First impressions

We talked to some new students about their first days at Yale.

Bob Handelman

Bob Handelman

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It was almost normal. On move-in day 2021, juniors and seniors in residential college T-shirts came out in force to greet arriving first-years, swarming them as their cars pulled up, answering their questions, and carrying their suitcases, boxes, and bags. “Each car was unloaded by a friendly and excited team of Branford upperclassmen,” says Betty Kubovy-Weiss ’25. “My stuff magically appeared in my room to be unpacked. It was very normal, especially based on what I was expecting—or dreading.” She even caught a glimpse of Handsome Dan in the courtyard.

The Class of ’25 has already made Yale history: it is the largest-ever incoming class, due to deferrals by many Class of ’24 admittees who presumably didn’t want to begin their first year of college over Zoom. True, many COVID-related restrictions—indoor mask mandates, capacity restrictions, weekly vaccine testing—will remain a part of campus life for now. But several students told interviewer Cathy Shufro they’re just happy to be at Yale. 

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Madeline Art ’25
Williamstown, MA
Trumbull College

Which class are you the most excited about?
My first-year seminar, Reproductive Technologies. It’s an anthropology class that’s looking at women’s reproductive lives around the world—and men’s, a bit, as well—and how technologies have helped and harmed them. The professor [Marcia Inhorn] seems incredible, and it’s a really cool group of students.

Has anything surprised you so far?
I took a gap year to avoid having my first year during last year’s pandemic school year. My biggest surprise, if you can call it that, has just been feeling really, really grateful that I did make that decision. I’ve been meeting and interacting with people in ways that I know wouldn’t have been possible last year.

How did you use your gap year?
So, from late summer through November I worked as a field organizer on the Sara Gideon senate campaign in Maine, against Susan Collins. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. The election did not go the way that we’d hoped, but I met so many incredible people, and I was able to pull people into political organizing who hadn’t necessarily done that before.

I came home around Thanksgiving and was in Williamstown until March, laying low and embracing the experience of not being in an evaluative environment. And then, mid-April through June, I was working on a New York City Council race in northeast Queens. We also did not win, but we definitely made progress in terms of the Democratic infrastructure on the ground there.

Do you have a major in mind?
I’m so undecided. I applied and came in expecting to be a math major, because that’s what clicked most with me in high school. But now I’m definitely thinking about English, thinking about other humanities majors as well. At this point it’s wide open.

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Cole Jensen ’21MPH
Provo, UT
PhD student, Computational Biology and Bioinformatics

Where are you coming from?
I did my master’s in public health in infectious disease epidemiology here at Yale before joining the CBB program.

How would you describe research in computational biology and bioinformatics?
You take biological information, whatever that may be—a genome, a tissue sample, or some imaging—and you gather together information to analyze it and get some kind of interesting output. You do that through making software packages or data science methods so other people can plug and play, and then see what the information means for themselves.

Why did you decide to stay in New Haven?
I did seriously consider other universities, but I chose Yale because it’s very easy to find support here. That was something I really wanted in a PhD program, because I understand it’s a long haul, and it’s going to be hard. You want to know there are people you can turn to. Also, I have made friends here, and my wife has this great teaching job at the hospital. She teaches students there who are inpatients for a long duration.

Are you both from Utah?
Yes. I went to BYU, Brigham Young University, and she went to the college right next door.

Did you go on a [Mormon religious] mission?  
I did. I went to the Philippines for about two years.

Did you learn Tagalog?
I don’t speak it well, but I speak some dialects. I was in an island group where they speak Cebuano and Waray.

What was it like to move from Utah to Connecticut?
Utah’s very red. When Mitt Romney ran for president, it was the most Republican state in the United States. Coming here to Yale, in class I was taught all these things that I was told, growing up, aren’t right. It took a little bit to figure out where I stand on some of these issues, like universal health care.

And then there were more obvious things, like moving from the desert to the humidity. But now we have a vegetable garden and we’re happy to be close to some really cool nature, like Acadia National Park in Maine. It’s super pretty. I would highly recommend it, especially if you like hiking.

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Sandra Okonofua
Silver Spring, MD
PhD student, Sociology

Where are you coming from?
From a master’s program in education at Harvard. I was studying prevention science and practice, training to be a high school counselor. Before that I’d been a high school science teacher and master’s student at the University of Pennsylvania, and the more experiences I had in education, both as a student and an educator, the more I realized that I wanted to better understand some of the driving forces underlying educational inequality at a broader level.  

