Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Yohanna Pepa ~ My First Year at Yale

I am very eager to share my thoughts about freshman year at Yale. I myself found it useful to read these ILC student testimonials when I was a rising senior in high school and even more so when I was an anxious pre-frosh. Also, as cliché as it sounds, this past year has probably been the most exhilarating time of my life thus far, though I must warn that it was simultaneously the most exhausting. Allow me to explain.

I will address initial expectations and fears; the pros and cons of first semester classes, second semester classes, living in New England/dormitory life, extracurricular activities, social life, homesickness; and important things I have learned for next year and possibly for life.

Whether one admits it or not, every college pre-frosh is congested with expectations and fears for the four years ahead. I know I was. The only true medicine for this is to actually experience freshman year, but it does help to recognize and confront these presumptions and anxieties early on rather than being in denial over them when they do or do not happen. Some of my own major concerns included “Coming from WCCUSD, will I be able to keep up with academic pace of Yale and also feel at home socially?”, “Will I be able to live 3000 miles away from my family, friends, and hometown for months at a time?”, and most importantly, “Will I be happy?”. Thankfully, the answer to each of these questions is a resounding “Yes!”, but there are many intricacies that lie beneath this response, beginning with my academic experience of first semester.
I took Directed Studies this past year. Directed Studies is a voluntary yearlong freshman program that consists of a comprehensive study of the western canon, from Ancient Greece to the 20th century. There are 125 students in DS each year and all are required to take the three designated classes of DS—literature, philosophy, and history/politics—for both semesters. The required reading seems nearly impossible because DS students have to read essentially one book per class each week, a total of three monumental texts each week, such as Plato’s Republic, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Additionally, DS students must write one double-spaced five-page paper each week. The essay prompts rotate among the three DS disciplines. Of course, all this DS work makes one wonder why a student would inflict “directed suicide” (a nickname for the program that I read in Fiske’s Guide to Colleges) upon oneself during freshman year.

I think, however, that the benefits of DS outweigh the academic hardships it causes. First of all, the faculty in the DS program is extraordinary. It is an honor for a Yale professor to teach a DS section, thus DS students have the even greater honor of having the very best Yale professors as teachers. This entails not only informative and provoking lectures, but given the seminar style of DS, students have the opportunity of knowing these dynamic professors in such an intimate setting.

Each DS class has a section of about 15 students each that meets twice a week for a close discussion of the weekly text. Although a professor is present, he or she only ignites the conversation and guides it if it goes off tangent, thus prompting us students to think as critically as possible and to voice our thoughts when we have them.

This leads to another benefit of DS: the intense motivation it creates for one to not only read the western canon, but to enjoy pursuing knowledge from every possible angle. I had always wanted to read classical texts while in high school, but I didn’t know where to begin and it was easy to get distracted. As I read the required books for DS, I developed a stronger drive not only to finish the reading, but also to read in a way that probes the text for deeper meaning while simultaneously enjoying doing so.

In a bigger context, this translated to changing the way I think of “boring” activities in my life—now I try to understand the way in which each activity is meaningful and can relate to something I am interested in.

This leads me into the third and final reason why I loved DS, which was the way it metamorphosed the way I think. I could talk about this subject in many ways, but a summary is that it has made me view all areas of knowledge as things having a conversation with another. This consists of old works speaking to newer works (e.g. Homer vis-√†-vis Nietzsche), different disciplines speaking to each other (e.g. math and philosophy in the thinking of Liebniz), or different cultures speaking to each other (e.g. eastern-based Russia and western-based France in Tolstoy’s War and Peace). This interdisciplinary, dialectic way of thinking is one of the priceless treasures that comes with studying the humanities, especially through Yale’s program Directed Studies.

I must admit—the first semester of DS was quite an adjustment period for me in terms of academic rigor. Lectures were accessible, but the six weekly seminars of 15 students each were an extreme change of pace from the classrooms of 40 students that I had become accustomed to in high school. I loved the close discussions that went on during these seminars, but they were initially intimidating.

