Date: June 10th, 2007 10:05 AM
Author: Stimulating hyperventilating parlour messiness
Subject: "Yale's Other Class" - Hartford Courant feature story
Yale's Other Class
Her lower-income background put her in a distinct minority among fellow Bulldogs. She was steadfastly upfront about who she was. And her diploma reflects a challenging, often painful education in the rites of privilege.
By KIM MARTINEAU
Courant Staff Writer
June 10 2007
In a place where talking about money is taboo, Aurora Nichols wants to tell you how much she spent on deodorant, train tickets and takeout. And so, as the finale to her Yale education, she took pictures of these purchases and put them on display in a campus art gallery.
In the preface to her senior project, Aurora reveals that she's on financial aid and that in less than three months, she spent $1,500 -- almost exactly what she earned. Her photographs of pad Thai and Amtrak tickets clash silently with the abstract paintings and landscape portraits created by her classmates.
"She didn't buy very much," a student in designer jeans declares softly during the formal opening.
The compliment, if intended that way, is lost on Aurora. She's in another room, in a trench coat and sensible shoes, taking her relatives on a tour. She pulled three all-nighters to hang her pictures and, though her adviser dismissed them as unworthy, Aurora has been pleased by the feedback. "I just wanted to see if it would cause people to think about money more," she said. "It looked like it did."
Five years ago, Aurora rode into Old Campus from Charlottesville, Va., carrying a trunk of hand-me-downs and a working-class background that placed her in a small minority at Yale. She would meet the daughter of President Bush and the son of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. She'd learn to pour wine correctly and cook pasta "al dente," as well as pick off free food at receptions. But she would never allow herself truly to connect with her classmates and feel comfortable.
It was easy to make excuses. She had to work while her classmates had time to fritter away on intramural sports and socializing. She missed out on the best classes and internships because she lacked contacts and guidance.
Her parents, who dropped out of community college, make light of their modest intellectual achievements. "They wanted me to be `edumecated' - that's our family joke," Aurora said. "No one really knows what getting educated means."
At Yale, she would earn a degree in graphic design. But her education would be all about class, as she learned to navigate an upper-crust world that left her feeling confused, resentful and deeply inadequate.
Aurora's family income hovers around $45,000 a year, just under the national median, qualifying her for nearly a full scholarship at Yale. Nearly 60 percent of her classmates do not qualify for any financial aid, with family incomes at $120,000 a year or more.
Yale likes to project an egalitarian image. If you're smart enough you can go, even if you're unable to pay. Yet, several decades after going to "need-blind" admissions and promoting itself as open to all, Yale educates about the same proportion of upper-class students as it did in the 1950s, according to Joseph Soares in his new book, "The Power of Privilege."
The explanations for the lag in socioeconomic diversity at Yale and other elite colleges vary. Some critics blame low-performing public schools for leaving poor kids less prepared. Others say Yale and its peers place too much stock in standardized test scores, which correlate strongly with wealth and parental education. Still others claim that admissions breaks for athletes and the children of alumni have perpetuated a system that for centuries has reproduced the ruling elite.
Troubled by the perception that tax-exempt colleges are catering to the rich, a few members of Congress are looking for ways to make colleges provide more assistance to low-income students. The ideas include forcing colleges to spend a greater percentage of their endowments each year and taxing their off-shore investments.
"These are extremely wealthy schools serving extremely wealthy students," said Tom Mortenson, a longtime advocate for low-income students, based in Oskaloosa, Iowa. "Is that a positive public role that deserves public money and tax-exempt status?"
Yale says it wants to admit more low-income students but has set no firm goals. "We are committed to an admissions process that evaluates students case by case, not according to a quota," said Jeffrey Brenzel, director of undergraduate admissions, who attended Yale on a scholarship.
Recruitment remains Yale's focus. To entice more low-income kids to apply, Yale has improved its financial aid and teamed up with community organizations that provide college counseling.
For now, Yale is sticking with its early admissions program, although Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia have eliminated theirs, claiming early admissions benefit the wealthy. President Richard Levin told the Yale Alumni Magazine that fewer financial aid students are accepted early but that "early admissions need not affect the overall demographics of the class."
Aurora is one of the few to cross Yale's class threshold, but once inside, she struggled to fit in. Talk about money, race and grades was frowned upon, she quickly learned. Yet, as much as she craved connection, she seemed unable to stop speaking her mind and adopt her peers' keen sense of discretion.
Her anxiety at being on the margins hit home one night while she was working in the dining hall. She complimented a student on his University of Virginia hat and found out he was from Charlottesville. Excited, she explained that she was, too.
"What are you doing up here?" he asked. Aurora was confused, then hurt as it sunk in. He had mistaken her for a townie. "I go here," she said, realizing that attending Yale is not the same as belonging.
