Major/Occupation: Political Science/African Studies; Yale
Hometown: Washington, DC
Why did you choose Yale?
I chose Yale because I wanted to go to a university that valued the mind, but also valued cultivating the spirit. Yale’s focus on liberal arts is meant to encourage students to expand their minds beyond regurgitating some facts and to learn how to think deeply and critically. I also wanted to go to a school where I could feel not only inspired by esteemed faculty, but also where I could feel inspired by my peers.
What was first semester, freshman year like? What was the adjustment like?
Fortunately, my first semester of freshman year was a relatively smooth transition. I spent my junior year of high school living abroad in France, so I was fairly used to being independent and structuring my life and schedule on my own. My high school, Sidwell Friends, also prepared me academically for the rigorous course load.
Would you say you found your social niche?
I’m a very social person and love to meet new people. I participated in a pre-orientation called Cultural Connections freshman year. The program places an emphasis on the diversity of experiences of traditionally underrepresented students and issues related to racial identity. While Sidwell was very diverse, I didn’t have the opportunity in high school to engage with many minority students, so college was a welcome change. Furthermore, as a first-generation African, it was very important to me to engage with the African community on campus. I feel a deep affinity to that side of myself because my parents strongly reinforced my heritage growing up through introducing me to various aspects of their culture, making sure that I stayed in touch with my large extended family and through annual trips to the continent.
I also joined a sorority during the second semester of my freshman year, which was a lovely opportunity to meet girls from different backgrounds from all over the country. One of the things I love about being in a sorority is that you have the opportunity to meet people from different cross-sections of campus with varied interests. Moreover, the focus is on getting to know other people. I think that there are few spaces where you can have that kind of physical and intellectual diversity simultaneously.
What is it like being a black female at an Ivy League?
Having attended predominately white schools for my entire life, I knew more or less what to expect from Yale. Growing up, my teachers always encouraged me to perform my best and believed in me. That mentorship and guidance was essential to establishing my confidence in the classroom. When you believe in yourself, you can trust yourself in a way that allows you to take more risks. Know your worth.
The black community at Yale is incredibly kind and welcoming and I have always felt like I have a network of big sisters and brothers to rely on. I try to do the same for the younger students, so that they always feel that someone is looking out for them. That can mean a number of things – insuring someone is staying on top of their schoolwork or simply making them a big bowl of jollof rice, jerk chicken or sweet potato pie when they’re missing home.
I think it is important that black students – particularly, black women – learn to utilize the power of networking. Having access to opportunities sometimes boils down to who you know. We should become more comfortable navigating spaces that are unfamiliar to us considering that board rooms today still remain overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. Some people are intimidated by what they see as institutions that weren’t designed to include them, but you can’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and to reach out for help and guidance on your academic life and career. And when you’re at the top, don’t forget to pay it forward, so that you can cultivate your community.
As a black woman, I have often struggled with the feeling that I have been put inside a box. When people see me, they sometimes make snap judgments about my identity, which may stem from the media’s tendency to speak about black women as a monolithic entity. Even within the labels of “black” and “women”, there is such rich diversity in terms of personality, appearance and experience. Don’t let other people decide your identity for you and challenge people who put you inside the box. If you encounter ignorance, don’t necessary shun the person, but take steps to engage with him or her to help them understand your perspective.
What kind of activities or groups were you a part of?
Extracurricular life at Yale is very vibrant, so I feel like I’ve done everything under the sun!
I have a strong connection to the Afro-American Cultural Center (often lovingly called “The House”) where I serve as the Head Peer Liaison for incoming black freshmen students. I am a member of the Intercultural Affairs Council (which directs Yale’s diversity efforts at the undergraduate level) and the Title IX Advisory Committee (which helps spearhead ensure that we have a safe campus and a culture of sexual respect). In the past, I also worked as a Communication and Consent Educator to help combat sexual violence on our campus and direct people towards resources at Yale.
I love to write, so I write poetry and short stories in my free time. I also write occasionally for campus publications like the Yale Daily News and Broad Recognition, a feminist magazine at Yale. Outside of campus, I’m the associate editor of two online publications – Ayiba Magazine and Fair Observer.
I just stepped down as the President of the Yale Undergraduate Association for Peace and Development (YAAPD), an organization devoted to creating more opportunities for youth to engage with peace and development in Africa and to preparing students for careers related to Africa.
I also work at Yale Law School, where I assist with the Gruber Program for Global Justice and Women’s Rights.
This year, I’ll also serve as the Class Day Co-Chair, which means that I get to help select Yale’s graduation speakers. I’m very excited for that role, especially because this will be the third year in a row that a black woman has served as one of the Co-Chairs. I think that speaks volumes about our visibility on campus.
What is your favorite thing about Yale? Any dislikes?
I could spend days talking about the things I love about Yale! It’s a place where students can be just as well-versed in pop culture as they are talking about the crisis in Ukraine or what’s going on in Gaza. Where you can spend your lunch break looking at Rothko’s and Van Gogh’s. Where you can casually grab a meal with one of your heroes – a senator, an actress, an activist… you name it!
But it’s also a place that can feel overwhelming – where people are so hyper-focused on filling their days (and I often guilty of that), that they don’t stop to simply look at the beautiful Gothic architecture or the fall leaves. Competing on “busyness” is the great disease of our generation. We need to learn how to slow down. One frustrating thing about Yale is that students are addicted to email, which is often subtly encouraged by how classes and extracurricular life is structured. This doesn’t set a good precedent for work-life balance and is something that shouldn’t be encouraged. It’s good to stay up-to-date, but it’s also important to unplug. I will be doing more of that as I enter my senior year.
What opportunities did Yale afford you?
Yale humbled me but also helped me grow immensely. I go to school with some of smartest, most innovative people in the country. I have learned that it is important to be willing to pick apart your beliefs and understand your logical fallacies in order to grow. For example, I often try to engage with conversations with people at the opposite side of spectrum when it comes to political beliefs so I can understand areas where I might have to do some deeper research to really understand an issue.
Would you say you enjoyed your experience at Yale?
I love that people aren’t ashamed to be passionate about the things they love, no matter how arcane the topic might seem to the outside world. The school is older than the United States itself so you can imagine what a rich history and legacy it has. How many places in the world can you take a study break and go see a Guttenberg Bible?
Yale historian George W. Pierson once wrote, “Yale is at once a tradition, a company of scholars, a society of friends.”
What advice would you give for others trying to decide on college?
Try to do as many college visits as you can. On a regular weekday, you can see what students are normally like instead of slightly more polished version you might see during an admissions weekend.
Make sure you consider the size of the school. After attending a high school where my graduating class was only 111 people, I knew that I had to attend a small to mid-size school in order to feel comfortable. I love the size of Yale because it’s so easy to run into people you know but the school is large enough that it’s easy to always meet new people or expand your social circle. Being in a mid-size school always allows for some diversity in class sizes – you can do anything from a large lecture of 200 students to a small intimate class of 13.
Want to get in touch with Kiki? Follow her on twitter @kikiochieng!!