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As a Tufts Graduate, Here's Why I'm Upset by the #YOLO Question

Recently, Tufts University included the question, "What does #YOLO mean to you?" on its application. Here's why that's unfortunate but not surprising.

Jul 17 2013, 2:00pm

Tufts and Drake go way back. Before my alma mater made unfortunate headlines again with an admissions essay prompt that asks applicants to answer in under 250 words, “What does #YOLO mean to you?” Drake was slinging his verses from “BedRock” and “Every Girl” at our Spring Fling a mere month before Thank Me Later dropped in 2009. As a Jumbo (Tufts’ mascot is an elephant named Jumbo because one of the University’s original trustees was P.T. Barnum, the circus guy. Dads love this fact.), I will forever root for Drake because his always-the-bridesmaid-but-fuck-you-I-don’t-want-to-be-a-bride-but-also-I’ll-be-a-bride-someday attitude is how many Tufts students see themselves in comparison to their neighbors at Harvard and M.I.T., not to mention their frenemies from high school who got into Brown. During my senior year my band played a Halloween party at Zeta Psi because someone in the band that was supposed to play that night got hit by a car. After scrambling to come up with a setlist that the brothers would like, or at least not hate, we decided to cover “Best I Ever Had,” which caused a supremely wasted frat dude wearing a white lab coat with a nametag that said “Dr. Fingerblast” on it to fight his way to the stage and take over vocals for the song. It terrifies me to think that that dude is now making $95,000 a year working 80 hours a week trading futures or whatever it is card-carrying bros do after graduating. But as much as I would like to distance myself existentially from Dr. Fingerblast, we shared that night a moment of real human connection mediated by an unironic passion for Drake.

The college admissions process is the biggest freakshow of self-aggrandizement and hapless people pleasing in modern American society. On the one hand Drake is exceedingly worthy of being name-dropped in an application essay because his claim to legitimacy, at least in the early part of his career, was the fact that he did whatever it took to make people like him no matter if it made him feel hollow inside. The general internet consensus on the #YOLO question seems to be, “Drake is stupid, Tufts is stupid, kids are stupid, America is stupid.” While I agree with each of these conclusions taken separately, I’m also legitimately angered by their intersection. Most people are mad at Tufts for the #YOLO question because it’s a cornball “cool dad” appeal to applicants. I’m mad because Tufts isn’t being criticized for admission and administrative practices that deserve scorn, practices that are a toxic mixture of profiteering and systemic racism and classism that are symptomatic of higher education as gestalt. Since we live in a country where it’s pretty much legal to stalk, assault and kill a black kid walking to his dad’s house, I feel a pressing need to call Tufts, my alma mater and cool dad, on its recent history.

What I’ve called the “cool dad” aesthetic is marked by haphazard references to youth culture and embarrassing attempts at irony and humor. In effect, a cool dad hides his patronizing attitude towards you behind easy points of intergenerational contact, tricking your friends into thinking he’s beyond the normal criticism leveled at dads. Only you can see your cool dad’s real motivations behind the hip exterior that mesmerizes your friends. With the #YOLO question, Tufts is positioning itself as the cool dad of New England private schools. Tufts, because it isn’t the best school in Boston, and because it isn’t the best school in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC, which includes Amherst College and Williams College) has to posture to sell itself to elite applicants in order to get at their ever-fattening tuition checks. Tufts is proud of its academic standing, but it wants to be better, which means that each incoming class needs to out-perform previous classes in order for the university to make inroads against peer institutions.

The appeal of Tufts is that, like Drake, it is perpetually up and coming, even though, strictly speaking, it is a successful and prestigious university. Tufts has a lot of good institutional values that it attempts to communicate in its admissions process, especially what it calls “Active Citizenship” and attendant projects of social and international justice. I’m going to give the admissions department the benefit of the doubt and say that they probably just wanted the typical “I served in X vaguely Christian charity and now I want to study Y so that I can do Z and make the world a better place” answer, with a little bit of cool dad flair thrown in. Besides being a cool dad institution, Tufts is a university of future cool moms and dads. Tricking teenagers into talking seriously about #YOLO is a killer ploy for identifying future cool dads. At Tufts I learned how to do dumb stuff like love Drake, but I also learned why and how to think critically about my place within structures of economic and social power. Trying to seriously connect these two lessons is about as #YOLO a project as Tufts admissions could ever hope for, and even though by filtering difficult reflections on race through Drake jokes I’m participating hypocritically in the cool dad aesthetic, I hope that the university sees this essay as a testament to the kind of work its students are capable of in spite of historically pitiful institutional support for the study of race. Writing this piece is about the most Tufts thing that anyone could do.