Aurora's History/Yale's History
Aurora's parents met at Southside Virginia Community College. Her mother, Maureen, who goes by "Mo," picked the college out of a catalog one day and left the Bronx for the South. She married another would-be carpenter, Lacy Willard Nichols, who goes by L.W.
Mo now drives a recycling truck for U.Va., a campus of brick buildings and white columns. L.W. was a technician for MCI WorldCom, the telecommunications giant, until a massive accounting fraud drove the company into bankruptcy in 2002. L.W. now works as a self-employed handyman. When they bought their first house, within walking distance of their church, the neighbors welcomed them with a peach cobbler pie.
In high school, Aurora took only two Advanced Placement classes each semester - a limit set by her mom, who insisted she leave time for hobbies or falling in love. On the advice of a neighbor, Aurora applied to Yale and got in - ranked fifth in her high school graduating class, with 1440 on the SAT.
"It was bragging rights," Mo said one morning in New Haven, sipping coffee outside Atticus bookstore. "My daughter got into YALE! We didn't really know what that meant but everyone knows about Yale." Aurora came to "Bulldog Days" to check out the campus. Impressed by the Gothic buildings and the generous financial aid - more than U.Va. was giving - she accepted.
There were hints, even before she got there, that she'd be an outsider. One day a postcard arrived from a future suite-mate. Postmark: Dubrovnik. Aurora searched for the city on a map. Oh, Croatia, she realized. Outfitting their common room came up next. One suite-mate volunteered a mini-fridge, another, a chaise longue. Lamely, Aurora offered up her trunk. Emptied of her clothes, it could serve as a coffee table.
Aurora was moving into the dorms when her mom met "Jane." Mo recognized the face and tried to place the name. Finally, it hit her. "Oh, she's from TV!" she realized. Aurora's new roommate, Rachel, known as "Rickie," was the daughter of TV anchor Jane Pauley and Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury comic strip. Aurora long ago lost touch with her freshman roommates but occasionally thinks of Rickie when wriggling her fingers into the insulated leather gloves she received that first Christmas.
It was chance that delivered her to Davenport - one of 12 residential colleges - with printing presses and a pottery studio in its basement. Ricky Trudeau, in contrast, inherited Davenport from her father, like an antique china set. The same tradition carried Barbara Bush to Davenport, following her dad, the president, who followed his dad, who was also president.
During the social unrest of the 1960s, Yale opened its doors to women and minorities and remade itself as a meritocracy, at least by way of gender and race. It wasn't until the attack on affirmative action several years ago that journalists and academics began to look at how wealth drives admission to America's elite schools.
The college applications that students take for granted today were created in the 1920s by Harvard, Princeton and Yale to limit Jewish enrollment, sociologist Jerome Karabel writes in his book "The Chosen." Jews were outperforming the sons of the Protestant establishment on standardized tests, and the Big Three needed a pretext to turn some away. The new admissions system would require letters of recommendation and emphasize sports and subjective traits such as leadership and character.
Still in place today, the system no longer screens out Jews but has done remarkably well at leaving the poor and working class outside the gates.
A Foot In Two Worlds
Aurora has seen the class divide up close. She could have picked a cushy job in the library, checking out books, or in the development office, calling up alumni to ask for money. Instead, she chose to work in the Davenport dining hall, washing dishes.
She liked the evening hours and the free meals. But she also felt more comfortable around her co-workers, who spoke and acted like people from home. Four nights a week, she found a place to hide from the stressful expectations of school and her awkward attempts at making friends. Her view of Yale through the lens of the dining hall often accentuated her feeling of alienation.
On a Saturday night last winter, the Yale Bellydance Society chose Davenport for its theme party, "A Night at the Casbah." After dinner, the belly dancers pushed the tables against the wall, turning a sedate room, with a Waterford crystal chandelier glittering at the center, into a raucous dance hall.
Aurora was there, but not to dance. As a student manager, she was paid $15 an hour to make sure the kitchen and cleanup ran smoothly. As the meal wound down, a member of the Bellydance club approached Aurora to ask for the tray of leftover brownies.
"Any leftovers go to the homeless shelter," she said curtly.
The student tried humor. "College kids are hungry?"
"No," Aurora said firmly, cheeks flushed.
"The food is for homeless people," she said later. "It isn't for hungry Yalies who already ate dinner and had a chance to eat a brownie."
His sense of entitlement made her indignant. Yet, she also admits to making exceptions when her own survival was at stake. She routinely ate for free in the dining hall, even when she was not working, allowing her co-workers to bend the rules. Two years ago, she convinced the master of her college to lend her a laptop computer, saving her trips to the computer lab late at night.
