– Robert Frost, ‘Into My Own’.
Kofi Affor* (not his real name), my genius mentor, was overjoyed when he heard I got into Yale. We usually took long walks together discussing everything from politics to Ghana’s flawed educational system, but our conversations always segued back to what a wonderful world I had waiting for me in college. As much as I tried to reflect his vicarious happiness and pride, I couldn’t help but have very mixed feelings about the whole affair. Among my many fears and uncertainties, I constantly pondered on the things I didn’t know how to do, yet always wanted to learn. I was 17 and had hardly seen or tried anything in life, and I’ve had a very confined upbringing where my summers were spent at home doing chores rather than at camps or conferences or offices doing resume-worthy things. So I asked my mentor how I would ever get the chance to explore the things I have always dreamed of if I suddenly disrupted my steady progress by moving 5000 miles away to a strange world. He looked at me with disbelief and said “You go; they will teach you!”
Kofi, who is usually right, has never been more wrong.
One of the reasons Yale was chosen for me (oh how those words drip with truth) was that, according to the countless brochures they sent in the mail, it was a utopic place where you could explore whatever field you wanted, academic and otherwise. There were 2000 classes! 70-odd majors! 500 active organizations! No college’s brochure had a more delicious proclamation than “Yale is committed to the idea of a liberal arts education through which students think and learn across disciplines, literally liberating or freeing the mind to its fullest potential. ” You name it, Yale had it. And to people like Kofi and I who went through the local educational system, such a deal was mouth-watering because our educational pathways had been rigid to the point of intellectual catatonia. So I bought his words, steeled my soul, packed my bags, and made my journey to this Shangri-La of schools. I came for ‘them’ to teach me.
The truth hit me in a slow, steady salvo.
(I will not cry ‘elitism’ because it has certain negative undertones that I am not trying to convey. Let’s call it ‘Bulldog Darwinism’. Shall we proceed?)
There were many, somewhat random things I’d wanted to pick up while growing up, as I mentioned earlier. Being a Jack of Few Trades, I felt like it was time to expand my repertoire with the things that I had always been fascinated by. I came from an artsy, humanities-based background; I now wanted to learn math, and economics, and coding, and other ‘left-brain’ skills. I had tried choir in high school; I felt it was time to learn to play an instrument, or to read music at least. I was a desk-potato; I believed it was high time to learn a sport and get more physically active. I’d spent all my summers at home doing housework; I felt it was time to join some high-end clubs and work my way towards securing some prestigious internships. I spoke French; I wanted to stock up my linguistic arsenal and impress my friends back home. The list goes on and on, and I expected to have these items checked off one-by-one as made my way through the Yale factory. I was a little naïve, yes, but ambition must be under-girded by a healthy amount of naïveté. No one ever achieved anything by being realistic.
I was lucky not to have my first run-in with Bulldog Darwinism until much later, but I couldn’t help but cringe when I observed how smilingly brutal it was to get into anything. I heard many a peer rant about how they couldn’t get into a seminar that they absolutely wanted to take. I noticed the hung heads of many self-proclaimed chanticleers who couldn’t get into the more glorified acapella groups (though I think they’re all awesome. Have you even heard Shades?). I scratched my head when I read that the L1 Spanish class was conducted in Spanish. I scratched my head even more when I learned that, to get into the Mock Trial and debate groups, you already had to be a pretty darn-good speaker. I scratched my head even harder when I heard “You can just play IMs” as the go-to consolation for people who couldn’t make it into sports teams. Maybe I just have itchy hair.
On the whole, I was unfazed by the ruckus; conventional wisdom taught me to avoid overloading myself too early. Steering clear of extra-curriculars and competitive classes, I was spared the pangs of rejection. I only had my ears tuned for the blast of the starting pistol, because I was pumped to start the academic marathon. Hey, it was one of the few things I actually excelled at anyway.
The pistol was fired, and I tripped on my shoelace and tumbled face-first into the dirt. I struggled in all my classes, but that was to be expected, since Yale is a top-tier school and this educational system was alien to me. So I consoled myself with this reasoning for three of my classes, but the last one had me completely pants-down. I don’t remember the last time I signed up for anything as disastrous as that in my life. With every failed problem set, I cast my mind back to my conversations with Biase. Several times I’d asked him whether it was a good idea to branch out into this new subject area, several times he reassured me that I was in good hands. To dispel some of the mystery surrounding this class, it is listed as an ‘Intro’ class in the blue book. Back in the day, ‘Intro’ meant ‘Introductory’. Now, I’ve come to believe it means something along the lines of ‘Introrse’, because all the introductory classes I’ve checked out seem to be tailored towards the students who were already in those fields. That was my experience with the intro class I took; by week three, I was completely bogged in abstruse terms and figures which I assumed were going to be explained somewhere along the line. Not being one to give up, I pushed my hardest, rubbishing the thought of dropping the class. I took the midterm – I tanked – I dropped the class – and now I have a big ugly ‘W’ on my transcript, an ambiguous scar which reminds me that determination does not always pay off. As a Romantic, that stings me in deep places.
