,” said former Coventry City (UK) soccer goalie turned conspiracy researcher David Icke on the History Channel in 2006. “This is a vicious group of interbreeding bloodlines seeking to impose their will and their structure of life upon the global population.”

    Perhaps he is right, perhaps he is wrong. Asked what the mission of his/her society was, an inebriated society member offered the following explanation: “to breed eternal bloodspawn between its members.”

  9. Woo blesses your pad

    Leave a Comment


    Justin Woo trekked through mountains of pizza boxes to find ways to make your suite sweet. It’s time to impress your friends with nuanced lighting, coffee-table conversation pieces and creative uses of garbage. Danika Fears translates from Swedish and everyone goes home happy.

    The typical college dorm room has generic furniture, bad lighting and a few pizza boxes flung across the floor. It’s no wonder a trip home comes as a relief to many.

    Not all Yale students, however, are satisfied with lackluster common rooms where the word “design” is irrelevant. Although a dorm room or off-campus apartment may never look like it sprung from the pages of “Martha Stewart Living,” there are several easy ways to make a suite look a little less like a hospital ward.

    First, that ominous overhead light has to go. Spot lights help define architectural features of a room and highlight favorite pieces of furniture. Lamps of different heights are aesthetically pleasing and open up dark corners. Banishing that sickening green glow is the easiest way to transform the character of, and add substance to, a space, regardless of how sparsely furnished it may be. This is the primary concern of Samantha Gale ’10, who wanted to find a way to make up for the lack of light in Morse College. She uses a combination of torchiers and desk lamps in an attempt to bring out the warmth of the slate floors and dark wood of her common room.

    But stay away from those colorful Target spider lamps, they just look scatterbrained. More colors do not equal more fun.

    Now to fill that well-lit space, the art of “Hobo shopping” comes into play. Sara Mich ’10 and her suitemates use leftover furniture from graduating seniors and tables found at the Salvation Army. A couple of coats of paint later, a grungy lamp-stand will look as good as an overpriced one from Target — and it won’t be the product of child labor.

    Still, a trip to IKEA is sometimes unavoidable. Bookshelves, which come relatively cheap, add verticality to a room and provide shelf space that can be used for decorative or practical purposes. In guest-designer and co-author Justin’s suite, inexpensive vases, wine bottles and a “Pirates of the Caribbean” chest fill the spaces on the three bookshelves set up side by side. College might be the one period in your life where you can make kitsch work: By consistently filling your room with products of the same price range (for some of us this means lots of IKEA, for others the Eames goodies that didn’t fit in the Hamptons house), you avoid any jarring juxtapositions.

    If you’re not afraid of a few quizzical looks from strangers, even a pastiche object in a room can look good and serve as a conversation piece. Pebbles in a vase might be more fitting for your grandmother’s house, but the arrangement looks better than a stark coffee table and could garner a few laughs.

    Justin’s common room last year was virtually bare, with the exception of a Pepe’s pizza box that never made its way to the trash. In his current common room, however, he plays on this idea by sticking a used Corona box to fill the void underneath a short bookshelf. The important thing is to fill the space of the common room from the ground up, even if it’s with items usually found in the garbage.

    Covering the walls is another technique that can dramatically change the aura of a room. Mich and her suitemates attached fabric to picture frames and hung them on the wall. Though the design could appear too crafty, the decoration lends a relaxed vibe and cohesive color scheme to the rest of the room. Vintage records that cover the walls add personality, and are aligned in such a way that they don’t suffocate the rest of the space.

    Posters — though they are sometimes revealing about one’s personality — can stifle a room when there are too many. Instead of splattering them on top of each other, spacing posters out by using individual frames and matte borders is a fresher-looking, weightier alternative to the poster collage look.

    As for individual bedrooms, the key is to find a balance between creating a greater sense of space and maintaining a sense of individuality that isn’t always present in the common room. Gale emphasized how important it is to maintain a unique style. A lion canvas wall art is an amazing way to show off personal style. Each of her suitemates’ rooms has a different color pallete and attitude that reflect their owners’ personalities.

    One suitemate leans towards bright colors and accessorized her room with a Picasso poster, a bright bedspread and tastefully colorful picture frames. Gale’s room, however, is much more visually overloaded; it seems as if an art history book has exploded on the walls.

    Different students have different goals, but decorating your room should be all about creating an aesthetically pleasing and comfortable place in which to socialize and work. The one thing missing from Justin’s common room is a television. It would deteriorate from the sense of intimacy that he is trying to create, he said.

    Although many students’ rooms remain sparsely decorated, this intimacy is ultimately what can be gained by a well-thought-out common room, regardless of the budget.

    Designing a room isn’t exactly a science, but here are a few ways to get started:

    1. Zone: A bookcase can be laid on its side to divide the room, to simulate a common area and a hallway. Zoning helps break the otherwise featureless room into different sections to make it more navigable.
    2. Accessorize: but be tasteful with it. Any found object can be a focal piece on top of a coffee table, mantle, bookshelf or end table.
    3. Lighting: the easiest way to change the mood of a room. Thank God Yale has wainscotting because good (oftentimes incandescent) light can bring out the warmth of this material. Make sure to pay attention to task, accent and general lighting.
    4. Substantiation: Limited budgets mean cheaper furniture. And commonly, cheap furniture means furniture that looks flimsy and frivolous. Baskets of pillows and blankets can fill a bare bookshelf and the spaces below built-in window seats. A bolt of fabric can be used as a skirt to cover the open space below an otherwise utilitarian futon. And if the budget allows, splurge on more expensive “core” items, like coffee tables and seating that doesn’t unfold into a spare bed. These, as well as a carpet (this is important), will help ground the room and give a clear sense of weight to the objects within it; otherwise, the furniture just floats.
    5. Unity: Along the same lines as (4), maintain verticality; mixing short and tall items is a must. Often, people have very short pieces of furniture: a squat futon, a low coffee table, and a television on the floor. Buy a tall plant, and if it’s not tall enough, prop it on a box and obscure the box behind an end table. This will help the objects within the room actually fill the room. Otherwise, they merely sit in the room. Similarly, artistically arranging framed pictures on walls helps draw the eye upward.


