Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Another Outsider at Yale

Interesting essay at Medium by James Hatch, a 52-year-old former Navy SEAL and Yale freshman, about his first semester. Hatch was not well prepared for Ivy League course work and it sounds like he had a pretty tough semester academically, but that is not what he writes about. He writes, pretty much exclusively, about the positive encounters he had with other students:
After a few classes, I started to get to know some of my classmates. Each of them is a compelling human who, in spite of their youth, are quite serious about getting things done.

One young woman made a very big impact on me. She approached me after class one day and said, “I am really glad I can be here at Yale and be in class with you. My grandfather came to Yale and when WWII started, he left for the Navy and flew planes in the Pacific theater. After he came home, he came back to Yale, but he couldn’t finish. He locked himself in his room and drank and eventually had to leave, so I feel like I am helping him finish here at Yale and I’m doing it with a veteran, you.”

I was surprised and quite emotional. Exceptionally emotional. She went on: “I can send you a photo of him!” and I told her I would love one. That evening she sent me this photo of her grandfather. . . .

These kids work their asses off. I have asked a couple of them to help me with my writing. One young woman volunteered to help me by proof-reading my “prose” and, for the record, I believe she will be the President someday. I recently listened while one of my closer pals, a kid from Portland, Oregon, talked to me about the beauty of this insane mathematics problem set he is working on. There is a young man in our group who grew up in Alaska working on fishing boats from a young age and who plays the cello.
To me this has to be one of the keys for making in the Ivy League as an outsider, or really any tough environment: focus on the positive. There is not a word in Hatch's essay about the many negative experiences he must have had, all the people who sneered at him or talked down to him or mistook him for a maintenance man. Instead of being bothered that other students know things he doesn't, he marvels that he has a chance to be with them and learn from them.

Also, Hatch asks for help. This is another thing that bothers me about some of the essays I have read by Ivy League drop-outs. They go on about how confused and left out they feel, but they never turn to anyone for help. (Or if they did, they don't write about it.) Hatch made what I think is the best move, asking for help from his classmates, which builds friendships as well as getting the practical help. But all good colleges have plenty of resources for people having a hard time: tutoring, writing centers, psychological counseling.

And this:
At one point I said, “Hey, I’m just an old guy sitting here with a bunch of smart people, but I think….” And they all smiled, some of them nervously because I was essentially an alien. I was an old dude with tattoos all over his arms and a Dutch Shepherd service dog, brandishing a subdued American flag patch on her harness, sitting next to me. Professor Quint later approached me and said, “Hey, don’t downplay your intelligence. You are smart as well.”
The other thing that bothers me about essays by poor kids who ended up dropping out is that they never made this move, trading on their own very different perspectives. Just as a class will quiet to hear a Navy SEAL veteran say, "well based on my experience" they would also pay attention to a black kid from Newark who says, "where I grew up. . . ."  Yes, most students in the Ivy League are upper middle class white and Asian kids who went to elite high schools etc. But that means they are bored with that perspective, and eager to hear from someone who has had a completely different sort of life.

Obviously a 52-year-old Navy combat veteran is in a different place from any 18-year-old, much less likely to be intimidated by adult authority figures and so on. But I think Hatch's essay shows how it is possible for a very non-traditional student to thrive in the Ivy League.

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