Sunday, January 23, 2011

Greetings from Yale

I apologize for taking an eternity to write my response, but I really wanted to expound on it, so here it is:

When asked by any of my friends or acquaintances, “How’s Yale?” I simultaneously feel pangs of pleasure and displeasure. The pleasure derives from my love for my school and the nothing-short-of-extraordinary experience I have had so far as a student there; the displeasure derives from knowing that I can only respond with “Intense, yet incredible,” unless I wish to run the risk of detaining the inquirer for over an hour as I chatter on endlessly and enthusiastically on the subject. I will now share a fraction of what I constantly wish to convey.

As of last Tuesday, I have officially completed one-eighth of my time as an undergraduate college student at Yale University. It shocks me immensely to think about how quickly time has passed, but reflecting upon it, these past few months constitute the most life-changing, intense, stressful, wonderful, and sublime moments I have ever experienced in my just-shy-of-eighteen years of existence. Assuredly, this same statement could be promulgated by any other current college freshman, yet I feel like sharing a detailed account of my personal adventure, rather than talking about college in general, is a much more informative and entertaining read.

One thing (of the plethora of things) students at Yale love, is the leniency of the college’s required classes. Instead of having general education classes that are mandatory for all freshmen and/or sophomores, Yale has distributional requirements. This means you can take nearly any course in the Blue Book that your heart desires, as long as you balance among writing, critical reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and foreign language classes throughout your four years. For clarification, the Blue Book is the Yale catalogue of classes that students brutally attack with pens, highlighters, and tabs during the first week of classes. Another neat thing is that the first two weeks of each semester is “shopping period,” meaning that you can visit any and as many classes as you feel like plus you do not have to commit to a schedule till the end of this period. Despite this system of classes that I do embrace, I chose to spend my freshman year doing the opposite of indulging in the liberality of my school’s course system by taking Directed Studies. Why, might you ask? Many peers, even extremely studious upperclassmen, ask me “Why?” as well when I mention that I am a DS student. Directed Studies is a selective yearlong freshman program that is comprised of classes in Literature, Philosophy, and History/Politics that focuses on the Western canon from the Ancient Greeks until the 20th century. Students read three books (the likes of Homer, Plato, and Dante), attend two sections and a lecture for each of the three subjects, and write a 5-page paper each and every week. It is quite an overwhelming—verging towards masochistic—program, yet I have several reasons for why I am a DS-er. First of all, I love the course material. Ever since wanting to understand classical allegorical references during high school, I have wished to study classical texts, but I never had the self-discipline to do so. In DS, we plow through roughly three of these texts each week, which, in addition to caffeine-fueled nights of finishing reading assignments in a gorgeous Hogwarts-esque library, translates into six dynamic weekly discussion sections. Each DS discussion section consists of sixteen or so students—who are some of the most eloquent and insightful people I have ever encountered—facilitated by one of the eighteen professors in the program. Another incredible thing about the program is that the professors in DS are all distinguished Yale faculty who, outside of DS, teach some of the most popular courses at Yale (Professor/Ambassador Charles Hill is leading a history DS section next semester!). This reflects another policy that strongly influenced me to choose Yale in the first place: all Yale professors are required to teach at least one undergraduate course. This requirement truly caters to the undergraduate student experience. Unlike many other schools (ahem, Harvard), from the very first semester Yale students have easy access to taking classes with professors—rather than TAs—and interacting with them in small seminar settings. Going back to DS, I just want to say that its curriculum is that of the very stressful variety, but it is united suffering (you have 124 other peers experiencing the same thing who are some of the most supportive and interesting people to “suffer” with) and the knowledge I have gained from it is priceless. Rather than other classes, which emphasize memorizing data, like other humanities classes (which I highly advise everyone to take!), DS has changed my perception. It has not made me believe certain dogmas, rather, it has made me realize that life is a never-ending journey of learning and it has only just begun for me.