Most of my classmates had attended prep schools with the same small classroom style and were used to voicing their analytical opinions every few minutes. I had always spoken up in class in high school, but now I was in awe of the highly intelligent observations framed with superb diction that my Yale peers were making every few minutes. I did comment every now and then, but I would usually spend a bit of time formulating my statement in my head before raising my hand to share it with the class. In this sense, fall semester of DS was a time for me to adjust my thinking and speaking abilities to a level in which I felt there was no longer an academic divide between the “smart prep school kids” and me. It was not the easiest transition, but I worked and studied hard, and I can confidently say that I had an ideal academic level during spring semester DS (which I will carry on for throughout the rest of my time in college). I now frequently contributed during seminar my observations on the works of thinkers such as Petrarch, Kierkegaard, and Marx.

Contrary to popular belief, my academic life was not solely Directed Studies. I also took Italian Level 1 during first semester and Italian Level 2 and Intro to Psychology during second semester. I took French for four years in high school, but after visiting some cities in Italy with my mom the summer after graduation, I had fallen in love with Italian language and culture, thus I decided to take L1 Italian on this whim.

It was by no means a “gut” (easy) class, because like any beginner or intermediate language class, it met five times a week. However, I enjoyed learning the language and additionally the learning environment was ideal.

I had an enthusiastic professor (a fabulous lady from Modena, Italy) and there were only six students in my class so we each received much needed attention where we personally needed it. Thus, I continued my study of Italian by taking L2 Italian during spring semester and then by having the extraordinary experience of studying intermediate (L3/L4) Italian this summer for three weeks in New Haven then for five weeks in Siena, a gorgeous medieval city in the Tuscan region of Italy.

I was fortunate that Yale is so generous with its endowment, especially in terms of studying abroad. The tuition for the Siena program was by no means cheap, but I used my International Summer Award (ISA), a scholarship pro-rated the same way as one’s financial aid that Yale offers undergraduates to use during one of three Yale summers to cover the majority of the costs.
Returning to the subject of classes, Yale has a credit system wherein each class is one credit (some exceptions include labs or foreign language classes, which are 1.5 credits). 36 credits are needed to graduate, but the recommended number of credits for a freshman to take each semester is 4 credits. However, I found this a hard standard to follow, because many classes piqued my interest. Luckily, taking DS prevented me from “shopping” (the first two weeks of each Yale semester are a shopping period in which students can try out any class they wish to before declaring their official schedules at the end of the fortnight) countless classes, but I still ended up taking more than 4 credits each semester.

Taking L1 Italian first semester resulted in a total of 4.5 credits. Taking L2 Italian and Intro to Psychology second semester resulted in an even more insane total of 5.5 credits. I really had not planned on exceeding 5 credits in one semester, but I could not bear with bypassing Intro Psych because it is one of those “you-must-take-this-before-you-graduate” classes at Yale.

Also, during spring semester my rockstar residential college master Marvin Chun [of Berkeley College] teaches the course. To alleviate my load, however, I availed of the extremely helpful option of taking Intro Psych as credit/d/fail. This pass or fail option can be used up to four times as an undergraduate and it allows students to take on other classes that they are highly interested in without risking damaging their GPA.

Although I had a heavier load second semester, I felt that I excelled much further academically during the spring. Instead of feeling that I was transitioning to the level of my peers, I now felt that I was on equal footing with the other students in my class. During my first four months of college I had developed a more discerning style of reading, a more critical mode of thinking, a more eloquent manner of speaking, a more productive method of studying, and a more polished way of writing. Now, instead of worrying if I could make at least one comment per seminar I was worrying if I would be able to say all the perceptive observations I had during a single seminar. I put more time into studying during spring semester, but more importantly my genuine interest for my classes intensified. I spent countless hours in libraries and coffee shops studying, but I enjoyed the subject matter and improvement soon was evident in my grades, which improved vastly.

However, academics are not the only element of college life. Dormitory life matters immensely. This past freshman year, I lived in a four-person suite. This consisted of two doubles, a common living room, and of course, three other girls.