In the dining hall, she straddled the lines of race and class. She had less money than most of her classmates, but like them, she was passing through, bound for opportunity. Most of her co-workers, though, had never been to college. Their horizon was limited. Most of Aurora's classmates were white. Most of her colleagues were black.
Last fall, the Yale Herald took a look at why so few students become friendly with the dining hall staff. While others might have tactfully avoided discussing color, Aurora spoke bluntly. "I think honestly, it's because they're black," she told the Herald.
"To be able to have a conversation with people who don't look like you is rare, I think," she said later. "I feel like in the South it's more open because the wounds are more visible."
Offended at the implied racism, Aurora's classmates bombarded her with e-mails. The master's wife took her aside for a talk. Her boss warned her to refer reporters, in the future, to public affairs. But her co-workers thanked her. "I agree with you 130 percent," one black woman told her.
Many of her classmates avoided speaking candidly with reporters, aware that their comments could come back to haunt them as they ascend the ranks of business and politics. It's not that Aurora had ruled out the prospect of becoming famous, it's just that honesty was more important, even when that meant placing herself in an unflattering light.
The World Gets Bigger
Last year, when Yale announced it was giving away scholarships to let financial aid kids study abroad, Aurora hemmed and hawed. Her French was horrible. She'd never been outside the country.
But she overcame her fear and one day, a check for $6,500 arrived in the mail. During previous summers, she had worked as a camp counselor and a cashier at Food Lion. She never, ever, imagined someone might pay her to eat pastries in Paris.
She found a bargain flight to London on Air India and took a high-speed train across the Channel. She stayed with a Parisian woman near the Bibliotheque Nationale and fell in love with mango ice cream and the smooth efficiency of the trains and buses. On the ride back to London she cried at the thought she might never be back. The boundaries of her world had expanded.
The experience awakened a hunger for more. For the first time at Yale, instead of going home for spring break in March, she hopped a train to Montreal with her friend Phoebe Rounds, who also was on financial aid. They stayed in a youth hostel and Aurora practiced her French. The weekend after she got back, the Davenport photo club was sponsoring a trip to New York.
Aurora didn't think twice. The club was leaving early enough that she'd be able to get back to New Haven in time for work. On the 8:57 a.m. train to Grand Central, Aurora picked a seat across from Matt Delgado, a friend from L.A. They met in the master's office where Aurora began working two days a week, after cutting back her hours in the dining hall.
A year ago, the thought of traveling alone terrified Aurora, but now she was speaking with the confidence of a jet-setter. "It's totally worth it!" she told Matt, who had just applied for a scholarship to study in Japan. "I had to go to summer school anyway. I could pay Yale $1,800 or I could go to Paris and get $1,800." For dramatic effect, she pretended to debate two options that were obviously unequal.
Like Aurora, Matt was on financial aid. One of his work-study jobs included going back to his high school to recruit promising kids. Cost, he said, is the hurdle most cited by students for not applying to Yale. He assures them that if their parents make less than $45,000 a year, their education is free - a policy Yale started two years ago, following Harvard and Princeton.
"It's not true," Aurora interrupted. Though Yale eliminated the "parent contribution," students are still required to contribute a share of their work-study earnings. Over four years, Yale asked Aurora to contribute $7,000 through work-study while her parents paid another $11,000. To cover other expenses, Aurora took out $5,000 in loans.
"Nothing's ever free in life," Matt answered with a shrug.
"Except Paris!" Aurora cried. They giggled like conspirators.
"Except Japan!" Matt added.
Aurora doesn't follow campus politics. But this past year, she decided to vote for a sophomore running for president of the Yale College Council, partly on Phoebe's advice. She had never met Zach Marks, an athlete and amateur chef whose gourmet concoctions in the dining hall landed him in the pages of The New York Times. His father went to Yale Law School.
On a campus where tuition-paying students predominate, Zach ran on a platform to improve financial aid. He lost, but Aurora was impressed that someone with means would want to help those without. If there were more students like her at Yale, she wondered, would she have felt less like an outcast?
Last year, a group of students on financial aid formed "Class Matters." Aurora went to a few meetings but left frustrated with the discussion, which revolved mostly around sociology tracts. "They don't realize that class is a real thing, more than an academic pursuit," she said.
She found it puzzling that some were embarrassed to reveal their financial aid status. "Who cares?" she said. "We get free money to go here. That's awesome."
A few top colleges are starting to question their elitism. Three years ago, Harvard's president, Lawrence Summers, drew national attention to the preponderance of wealthy students at elite colleges, including his own.
"Our doors have long been open to talented students regardless of financial need but many students simply do not know or believe this," he said. "We are determined to change both the perception and the reality."
The changes ranged from beefing up financial aid to publishing a guide, "Shoe String Strategies for Life at Harvard," full of money-saving tips. Inspired, Aurora published a booklet of her own for Yale this spring called "A Guide for Bulldogs on a Budget" to go with her senior project.