  10. Prez candid8s go hed2hed

    Leave a Comment

    The following is a transcript from last night’s widely unpublicized fourth presidential debate. As a response to the impending digital age and in order to connect with young voters, it was held in a Public AOL Chatroom.

    Thursday 10-30-08 8:01:00 EST

    BrokAwesome: Good evening from all of us here at AOL > ChatForum > Interests > Politics/Current Events/Weather. I’m Tom Brokaw of NBC News. And welcome to the fourth presidential debate, sponsored by the New Facebook.

    BrokAwesome: We are making history 2nite, with the first online presidential debate! Each candidate will have approximately 4 lines of chat to respond. PPL have been selected from an online poll. Please no applause lol JK. May we introduce the two candidates? Senator Obama?

    MrCool61: Thanx, Tom. It is my pleasure 2 B here. First off, I’d like 2 thank Senator McCain for agreeing 2 meet me here 2nite. The American people R tired of the same old debate format and I think it’s refreshing 2 see the future of debating happen today. It’s a nice CHANGE lol!

    BrokAwesome: Thanx, Senator Obama.

    BrokAwesome: Senator McCain/?

    john.mccain@senate.gov has joined the Chat

    john.mccain@senate.gov: password

    john.mccain@senate.gov: hello?

    MrCool61: haha

    BrokAwesome: Lets just move on to the first question. This comes 2 us from Jeanette in Mountain Hills, Nevada.

    sExYxYgAl696969: Thank you, Tom. This question is for Senator McCain. Amidst the growing economic uncertainty, what would be your first action as President to control the spiraling global economic crisis?

    john.mccain@senate.gov: thank you jeanette

    john.mccain@senate.gov: thank you for your thoughtful question. americans are angry their upset, and theyre a little fearful. its our job to f

    john.mccain@senate.gov: ix the problem

    john.mccain@senate.gov: obama cant fix it my friends!

    BrokAwesome: Senator Obama, your response?

    BrokAwesome: 😉

    MrCool61: Thanx, Jeanette. We need 2 do lots of things.

    MrCool61: We need 2 fix health care

    MrCool61: We need better education

    john.mccain@senate.gov: > : (

    MrCool61: Mebe tax cuts too?/

    MrCool61: I wasnt done John

    john.mccain@senate.gov’s warning level has been increased to 17%

    BrokAwesome: Why dont we move on? Our next question comes from Roger in Dayton City, Carolina.

    Roger987349857332: wanna see my webcam for FREE? http//:www.hot.stuff.cam.hotcam/user_239032093909993321.htm

    MrCool61: That saddens me Tom. You see, thats a result of the failed ecomonic policies of Bush/McCain. He is charging nothing for his webcam.

    BrokAwesome: Great answer ; )

    john.mccain@senate.gov: how do i make the font bigger

    john.mccain@senate.gov: o nvrm

    AlaskaGal45 has entered the Chat.

    AlaskaGal45: OBAMA’S A MOSLIM TERRORIST!!!!11

    AlaskaGal45 has been booted from the Chat.

    MrCool61: Who was that?

    john.mccain@senate.gov: dunno

    john.mccain@senate.gov: anyways lets keep going

    BrokAwesome: I have a qeustion directed at both of the candidates. Health care, energy, and Entitlement Reform. How would you prioritize these things?

    MrCool61: 1. energy

    MrCool61: 2. health care

    john.mccain@senate.gov has left the Chat.

    john.mccain@senate.gov has entered the Chat.

    john.mccain@senate.gov: whoops

    MrCool61: 3. entitlement reform

    MrCool61: but more importantly, we need to focus on:

    MrCool61: change

    MrCool61: hope

    MrCool61: a positive future

    MrCool61: something america can all agree on

    MrCool61: www.kittenoftheday.com

    MrCool61: Sry ; – ) 2 cute!

    BrokAwesome: Lol, that is adorable. Senator McCain?

    john.mccain@senate.gov: my friend joe the plumber sent me this. i want to direct americas attention to this website. joe if your out there reading this is for you my friend

    john.mccain@senate.gov: http://www.layingpipe.com

    john.mccain@senate.gov’s warning level has been increased to 34%

    MrCool61: haha

    john.mccain@senate.gov: ew nvrm

    MrCool61: Pwned

    ProfAyers111 has entered the Chat.

    ProfAyers111: yo b-man whyd you block me

    ProfAyers111 has been booted from the Chat.

    john.mccain@senate.gov: wtf who was that?

    MrCool61: Dunno

    MrCool61: Prob no1

    BrokAwesome: Ok our time is almost up. Let’s do final statements now. Sum up your beliefs in one word or an emoticon of your choice.

    MrCool61: Vote for the cool one! : – )

    john.mccain@senate.gov: maverck maverck maverck guys thnk my eye key snt workng

    john.mccain@senate.gov has left the Chat.

    BrokAwesome: Thank you all for joining us 2nite in such a revolutionary format

    : ) The election is Nov 4. Don’t forget to Barack the Vote, everybody.

    BrokAwesome: TTYL, America.

    HILLdawg4prez has entered the Chat.

    HILLdawg4prez: hey guys whats up

    BrokAwesome has left the Chat.

    MrCool61 has left the Chat.

    HILLdawg4prez: i h8 my life