Luckily, I quickly became best friends with my roommate Mariya, a math genius from Florida and originally from Bulgaria. I also got along well with my other two suitemates, Samantha (from Connecticut) and Aaminah (from Pakistan). Although I was fortunate to be compatible with the people I lived with, it was common for me to hear from friends who did not really connect with their suitemates. Both cases are completely normal, but the best advice I can give regarding roommates, suitemates, and other students in general is for one to have a default attitude of being welcoming and open.

I often made strong friendships with people who I would not have normally befriended in the past. Sometimes random conversations or situations also sparked good friendships. The bottom line is to keep a positive rather than hostile attitude toward others because it will make your day-to-day experiences pleasant and your overall experience rewarding. Also, even if you really just do not get along with your suitemates, maintain your demeanor as a respectful suitemate toward them. The worst situation you could put yourself in is one in which returning to your room is akin to entering a war zone.

Some of my friends, however, did involuntarily have rooming situations that resembled battlefields. Thus, they were thankful that college life exists beyond academics and dorm life.

People always ask me if there are enough activities to absorb me in New Haven. I respond by saying that New York is just a $14, one-and-a-half hour train ride away, but I rarely find time to take this trip to my favorite city because there are always so many extracurricular activities taking place in the “bubble” of Yale University. All colleges have numerous and diverse organizations for every type of interest imaginable. Thus, a university student is constantly preoccupied with one’s own meetings and events and with one’s friends’ events.

I was not an exception to this stereotype. During both fall and spring, I was an active member of Kasama, the Filipino club; the Yale Undergraduate Business Society; Smart Woman Securities, a finance organization geared at women; and Berkeley College Orchestra. In addition to my own weekly meetings and events, my days were constantly filled with attending the events of organizations that my friends were in. Although extracurriculars are often big commitments, the time one puts into them absolutely pays off. Through on-campus organizations I have acquired leadership positions, dynamic skills, and invaluable friendships.

The subject of friendship leads to the topic of social life. I have found that one common personality trait of Yalies is loquaciousness. This talkative environment produces a friendly, supportive environment, because a conversation between people leads to a sense of understanding and a foundation of common ground in which it is easy to build a positive relationship over. Thus, I love Yale’s social environment, because it is welcoming and ubiquitous—it exists from the moment lecture ends and you strike up a conversation with a classmate about the Hegelian theory of the dialectic that your professor just explained that soon turns into a conversation over how this theory is present in the structure of an electronica song you both enjoy.

Or, from the moment when you sit next to someone you have never met before in the dining hall and after a few minutes of talking you realize that you live an hour away from each other and you soon begin talking like old friends.

Or, from the moment when you are at Starbucks and you mistake someone for your friend but then you and this previous stranger mutually laugh over this, realize that you get along well, and decide to grab lunch together next Friday.

Keith Ferrazzi, a Yale alum, wrote a book about networking titled Never Eat Alone, and I have to say that this title is a wise principle to follow during your undergraduate years.

College can be busy and stressful, but a student always has to eat and generally longs to socialize, therefore turning lunch and dinner into parts of my social life has proved to be a successful and enjoyable way to multitask. While Greek life and parties do exist, a healthy social life is accessible to any Yale student, because with a student body so talkative and approachable, one does not need to go to a crowded frat house for fun. Rather, Yale social life happens in places like the 12 beautiful residential college dining halls where long, entertaining, and fruitful conversations take place.

So far, I suppose most of what I have said sounds like an extended segment of the “That’s Why I Chose Yale” video. However, despite my overall extraordinarily wonderful experience I did simultaneously face quite a few difficulties. Three problems for me included homesickness, weather adjustment, and lack of sleep. Previously, the longest time I had been away from my family was the two-week period of the Yale Ivy Scholars Program that I had attended the summer before. I am a pretty independent individual, but of course there were periods in which I really missed my family, friends, and hometown. Luckily, we live in the well-connected 21st century so homesickness did not become a serious problem for me. I could call and text my parents and friends when I missed them. Although Yale has good food in terms of college dining hall food, I did often crave my mom’s delicious home cooking. Sending me her tempura or her adobo was out of the question, but my mom’s care packages filled with my favorite chocolate and other thoughtful things kept intense food cravings to a minimum.

