A Reflection On My First Semester At Yale

By Kelsang Dolma

People back home always ask me, “How’s Yale?”

And, like one would account for a friend, I would always reply, “Yale’s great!”

Behind the socially appropriate small talk, Yale is more than great.

I left home on the early morning of August 21st. Waving farewell to my family, I walked through the airport security, finally separating me from my family’s grasp. My aunt held my mother’s shoulders as she wept while my father vigorously waved back. In my bright blue L.L. Bean raincoat, I walked hesitantly through the revolving detectors, and suddenly, with just my familiar carry on bags, I was alone. With nothing to do, I camped outside the gate for my connecting flight and waited to board the plane.

As I looked out the airplane window, the sun began to rise over sleepy Minneapolis. Memories of glittery summer lakes, out of control bikes, and private adventures oscillated across my cortex.

Outside, the sun rays were stretching further and further apart and it all looked marvelous and I felt a little sad. Despite past assertions, I felt a twinge of regret for applying to only out­-of-­state colleges (which I did purposely out of teenage angst and ambition).

Suddenly, it hit me. Over 1200 miles away from home. What have I done?!

As my plane ascended, I tried searching vainly for my little brick house a few miles away, but after a short while, we were out of Minnesota.

It is truly difficult to describe the strange combination of elation and terror felt when someday becomes today.

As I stepped onto campus for a pre orientation program called “Cultural Connections” (CC), I was greeted by extremely friendly and energetic CC counselors who asked me who my CC “parents” were. The purpose of this group was for freshmen, usually ethnic minorities, to have a sense of community on campus. In order to foster an authentic feeling of community, “families” were constructed.

Prior to coming to Yale, I envisioned students there to be Ralph Polo, khaki-wearing squares. When my smiley CC father, Isiah, first came running over in joggers, however, I suddenly did not feel as self conscious for packing my own pair.

After loading up my luggage and excessive amount of boxes, I was finally ready for Yale.

The week of Cultural Connections went by in a blur. Dozens of hands were shaken and dozens more numbers were exchanged. I met my CC mother, Chelsey, who was one of the most down-to-earth and electrifyingly cool people I’ve ever met. That said, all of the CC counselors were insanely impressive with their vast amount of leadership experiences. I remember my friends and I murmuring “goals” over and over when the counselors recounted their various achievements and academic pursuits.

From running around campus for scavenger hunts to waiting in Branford courtyard for Chelsey and Isiah, I enjoyed every minute with my CC siblings. Even though CC was only a week long, I had the privilege of making lasting friendships and having the right to randomly shout, “CC!” to fellow comrades.

When CC ended, the actual move-in day for freshmen began. More hands were shaken and more numbers exchanged, with the same awkward dances of “Hey, what’s your name again?” and the like. After weeks of frantically running around campus, I finally began to settle down when my classes began. The breadth of coursework offered at Yale is astounding; for one thing, I was able to take a modern Tibetan language class from Columbia University through Yale! With this opportunity, I was able to improve my language skills and attend a class populated by driven students who genuinely cared about Tibetan culture as much as I do. I also took a microeconomics course; although the topic can be devastatingly boring at times, the dull moments were frequently relieved by random and cathartic John Cena pop ups. To improve my writing skills, I took an English course called “Death in 140 Characters” which forced me to think critically about how social media has shaped our understanding and interpretation of death. Through this class, I was pushed to write better than I could have ever imagined. The course allowed for great flexibility with our research paper assignment, and I was able to write about Tibetan self-­immolation and teach my class about the potential of memes for social activism.

Last but not least, I got to take a class called International Challenges of 21st Century which taught me about contemporary political issues around the world, including global warming, energy, Iran, ISIS, Russia, Japan, and China; sometimes, prominent speakers came to teach us.­­ During one lecture period, a man who helped negotiate with Iranian leaders about the Iranian Nuclear Deal came to speak to us! Outside of the classroom, the accessibility of professors in one­-on-­one help went beyond my expectations; my Tibetan Studies professor made the trek all the way from New York to New Haven to visit me. While I was in New York for Thanksgiving break, the professor even warmly invited me over for dinner with his family.

Back on campus, a good chunk of time was spent in office hours with my English professor who tried her best to help me formulate coherent arguments. Not only did she offer office hours, she also was up past midnight simply to answer student emails!

However, the idyllic bubble is never sustainable. When the racism incidents regarding the Email and Party arose on campus, a feeling of disillusionment soon clouded my thoughts. The perfect image of Yale I had harbored in my mind finally broke that October. Clickbait-y headlines of “entitled” Ivy League students adorned articles whose authors had no idea that the affected students were far from being “coddled.”

But during those horrible times, the workshops sponsored by cultural centers and counselors really made all the difference. They taught us how to approach and tackle the obvious and not so obvious signs of racism. While I subconsciously knew about the ‘model minority’ issue regarding Asian Americans, I never fully realized the implications and effects of the stereotype and, most importantly, my role in combatting. Although my friends and I would forgo homework time for these workshops during that dark episode, topics that simply cannot be learned through standard classes were taught, and my peers and I left each workshop with our hearts fuller and minds clearer.

Though I was drowning in schoolwork all the time, the people around me made all the difference for my livelihood. Thanks to small class sizes, CC, extracurriculars, and the residential college system, I am privileged to have made friends with some of the most amazing people. Coming to Yale, I envisioned students to be viciously competitive, but, thankfully, I was far from right.

On more than one occasion, when I would ask a question, I would be offered a thoughtful answer, an abundance of notes, and unlimited, unconditional help from generous classmates. Usually, being on the other end of the stick, the sheer amount of kindness and camaraderie really took me aback. Whether some nights were spent stumbling to parties or watching random movies, almost every night was spent happily with my hall mate friends who have truly become the sounding boards of my sanity.

As a first generation student, attending a top tier college had always been a dream that I flirted with but never dared dream out loud. Years ago, I would have never imagined that the breathtaking scenes of foliage-covered Old Campus would become my reality. Even after having spent just four months at Yale, walking among centenarian castles never fails to fill me with awe and bewilderment. More often than not, I wonder, Oh, geez, Am I actually here. The feelings of surprise, fear, joy, excitement, horror, aliveness, and optimism cycle through my veins every day. What did I do to deserve all of this?

With my next semester just around the corner, I am truly excited to see what else is in store.

Kelsang Dolma is a freshman at Yale University. Born in India, she was able to immigrate to Minnesota with her family through the Immigration Act of 1990. In Minnesota, she attended Richfield High School where she held the President and Leader position of a variety of student organizations and founded her high school’s first food shelf, which benefited over 140 community members. Kelsang hopes to pursue a major in Global Affairs or Environmental Studies.


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