Here is a picture of an elephant statue on the campus of Tufts.

For the last forty years various student organizations have been lobbying the Tufts administration to create an Africana Studies department that has, only in the last two years, led to the broadening of institutional support for the study of race and ethnicity across academic disciplines. This work was accomplished by many generations of black student activists at Tufts, who, by sacrificing their time and psychic energy, frequently sacrificed their personal academic achievement in order to change the university into an institution that would better meet the needs of future students. The most visible demonstration in favor of Africana Studies in the final, successful push took place during an admitted student open house in April 2011. A group of Black, White, Latino/a, and Asian students wore shirts that read either “Ask me about being a person of color at Tufts” or “Ask me about white privilege at Tufts,” and more generally let prospective students know that the University administration had had trouble handling racist incidents on campus in the past. In actuality, they were out there to assert their existence on campus and, talk to incoming students, and really, really, really piss off the admissions department.

What was clear in the administration’s outraged reaction to this protest was that to a disturbing extent nonwhite students were seen as little more than what Dean of Admissions Lee Coffin called “diversity acceptances.” Coffin told the Tufts Daily that he was “offended by” the protest and that these talkative students might give prospective students an “[unfair] understanding of the campus.” Tufts isn’t a racist place, they seemed to insist, because the ratio of white to non-white students matches national averages. Don’t let the black and Latino/a students you see milling about spoil your view of Tufts’ post-racial utopia! Never mind that these were students who were admitted by the university precisely for their #YOLO commitment to active citizenship and social justice. Never mind that in two years you might be one of the ones gathered on the quad feeling chewed up and spit out by the institution you’re bankrupting yourself to attend.

Hence the specious cool dad aesthetic of the application asking for an essay on #YOLO. Stuff like this is little more than an appeal to the desire of upper-class white applicants to feel like they're being considered as something other than a collection of test scores and financial data. It sucks to think about how badly American colleges and universities are held hostage by the need to make money off their students. It also sucks to realize you are a commodity in that process. It is at the point that promising students become dissatisfied with the institution that is literally capitalizing off their promise that a fundamental inconsistency of the modern American university comes into stark visibility: while codifying left-progressive and humanist ethics in the classroom, universities as financial institutions cannot allow themselves to be the subject of this criticism, at least not publicly, for fear of alienating future students and sacrificing future financial stability. When I was a student activist at Tufts, our most important tool in winning the fight for gender-neutral housing was knocking on a dean’s door and saying, “Brown has this. Amherst has this. Why don’t we have this?” It sucks to be called out on doing something unjust when the core tenet of your self-conception is “I exist in order to further the cause of justice.” What the #YOLO question really means is that Tufts admissions is, once again, manipulating black bodies in public for its own institutional gain even though this flies in the face of its professed values. It’s okay to goofily expound upon a term that a famous black person coined, Tufts seems to say, but having students of color discuss their negative experiences at the university might scare rich white applicants away.

The real tragedy in this process comes when middle-class and poor students—disproportionately people of color—come out of school thousands of dollars in debt having had a second-rate college experience because while their white counterparts were having a #YOLO good time with Drake, they were busting their asses trying to survive in an institutional environment whose inherent structure was hostile to their very presence. As long the lighthearted gaiety of white quirkiness is valued over uncomfortable truths articulated by students of color, universities will suffer ridicule and backlash when they pull dadcore stunts like asking applicants to write about #YOLO. It sucks to tell your cool dad of an alma mater he’s being a dick, but sometimes you have to. The #YOLO question will raise Tufts’ national profile this year because it sparked a conversation just as rising high school seniors are beginning to think seriously about where they will apply. It seems unlikely that nonwhite students will have the same freedom of levity in answering their application essays as their white counterparts. Can you afford to take a risk writing about #YOLO as a person of color when, from the very first, the American education system is set up to facilitate your early and degreeless exit into maddeningly disproportionate poverty and incarceration?

As long as Tufts, a historically white institution built on plantation grounds, maintains institutional control over what student voices get to be heard by the outside world, it runs the risk of participating in ideologies that it doesn’t want to get wrapped up in. Ideologies like the one that deems enticing students with multi-million dollar gym renovations more financially worthy than the continuation of need-blind admission practices. Or ideologies that would lead an applicant to be scared away by potential black peers. Asking your applicants what #YOLO means to them doesn’t amount to anything when you stop listening to what they have to say after they reach their 250 word limit.

Garrett Gilmore is a graduate of Tufts University. He's on Twitter - @thepepsman

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