“You go to Yale? Wow, you must be smart!” is a common response when I tell people where I currently attend grad school. However, coming here, that feeling couldn’t be further from the truth. The thing is, in grad school, everyone is smart. Everyone has worked hard, sacrificed, and given up other opportunities to reach this point in their lives. So what is it like to go to Yale for grad school?
1. Sometimes, you’re not the smartest. Actually, most of the time, you’re not the smartest. And I’ve come to realize, contrary to my Asian “A, not A+?” upbringing, that’s a good thing. I never want to be the smartest person in the room, because it means that your opportunities to learn and grow are limited.
I think it’s by challenging yourself, even putting yourself in situations where you may fail, that you learn the most. It’s like taking a comp sci class with Yale undergrads when you have no prior knowledge of coding. It was by far one of the hardest, most technical classes I’ve taken during my two years here, but I was interested in understanding how databases worked so I kept at it. It definitely wasn’t the best grade that I’ve ever earned, but it was one of the hardest earned grades, which meant something more because it was such a struggle. Having friends in the course definitely helped me stick with it, which brings me to my second point…
2. Friends and family are crucial to success. We are constantly reminded of the importance of friends and family and in our day to day, it’s something that’s easy to forget and take for granted. After growing up in the Bay, going to college in the Bay, and then working for a couple of years in the Bay, it was easy to see my family since they were at most, twenty minutes away. Going to Yale forced me to settle for reunions every couple of months during holidays or breaks and made me appreciate gardening with my mom or staying up late talking with my sister that much more. As we get older, spending time with family and friends becomes only more valuable and while some relationships inevitably suffered with grad school, I’m happy that many of them grew stronger.
3. It’s not necessarily how much you know, it’s who you know. This one is a bit sad for me to admit, especially as a kid who was raised on merit. Knowing your shit is important, but there’s no point in having all the knowledge in the world for a role that you want, if you don’t get a chance to meet the interviewer. Having that one mutual connection to introduce you can help you stand out among all the thousands of faceless resumes on HR’s desk.
4. The amount of wealth and resources at Yale is staggering. At the Yale Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, you can freely use 3D printers, have unlimited access to materials to build rough prototypes for project work, and if a particular item runs out, the staff will gladly order more of it. After going to a public university, this availability of resources was quite a change and it’s surprising to see how quickly you can adapt to it and even come to expect it.
But when you leave Yale, when you leave the bubble, you see how amazingly lucky you are that you get to be surrounded by not only such a wealth of resources, but also such talented individuals. It’s easy to get used to this, to accept this as the norm, but it’s not. It’s not normal to attend a lunchtime talk with an ex-CIA member, go to your Behavioral Finance course taught by a widely respected and published professor, and then attend a panel on Apple vs. FBI with professors from the top law school in the country.
5. Grades don’t matter. As a pre-med undergrad at Berkeley, there was a heavy emphasis on grades. There were rumors that competitive, overworked students would purposely try to gain a competitive edge over other students by ripping out pages in books that contained answers to homework assignments. This must have been a while ago because I don’t even see people borrow books from the library anymore, but you get the idea. Here, you realize that it’s not so much about the grades, but more about what you do outside of class. Are you in student government? Organizing a charity event at a yoga studio? How are you going to make an impact on the local community? What are the causes that you care about and what are you doing to promote them? [shameless plug for Living On One documentary screening happening on April 19! Free food so bring yoself and some friends!]
6. Sometimes, it’s difficult to track your growth because you’re surrounded by other awesome people. But if you think back to the person on the first day of grad school and then compare that to the person you are when you graduate, you can see how far you’ve come. For example, I am terrible at public speaking. It makes me nervous and the panic monster usually starts setting in a couple days before the presentation. However, by continuously practicing, forcing myself to be in uncomfortable situations, I’ve gotten better at it and have received feedback that reflects that. When faced with public speaking, I still get nervous, but now I am more confident because I know that as long as I practice, it will be fine. And even if it goes horribly, as long as you know that you tried your best, what more can you really do?
7. Through this entire process, you get a better sense of who you are and your values, including, but not limited to, making headway on understanding your life purpose, knowing what’s important to you in life, and defining what you seek in friendships, relationships, and in a team.
And what you find may run counter to what you thought you believed. Or what your parents believe, what your friends believe, what your political party believes. And that’s okay. Because like Steve Jobs said, life is too short to be spent living someone else’s life. And by thinking for yourself, having your own ideas, and being firm in your beliefs and values, you are interesting and you are different. You are a leader.
Maybe you’re still seeking your purpose, maybe you’re pivoting. How do you figure it out? The framework I’ve found helpful is something I discovered on one of my favorite websites, WaitButWhy. Tim Urban says, “What’s the goal that you want to evolve towards (and why is that the goal), what does the path look like that gets you there, what’s in your way, and how do you overcome those obstacles? What are your practices on a day-to-day level, and what should your progress look like year-to-year?”
These are the important questions. It’s easy to push them off for another day, for the weekend where you may have more time, which is totally fine. But the longer you push them off, the greater the risk, not to anyone else, but to you.
8. While all this sounds great, sometimes you do need a break. Treat yourself, you are a human, you have needs, wants, and desires. Go take a break and visit that new exhibit at the museum, go on that hike, cuddle on the couch with the new book recommended by Oprah, try out that new restaurant with the ingredient names you can’t quite pronounce. Taking care of yourself in all aspects – mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually – is important for you to be the best version of yourself and to succeed, whether it’s through your work or through your personal life.
9. Amongst the craziness and daily stresses of class, group projects, research, and maintaining some semblance of a normal social life, it’s easy for people to fall through the cracks. A recent study by UC Berkeley shows that 10% of grad students had contemplated suicide. Knowing when to reach out, knowing to reach out is important. If you’re a Yale student, you can reach out here.
10. Nothing really matters. Because work and achievements from work are tangible, it’s easy to place more and more importance on it. Having deadlines for school and then meeting those deadlines makes it easy to feel productive, successful, accomplished. But there are also many things that cannot be so simply bucketed or checked off. These are the intangibles, which so often, consist of the more important things, like relationships with friends, family, and significant others. Just because these don’t have hard deadlines, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve your attention.
11. Grad students will go just as crazy for free food as undergrads. Some things will never change.
Grad school has been one of the hardest things I’ve done, but it’s also been one of the most rewarding. And in hindsight, I’m glad it was challenging because if it was easy, I wouldn’t have learned anything. As graduation nears, I know for certain that coming to Yale and meeting these excellent human beings who I feel lucky to call my classmates and my professors has made me a better person. I also know that this was not something I did alone, and that when I graduate, it’s because I had the support of amazing friends and family. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.
“Discovering one’s “purpose” in life essentially boils down to finding those one or two things that are bigger than yourself, and bigger than those around you. And to find them you must get off your couch and act, and take the time to think beyond yourself, to think greater than yourself, and paradoxically, to imagine a world without yourself.” – Mark Manson
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Why More Asians Should Travel where I speak about not only why travel is important, but why it’s particularly important for Asians.
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