Colleges upon a hill

They came with wheelbarrows and surrounded the cars. You remember. I think this was mostly to impress our parents; mine certainly fell for the cheerful efficiency, the explicit symbolism of the process. My mother was grateful because handing me off from one family into another meant that she could leave me in a strange place without guilt. But of course, the traditions of Move-in Day charmed me too, striking a calculated balance between whimsical and earnest, sappy and sincere. Over the summer, I had worked ahead at falling in love with Davenport and I had read and reread Yale’s official statement about the residential college system: “[The colleges] do much to foster spirit, allegiance, and a sense of community…[they offer] students a familiar, comfortable living environment, personal interaction with faculty members and administrators, and exciting opportunities for academic and extracurricular exploration.” In a word, your college is intended to be a home within a home. Yet, this year, in response to the addition of Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin colleges, over four hundred students chose to transfer out of the communities in which they have been living and will soon be inhabiting two entirely new social spaces.

Resolutely entrenched in Davenport culture myself, I watched names flood the first housing lottery with passive disbelief. After all, how many people could be lured into uprooting by the promise of a stand-alone single? (The first set of rumors had begun to circulate and this was one of the things we collectively presumed: transfer students wanted big rooms and access to Science Hill.) It was not until after the completion of the third housing lottery in which Franklin and Murray finalized their membership that I began to recognize I had been oversimplifying, or perhaps even misidentifying, the motives driving many students to bid for a spot in the new colleges. A brief conversation with a proud Franklinite set me right. If I had not understood the willingness to abandon one kind of social circle, it is because I had not realized that a large number of students were not migrating in isolation, but rather in the context of pre-established social networks that had formerly persisted outside of the residential college structure.

No doubt, the addition of Franklin and Murray provided a virtually unprecedented opportunity for social groups divided across colleges to bring members together in a common living space. Even so, I was interested to know what kinds of relationships could trump the familiarity that usually arises from living in such close proximity in one’s first college. I contacted the Head of Benjamin Franklin, Charles Bailyn, and outlined my hunch. Although he did not have access to statistical demographics, Professor Bailyn confirmed that he had personally noticed some trends in the types of students applying for transfer: “There certainly does seem to be overrepresentation of both international and first gen students…I would hypothesize that the opportunity to create rooming groups that cross college lines has brought in categories of students with strong internal bonding.  As another example—we also seem to have a lot of varsity athletes.”

Contained within this rather innocuous observation is an acknowledgement of the impact of populating two entire residential colleges by asking for volunteers. The characteristics of any self-selected group are bound to deviate from the average of the whole. In this case, it is worth questioning whether Franklin and Murray will truly represent, for the next few years at least, “a microcosm of the larger student population,” as each residential college is intended to. Casey Ramsey, a rising sophomore who has transferred into Pauli Murray says, “I’ve heard the new colleges called the YPBM colleges, the FSY colleges, the QB colleges. I am not in YPMB but I did do FSY and I did do Questbridge. We all just kind of migrated together.” Ramsey is referring to the Yale Precision Marching Band (YPMB), the Freshman Scholars at Yale summer program (FSY) and the QuestBridge scholars program (QB), each of which, he says, is seeing significant representation in the makeup of the new colleges Another student confirms that many athletes are moving along with their teams in order to coordinate practices and workouts. Such testimonies certainly seem to indicate explicit demographic trends in the populations of the new colleges.

Still, it will hardly be cause for complaint if the unusual circumstances of this year further the cohesion of certain social networks, such as sports teams and programs like QuestBridge and FSY, which provide companionship and support for affiliated members. A demographic composition that sacrifices some measure of diversity surely has value if it advances solidarity at the same time.

On their part, the transfer students I spoke to declared universally positive expectations for the future of the new colleges and the communities that are already beginning to form around them. For sophomore Yannis Messaoui, former resident of Jonathan Edwards and future resident of Pauli Murray, “It’s exciting to be at a point where we are going to see Yale evolve.” He went on to discuss the impact he and his classmates hope to have on generations to come. “There are opportunities to make the new colleges a home. And that’s cool. I think I’m gonna be much more involved in Pauli Murray life than JE life.” Current Davenport freshman Marie Gaye, who will move into Pauli Murray in the fall, agrees that the chance to build traditions from the ground up is exciting. “A lot of other colleges have an established culture that we are just immersed into, and there isn’t so much you can do. So I’m really grateful for how Head Lu and Dean Rosas are super open and receptive to students’ suggestions and are really committed to building the best residential college.”

Over the weekend of April 8th, future residents of Franklin and Murray gathered for a retreat at Bridgeport Adventure Park. Intended to spark and strengthen enduring bonds, the itinerary included ziplining, mingling, and inventing college cheers. (I got this gem of a preview: “Frank you! Frank you! Go fly a kite!”) The trip seemed to confirm the positive social dynamics that members of the new colleges had been expecting. “It kind of felt like the cliché Yale from the brochure, like ‘yay we are all gonna go on trips together, we’re gonna be friends’” Messaoui said. Ramsey painted the trip as an important milestone, mentioning that he had finally overcome his fear of heights, which had prevented him from participating in a similar ziplining activity during FSY. Afterwards, he and other members of Murray College deliberated about the best way to implement a Big Sib program. “We talked about doing it for older students as well… sophomores maybe having junior big sibs,” he told me. “I’m looking forward to getting that started.”

Again, many of the students I spoke with were anticipating that a shared culture would arise much more naturally in their new homes as a function of the self-selection process that had brought the communities together. Sidney Saint-Hilaire, a current freshman transferring to Franklin, observed, “My reasons for transferring were mainly because I wanted the opportunity to reform a closer connection with a group of people. I felt like I wasn’t very close at all with the people I’m with in my current college… The group of friends I’m transferring with aren’t necessarily close, but we all enjoy each other’s company and definitely see this as a long term idea.” Marie Gaye also transferred along with a network of friends she had met outside of her first residential college and looks forward to furthering close relationships with them in the years to come. She reveals that the demographic composition of her community is a large consideration for her. “There really isn’t that much diversity in some residential colleges, which definitely plays a hand in the culture…one of my favorite aspects [of transferring] is that my residential college affiliation honors a Black woman.”

For Casey Ramsey, the prevalence of students involved in Questbridge and FSY in the new colleges means that he will be transferring into an immediately comfortable social space. Throughout our interaction, he expressed excitement at the prospect of living beside students with whom he has already established durable bonds. “Looking back it was almost more my doing than anyone else’s doing that I didn’t become as close with the people in my college. I wasn’t really ever available to become friends with them.” Throughout his freshman year, Ramsey devoted the majority of his social energy to maintaining the relationships he had built during his time as a Freshman Scholar at Yale. “Now we’ve come together. We are back together. We’ve come back  together after being separated into different colleges freshman year. We are gonna try to make it really like a family.” And if they are a family that has sought each other out, so much the better. Ramsey and four hundred of his classmates have carved out their home-within-a-home at Yale, not by submitting to the agency of the college assignment system, but by claiming their own.

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