“That’s just not the way we’ve been trained to talk about these things,” my friend said matter-of-factly as he sipped his beer. Crowded around a poorly lit table near the front of Rudy’s, we found our conversation focusing on the most taboo topic at Yale: class.
Our conversation was sparked by the Jan./Feb. issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine. The cover shows a man in a pinstriped suit reaching beyond the “low-hanging fruit” of a tree with the caption: “Yale College seeks smart students from poor families. They’re out there—but hard to find.” Within days of the issue’s publication, my Facebook feed was littered with links to the article, accompanied by a short quip about how classist and paternalistic the language felt. These responses largely argued that these students that Yale is attempting to recruit are actually not that hard to find, and that anyone who has visited a large urban area knows which school these individuals may be attending. I did not share the same response. Perhaps that has something to do with how I found myself at Yale.
Having grown up in Williamsburg, Va., a small town famous for its colonial history, I have come to understand just how difficult it is for Yale to find a student like myself. To my knowledge, I am the first student from my high school to attend Yale. With a guidance counselor split between two other schools in the county, limited AP classes, and no cultural precedent of applying to the Ivy League, my application process was very much driven by my own initiative. With no Yale admissions officer visiting my region to answer my questions, I was initially hesitant to apply to any Ivy League due to the cost. Some teachers in the school even suggested attending community college for two years to save money or avoid debt, unaware that this would actually prove to be more costly in comparison to the substantial aid Yale’s financial aid office can offer. Furthermore, these tangible barriers paled in comparison to the more pernicious phenomenon of being rejected by a large portion of my African-American peers for excelling academically. Without the support from a handful of teachers I would not have applied. I got lucky. Students without such teachers are certainly hard—if not impossible—to find.
Interestingly, on the cover, the word “poor” seemed to evoke the most visceral response from my classmates. They argued that, when coupled with the arboreal image previously described, the sentiment read as condescending. I thought it was realistic. Yale is not economically diverse. While the administration likes to purport that nearly 55 percent of students receive aid, it is egregious to say this is enough when the cost of attendance is more than $60,000 a year. And even if one were to insist that Yale is indeed economically diverse, there is no question that the experiences of those who receive financial aid are not the same as those who do not. Poor students have to spend hours of their precious time each week working to fulfill the student contribution portion of financial aid packages, while their richer classmates can use that time to study, work on extracurriculars, and attend social events. Poor students also do not have the same luxury of taking unpaid summer internships, a hallmark of class privilege.
However, as the article indicates, Yale seems to be aware of this problem too. If the magazine’s goal was to get wealthy alums to donate money so that more individuals like me could attend Yale, then I commend that effort. That is how students like me are able to end up at such a prestigious institution. This is the reality of the situation.
We need to get over the word “poor.” The campus’ reluctance to utter the word perpetuates the silence on the issue. Sure, “underrepresented” and “lower socioeconomic class” could have been used in its place, but we all do seem to agree the word poor captures our attention. It is unfortunate that the discourse has shifted to attacking the magazine for its language, with little acknowledgement of the positive steps Yale may be trying to take in the right direction. I personally am proud that our school is trying to find ways to give more students the experience I was so lucky to have over the past four years.
Before we are so quick to throw our hands up and call something problematic, let’s spend a little more time talking about the actual problem.