Before I end up writing about DS at a length that rivals some of the texts we read in that program, I will talk a bit about the fourth class I took in addition to Directed Studies. I had taken French all throughout high school, but I had not had the best experience with it because for odd reasons we never had consistent teachers and now I wanted to try a different language. I had visited several places in Europe with my mom over the summer and I fell in love with the culture, food, and language of Italy when we went there, thus this past semester I took Level 1 Italian. I absolutely loved it—I just want to interject here that I am a huge advocate for taking classes on courses that you feel passionate about rather than those that you feel you have an obligation to take. Some people take courses because they feel the need to rather than because they have the desire to. From observation, the people who take classes due to interest are happier long-term and they get more out of their classes because they are eager to contemplate them outside their required coursework. This does not mean “don’t take challenging classes”; try out classes in areas that you have never considered before, but do not take ones where you end up spending your time thinking about how much you detest the class rather than doing your work for it (believe me, this does happen). Anyway, my Italian class was incredible—I was luckily in a section that opened at the last minute (due to all the other sections being overpopulated) and there were only six students (two were auditors and one was a graduate student), yet we had a top-notch professor, a woman from Modena, Italy who was sweet like an Italian mother while she simultaneously and successfully ingrained complicated Italian grammar into our heads. This class made me see that you can learn so much in three months and that you have so many opportunities when you study foreign language in college—I’m considering studying L3/L4 Italian for credit in Siena, Italy this summer!

On that note, if I had to make three observations about the student body at my school, they would be: students spend all their time away from Yale traveling, they really do constitute a global community, and they are all intriguing to talk to. All the upperclassmen I have talked to go to places like China, Spain, England, South Africa, India, and Jordan over the summer or spring break for internships, to volunteer for non-profits, and for classes. I even know someone who has been to five continents in the past year! It is not the case that all of the students are insanely rich, rather, Yale has a ton of opportunities for doing things abroad and if you have a strong enough inclination to take advantage of these opportunities, chances are you can find a way for Yale to partly fund the experience for you. I really want to pursue these opportunities to go abroad, because like my peers, my education in New Haven is superb yet I believe that I can enhance it immensely amidst completely new environments and cultures. However, while at Yale, my world is already internally permeated by new environments and cultures through my fellow students, who hail from all over the world. For example, my roommate is from Florida but she emigrated from Bulgaria in 7th grade and one of my other suitemates is from Pakistan. This diversity is apparent throughout the school; the student body has students from all 50 states and nearly one international student in every suite. This melting pot characteristic allows for me to be exposed to entirely new cultures by simply getting to know my peers. Our myriad of backgrounds really pave the way for multifaceted conversations about anything, whether it be in the dining hall (I usually end up spending at least an hour eating dinner, because I get caught up in conversations with whoever I end up sitting next to), the classroom, or in a random encounter anywhere on campus.

The campus, by the way, is phenomenal. The collegiate gothic architecture is a wonder to look at. Sometimes, while walking to class I stop and stare at Harkness Tower or Sterling Memorial Library because I cannot prevent myself from doing otherwise. The building where I live right now, Vanderbilt Hall on Old Campus, has gorgeous wood paneling, window seats, and granite staircases with iron-filigree-decorated handrails. The New England weather (which I am still adjusting to, though I now know that the Bay Area conception of 40 degrees being cold is a joke when having to function in 10 degree weather) only intensifies Yale’s beauty with its four actual seasons. Being in a place so picturesque not only reminds me of how lucky I am to be a student there, and it increases my drive to work hard, because I want to feel worthy academically of such a beautiful academic institution. Furthermore, many of my friends and I agree that we are truly blessed to attend and live in a place that is essentially Hogwarts—there is even a Yale Quidditch team that practices regularly on Cross Campus, complete with brooms and all.

On the note of the Quidditch team, Yale has so many organizations where people can pursue work-related, cultural, athletic, or purely recreational interests. Personally, I am a member of Kasama (the Filipino organization), the Yale Undergraduate Business Society, and Berkeley College Orchestra. I enjoy being a member of all of these groups and I even want to partake in more next semester, because I feel like in an college environment where you do not run into the same people everyday like high school, being in organizations is one of the best ways for meeting incredible people you would have not encountered otherwise. Try organizations based on things you love or things you never even gave a thought about before! You can always leave those organizations and try out new ones if you don’t enjoy them, but chances are that they will happily surprise you and in the process you will meet some of your closest and most interesting friends.

Evidently, I could continue talking about Yale and college in terms of food, traditions, residential housing or any other intelligible subject, yet I have already surpassed the length of one of my 5-page DS papers, so I will conclude here. In retrospect, I had previously thought that there were many things I wish I had known before my first semester. However, I learned these things along the way and had an exhilarating adventure of education and growth in the process, which will only continue for the rest of my time at Yale and beyond. I am more than excited to talk with anyone about Yale or college over email, phone, or food (contact me, seriously!), but in the meantime my advice is to dream big, work hard to achieve those dreams, and have an eager, open, and positive attitude wherever those dreams take you. Getting into your dream college is only the beginning; what you do wherever you go is what really matters.

Best regards and Merry Christmas!

Yohanna D. Pepa
Yale University, BK’14
(510) 965-7088

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