Harvard made the headlines but Smith College has quietly led the charge. With a fraction of Yale's endowment, Smith enrolls twice the percentage of students with Pell Grants.
Smith looks beyond SAT scores to identify students with talent and motivation, a practice that the school's dean of enrollment said has probably hurt the school's place in the U.S. News and World Report "best colleges" rankings. Smith also helps students navigate financial aid forms, especially cumbersome for students raised by a single parent.
Once the students are there, Smith provides extra academic support and even a closet full of suits for students to borrow on job interviews. The school sees educational value in exposing students to all viewpoints. It's also a matter of fairness.
"We're a tax-exempt organization," said Audrey Smith, dean of enrollment. "We have a mission to serve the public good and I think we're doing that."
Amherst College is also making a push to be more inclusive. Anthony Marx, a political science professor turned college president, has been outspoken about the need for elite colleges to be open to all, not just the privileged. This past school year, the number of students with Pell Grants climbed 3 percentage points, to 15 percent.
There was a time when Aurora considered leaving Yale, free money or not. She took a year off, reapplied and counted down the days until she could leave for good.
But by the time graduation arrived last month, she seems in no rush to leave. While her classmates party at Myrtle Beach during senior week, she stays in New Haven to work and relax.
Her parents roll into town driving the same car, an Oldsmobile Cutlass with 260,000 miles, that dropped Aurora off as a freshman. She has convinced her brother, Cassidy, who just finished his first year at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, to join them.
For two days, the family troops from one ceremony to the next, starting with the baccalaureate. They climb the marble stairs in Woolsey Hall into the choir loft and watch Levin from afar, in a gown with velvet chevrons and a gold medallion necklace. The stage is furnished like a parlor, with wooden chairs, a Persian rug and a great silver mace that required two men to lug from its secure location in Woodbridge Hall.
They skip the $25-a-head brunch in the dining hall and head for Mamoun's, a local Middle Eastern dive. They pass a BMW convertible lowering its top. L.W., a burly man with a bushy beard, used to feel uncomfortable around the fathers in starched shirts, but now he just laughs. He calls to the driver: "You have a microwave in there, too?"
After the final graduation ceremony, they stumble, exhausted, back to Aurora's room to pack. She has bought her brother a ticket home on Amtrak, freeing up space in the car for her belongings. She'll stay on campus for another two weeks to work alumni reunions.
The Cutlass is parked outside the stucco apartment building. As Aurora empties her closet, L.W. and Cassidy haul the boxes downstairs.
Aurora chucks a stack of papers from her senior project into the trash. "It's so great to throw this stuff out and not care," she says. "It's over - I got a `B,' done, passed." A pile of unread New Yorkers, a gift from her mother, follows.
She slides her diploma into her art portfolio. "It annoys me," she says. "It's all written in Latin, I can't read any of it."
Aurora looks up when L.W. returns for another load. "Hey daddy-man, guess what?" she says, giddy. "Almost done!"
"I don't think so," he laughs. "Somehow I don't."
Mo is slumped on Aurora's mattress. For two nights, she and L.W. shared the futon, now folded and packed, while Cassidy slept on the floor, on cushions. No one slept very well in the heat.
"I have total inertia," Mo tells Aurora. "Is that what it's called when you can't move?"
"That's what I call it," Aurora snaps.
Aurora's patience is wearing thin. Every time they passed a scrap of litter on campus, Mo would bend down to pick it up, as if she was still working, to Aurora's embarrassment.
At the same time, she's proud of her mother. Mo was recently accepted into a scholarship program at Mount Holyoke College and despite Aurora's own disappointment with Yale, she's pleased her mother is pursuing her dreams.
As Mo watches her daughter pack, she takes mental notes for her own college journey. "There's no way I'm going to accumulate this much crap," she announces.
Down at the curb, L.W. has managed to fit all of Aurora's stuff in the Cutlass, except a drying rack and a shopping cart. "Which is more important?" he asks, holding them both up.
Aurora points to the shopping cart she bought at Family Dollar. "This one cost $20," she says, and pointing to the rack from IKEA: "This one cost $11."
Mo suggests they strap them to the Cutlass, like "Okies" fleeing the Dust Bowl, but L.W. has a better idea and starts unscrewing the shopping cart wheels. Now flat as a board, the cart slides into the trunk, obliterating the last sliver of daylight in the rear window.
They gather on the sidewalk for a group hug, Mo clutching a copy of Barack Obama's autobiography. Mo and L.W. are off now to Mount Holyoke, for a tour of the campus.
"Done good," Mo cries, as they pull away. "Done good."
When the car disappears from sight, Aurora and Cassidy climb the stairs to plan their night.