Honestly, adjusting myself to New England weather was a much bigger problem for me than homesickness. Four seasons is an alien concept for a girl who has lived all her life in Northern California. The summer weather was hot and humid, but it was tolerable and it permitted me to wear summer clothing that the cold Bay Area summer had not. The autumn was beautiful and the brief snowfalls before Christmas break were nothing to worry about. However, spring semester was a whole new shocking world. When I returned in January, there was snow everywhere. It was beautiful, but only for the first three days. It soon turned to slush, ice, and everything intolerable. Additionally, the weather was consistently below 30 degrees until mid-March. I learned many lessons during this time period, such as that snow boots do not necessarily transport you safely on ice. I suppose that on the bright side, I studied harder and did better academically since I preferred to be inside a library than frolicking outside and freezing. In the end, however, I still enjoyed the winter months at Yale minus the weather and now I know important lessons like to buy warmer layers for spring semester. After all, college is a learning experience.

This learning experience, while I would not trade it for anything, did deprive me of sleeping for long periods of time. I must admit that this burden was largely self-inflicted because of the number of credits I chose to take and the number of organizations I chose to be active in, but it is not at all remote for Yale students to have a sparse sleep schedule like I did this past year. I often would study past 2 a.m., then wake up early the next morning to go to class. That was on good nights. Sometimes I would need to wake up before the sun rose to finish a bit more work before class, and I pulled all-nighters quite regularly for writing papers (I had to write essentially one double-spaced five-paged paper every week for Directed Studies). I would sleep in on the weekends, but not for too long, because I always had a plethora of work due on Mondays and Tuesdays. The sleepless nights resulted in good grades, but also in exhaustion and a weaker immune system, so I spent much of my three weeks back home in May sleeping and recovering from this busy schedule. I have learned that I am capable of taking many hard classes and being active in many groups at once, but I have more importantly learned that I need a greater presence of both time management and rest in my life. Therefore, this fall semester I will continue to challenge myself, but I will also make sure I sleep enough so that I can have enough energy to tackle these challenges and remain healthy.

Balance is a word not only needed for my sleep schedule. When people ask, “How was your first year at Yale?” I quickly respond, “The most exhilarating time of my life and the most exhausting time of my life.” Freshman year was definitely a vigorous beginning to my undergraduate time at Yale. I now know, however, that if I want to maintain an equally extraordinary experience for the rest of my time at this incredible university, I must work on cultivating balance in all aspects of my Yale life. Thus, as I return for sophomore year, I—not exhaustion—will get the most out of my Yale experience.

Yohanna Pepa

Yale University BK'14

Mr. Ramsey, I just want to thank you and the Ivy League Connection once again for all you and your program have done for me. Doing the Yale Ivy Scholars Program two years ago (which was possible through the ILC) prompted me to expand my academic goals and to work harder to achieve them. The ILC helped me to begin my journey on the path that—with hard work and perseverance—will eventually lead to the realization of my collegiate and career goals. However, I feel blessed because some dividends are already apparent. In addition to having a fantastic freshman year (I had a cumulative GPA of 3.45) my participation at Ivy Scholars has already come full circle. The program’s director, Professor Minh Luong, offered me a job as an instructor/staff member of Yale Ivy Scholars 2011. I enthusiastically accepted the position. My two weeks on the job were much like my first year at college—mentally and physically exhausting (this year we had two simultaneous programs but the same small number of staff for one program) but an invaluable and fun learning experience. I look forward to seeing more bright WCCUSD students like Dyana, Matt, and Thomas when I work at the program again next summer!

1 comment:

Don Gosney said...


With all due respect, how much did they pay you to write such a glowing recommendation of your first year at Yale? This reads almost too good to be true.

Nonetheless, it was a fascinating read and almost makes me want to apply.