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The Ivy League Doesn’t Make Zombies: On Getting An Education At Yale

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When I got into Yale, I screamed. Not in the excited cheerleader way. No — I screamed like a little kid in a creepy horror movie. I had just come home from an all-night rehearsal for the school play, where everyone had been running around with their college acceptance news — hugging and crying and calling their parents. Meanwhile, I was too nervous to so much as open my email. Finally in the privacy of my own home, and absolutely desperate to know my fate, I dove for the computer without so much as turning on the lights.

There, staring at me from my inbox, was the message from Yale University. I skipped all the other notices from all the other schools and went straight for it. I clicked, the screen turned blue, and suddenly the whole room started to vibrate as a deafening explosion of a cappella came rocketing out of the computer speakers. The email had been an acceptance letter, and my slow, old computer had double-clicked me straight into the (very musical) Admitted Students website link it contained.

Alone in my dark and empty downstairs, I screamed bloody murder. It took me a minute to sort out that the computer was the source of the noise, that I wasn’t being murdered, and that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had not sent the Yale fight song to herald the End of Times. It took me another minute to realize that, amazingly, I had been accepted. The dog woke up, my mother came racing downstairs, and soon everything was a giant confusion of congratulations and relief. Things didn’t fare very well that night for my sister, who had left the speakers at full volume so she could play music while tanning in the backyard — but before I had even gone to bed the decision had been made. As my Mom put it, you just don’t say no to Yale.

There were reasons — good reasons — I could have chosen to go somewhere else to get a college degree. Terrible acceptance letter delivery aside, there were financial and geographic and various other drawbacks to attending school in New Haven in the fall. But at the heart of my Ivy League apprehension was the far less tangible and infinitely more terrifying conviction that I simply wasn’t Yale material.

When I was 17, I thought of this conviction as a fact, and I knew that in the way that only a normal kid who has grown up with rich people can know it. I had always lived in affluent little pockets of New England, a sort of modern-day Sabrina who could speak the language, but who never expected an invitation to the party. Yale was the ultimate invitation to the party — elite, exclusive, expensive, and impossible. And yet there I was, feeling like Charlie with his Golden Ticket and thinking it must have been handed to me by mistake.

I could have chosen a different college, and it would have made me happy. I was scared of Yale. Scared I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, cotillion-ed enough. Scared that my peers there would be a lot like the kids I had met at my private high school, whose parents paid the tuition mine couldn’t afford so that they could goof around, cheat, and get high for four years. I was also scared, plainly speaking, that Yale wouldn’t live up to all the hype.

It didn’t. From the outside it had seemed like this vast stone palace filled with leather-bound books and men in silk ties. A sort of country club of academia — comfortable, isolated, and intellectual by nature instead of conscious effort. This version of Yale is idolized as the be-all-end-all of high school careers, villainized as a bastion of undeserved privilege, and cartoonishly overdrawn. In reality, it hardly exists.

The real Yale is about possibility. The limits of possibility and the infinity of it. The endless, endless strings of questions we tiny humans can throw at the universe, and the paths we follow to find their answers. Yale is the most curious, most passionate, most vibrant place I’ve ever wandered into. Maybe it’s not unique this way; maybe the Ivy League isn’t either. But it was damn good at making me feel totally, purely, wonderfully alive, and it became my second home.

When I graduated from Yale, my mother threw a big party and invited everyone we knew. She was adorably proud of me, and was determined to give me a proper send-off before adult life whisked me away to distant jobs in distant cities. I barely recognized half of the party guests, so I smiled and nodded and shook hands with strangers for half the night before someone walked up to me and said, “I’m so sorry that your parents let you go to Yale. You’ll never be able to relate to normal people now.”

The most common reaction you get when you name-drop an Ivy is starry-eyed curiosity. “What was it like?” everyone wants to know. “Are there really secret societies?” “Did you have classes with Emma Watson, or maybe that Olympic figure skater?” The second most common reaction is disdain. Sometimes it’s heavily tainted with jealousy, but more often than not it’s just plain old dislike. Of money, or liberal politics, or blue-bloodedness. It’s rarely expressed quite so baldly as by that graduation party guest, but it happens a lot.

The truth is, both reactions are equally silly. If not Yale and Harvard, there will always be some other school to represent the pinnacle of academic achievement. There will always be crazy-competitive admissions, and sky-high tuition prices, and kids with rich parents tilting the odds of the game. But funnily enough, in my experience the schools at the very tip-top of the admissions pyramid are more immune from a lot of those shitty things than the schools in the middle.

Yale had the ability to make my education incredibly cheap because it was sitting on a multi-billion dollar endowment fund and had more money than it knew what to do with. Yale could hand-pick my freshman class from a truly enormous pool of perfect applicants — a pool large enough that the resulting selections turned out to be remarkably diverse. Yale and its Ivy League siblings are not “country club” schools — but that term does exist and apply to a number of less prestigious East Coast colleges, for good reason.

At Yale, I could belong to an in-crowd for the first time in my life. There wasn’t just one dominant clique, and there was no rigid social hierarchy. Who my parents were and where my sweaters came from didn’t matter. People were really bright but they were also really compassionate, and just plain fun. They worked hard and played harder because they couldn’t sleep without exhausting every possibility of every moment of every day. There was always something new to learn, some unanswered question to ask, some nagging problem to be solved or challenge to be conquered. The Yale student body was not hyper-competitive. It was not aimless. It was not made up of soulless zombies. No, Yale was insatiable. It was the place people went when they couldn’t stand to take a single breath without somehow absorbing another tiny particle of the universe into their understanding of life.

At Yale people hoped they would learn enough to do great things. This is obvious and rather unsurprising. But what they really wanted —- what I really wanted, at least, out of my education — was to get a grasp of how much I did not know. How vast the world, how minuscule my perspective, and how beautifully unknowable it all was. How open to possibility. It sounds logical to me that Ivy League graduates might have trouble building meaningful careers the second they step out of the gates: when you know that you may take your life in an infinite number of directions, it becomes overwhelmingly difficult to choose just one.

I don’t think an education should ever apologize to its recipient for being too broad, too expansive, too ambitious. Yale doesn’t owe the world an apology for pushing its graduates out the door with more questions than answers. And for that matter, it does produce incredibly service-oriented alumni, regardless of whether they choose to join Teach for America or Morgan Stanley. They might not all be Peace Corps types, but I can guarantee that they’re not simply sitting in their cubicles typing memos all day long. It might take several decades of stumbling, but one day some of them will hit on solutions that really work to problems that really matter. Some of them will make the world a better place, in the grand and dramatic sense as well as the quotidian. They just need to find their own way there.

If I am sure of one thing, it’s that Yale students care about this little spinning orb in our little corner of the universe. They care obsessively. They want to unravel its mysteries and solve its problems and cure its sufferings. They come into the university with this predisposition, but they leave it acutely aware of how hard it will be, and how necessary it is, to change things.

College is not for learning how to do things. It’s for learning how, and why, and why it matters. Any school can teach skills, but only some charge their students to do something meaningful with them. Yale charged me, and my peers, publicly and repeatedly, to go make good things happen for the people who live in this world. It charged me to be thoughtful always — to be doubtful and critical and hopeful in equal measure. It did not teach me to think, but it did demand that I do so.

My Ivy League education opened my eyes, like any true education does. It humbled me, and rewarded me, and challenged me. It did what school is meant to do. As to all the hype — well, I’m just not sure it matters. TC mark

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