But of course, there is far more to college life than schoolwork, so I summoned the little determination I had left and resolved to explore other terrae incognitae. Maybe I’d find a job, join a bunch of clubs, I dunno, get a life. It seemed our metaphorical Darwinian Bulldog caught a whiff of my ambition, and tracked me down with slobbering lips. Repeatedly, I did not make the benchmark for many of the opportunities that the UCS Newsletters graciously advertised, I didn’t hear back from the scores of jobs I applied to, I didn’t meet the criteria that most of the recruiting groups were looking for. I would copy and paste some of these right now, at the risk of sounding like a whiny underachiever, but I’ll trust that you take my word for it. In fact, I am whiny, so I’m going to do it anyway. Behold:
Sophomores with a minimum 3.4 GPA who are pursuing coursework leading to a major in business, science, technology, engineering, economics, or mathematics are eligible to apply.
Application Checklist:Minimum cumulative GPA of 3.5, 500 word essay describing your interest in the financial services industry, Two letters of recommendation (1 personal and 1 professional), Current resume and unofficial transcript.
Applicants should have clear career goals and some relevant work experience in their career field, which may include summer, part-time, or internship work.Eligible candidates to the **** must be currently enrolled in a college or university or be recent graduates; and be working or developing an **** focused social or business venture Requirements: Experience with web development for professional organizations. If available, send examples of websites you have worked on. Requirements: Good Stata skills, preferably decent mastery of statistics/econometrics.
You get the idea. It doesn’t help either that I am in an unsexy major which doesn’t offer a lot of opportunities outside the classroom. And even if it did, I only just took up an interest in it here at Yale and haven’t gone into the intricate aspects of it yet. Still incredulous? This is what our DUS had to say in response to what a degree in this major is good for. This is a fairly accurate paraphrase; I only attended the info session yesterday:
“If you major in [insert the major here], you can go into law…the private sector…some sort of business…” [trails off]
Now, distancing the whole affair from my personal woes, I am disappointed in both Yale and myself. I have not been able to Skype my mentor because I am afraid he will not be speaking to the same overambitious, self-actualized achiever that he knew back in Ghana. I will try to complain. I will decry the elit―Bulldog Darwinism that I’d never had to contend with back home. I would be the Hebrew slave, tricked by the illusory abysm of memory, saying that my life in Egypt was much better. I would…Ah, I just said I would leave my personal woes out of this. I am disappointed in Yale. I thought that this was the place where ‘they would teach me when I came’. I have found it much wiser, if less poetic, to stay true to the things I already know how to do. This is not a place for exploration, intellectual or otherwise. It is a place for specialization, a place where all other matters outside your own must be cordoned off. It is a place where, if you are like me (which you probably aren’t), your growth will be tethered to whatever experience you brought into it. One of my favorite quips is that “Extracurriculars and student jobs are the experience you need to get experience!”. Now, if I don’t bite my tongue in saying so, I admit that I don’t have the experience needed to get the experience I need to get experience. The Darwinian Bulldog that is Yale has sunk its canines into my heel, and I can only drag myself along the unbending path that it paved for me upon my arrival.
One year after my starry-eyed arrival, I am not too different from when I walked in, only more nihilistic, more sleep-deprived and less sure of myself. But on the same note, I am still ambitious. No matter how dilute my resume looks, no matter how underqualified I am for everything, no matter how little experience I brought into the fold, no matter how many times I am rejected, I will strive. I will find new mentors, because ab ove maiori discit arare minor (From the older ox the younger learns to plow), I will change my major if I must, and I will put in everything I’ve got to take hold of my dream. That is who I have always been, and it will take more than Yale to break that. If I cannot outrun the Bulldog, then I will tame it.
Wait for that Skype chat, dear Kofi.
This post originally appeared on http://chasingtheskyline.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/bulldog-darwinism-the-war-on-beginners/ on October 20 2013.