What issues interest you?
I want to understand how wealth inequality and disparities in resources and funding across school districts impact the educational experiences of students and their readiness for college. I’m also interested in the intergenerational reproduction of advantages and disadvantages.

Did some of this grow out of your own experience?
Absolutely. I attended Montgomery County public schools [in Maryland]. The county is often championed as an exemplar of equity, but it’s highly stratified in terms of race and class, and that affects students’ educational experiences. When I speak with fellow Montgomery County alums from different areas of the county, it’s very striking—the differences in the level of college preparedness, access to resources like AP courses, even where students matriculated for college.

What drew you to Yale?
I had really incredible conversations with faculty members here. And I could just sense that the department was a place where I would feel intellectually welcome, supported, and appreciated.

What will you do in your spare time?
Leisure reading is huge for me. I’m trying to read 40 books this year, and I’m more than halfway there.

Do you have a book recommendation?
I’ve read so many good ones! I just finished Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold, by Bolu Babalola.

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Paloma Vigil ’25
Miami, FL
Pauli Murray College

Are you still shopping for classes?
I was shopping six and I’ve gotten it down to four. So I have a good schedule now, but it was pretty stressful trying to make everything work. I have ten minutes to go from Harkness Hall all the way up to the science building for Econ 115. I did it yesterday, and it was hard, and I was a little bit late. I think I’m going to invest in a bike.

Tell me about one of your classes.
Originally I did not have a Spanish class this semester. I’m technically a native speaker, but I don’t speak it at home because my mom is American. And then I heard two people talking in Spanish and I listened in. And I was almost testing myself, to see if I remembered, and I was like, “Oh my goodness, I need to take a Spanish class; I just can’t stand the fact that I could possibly lose parts of this language, because I really love Spanish.” So I’m taking Women Writers of Spain, and I love the class so far. The professor’s a sweetheart. We’re talking about poetry, which is super cool, and I’m learning a bunch of new vocab.

How is the dining hall food?
The other day they gave us this Greek yogurt type thing at the bottom, and cooked tomatoes and balsamic vinegar on top, with pita bread. My friends and I all agreed it was one of the best things we’ve had. And then Pauli Murray mac and cheese is, objectively, the best mac and cheese, ever.

Did you bring anything with you as a keepsake or talisman?
My mom wrote me a letter on the first day of kindergarten, back in 2009. It was a letter to me, to 18-year-old Paloma. She gave it to me right before she left, and she said, “Open this on the first day of college.” And I did, and I was crying. So that is probably the most important thing that I own at this moment.

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Ethan Estrada ’25
Austin, TX
Pauli Murray College

How is your class schedule shaping up?
I’m so excited for the classes I’m taking. Yeah. Today I had Race, Class, and Gender in American Cities and then English 120, Reading and Writing the Modern Essay. Tomorrow I’m having Third World Studies and then I’m heading to Intro to Psych. It’s a very humanities-focused semester, but they’re all very different in their methodologies and the projects that I’ll be doing. So I think I’ve found some balance.

Students really enjoy Reading and Writing the Modern Essay.
I think I’m going to grow a lot in that class. This past year, I’ve been mainly writing poetry, especially sonnets. Lately I’ve been experimenting more with meter. I was reading this book by Mary Oliver called Rules for the Dance [A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse]. I forgot to bring it with me on the plane from Austin.

Do you know what you’ll major in?
I think I want to major in psychology, in the neuroscience track, and then Ethnicity, Race, and Migration. But recently, I’ve been thinking to myself, “How can I keep English in the loop?”

Tell me about your suitemates.
I have six; we’re a mixed-gender suite. The others are from Denver; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Kenya; Los Angeles; and Parks, Louisiana. We go to breakfast together, some of us grab lunch, and we eat dinner together. I’ve made so many friends in Pauli Murray. In middle school, high school, it takes you a lot of time to make friends like that. I guess since we’re all close together and so far away from our families, we find that solace in one another. It’s been really nice making those friends.

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Joey Cumpian ’25
Chicago, IL
Pierson College

Do you have any idea what you might want to major in?
I’m leaning heavily towards Ethics, Politics, and Economics. That’s the goal.

Have you been involved in politics—student council, or working for a candidate?
This sounds a little over the top, but in my junior year, I did try organizing a presidential debate. My high school is very political. They did a gubernatorial debate. And so, I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna try to organize a presidential debate.” I got into contact with different candidates’ teams. The first cool thing was the fact that I actually got emails back, saying, “We want to be a part of this.” I heard back from Bernie Sanders’s team, from Andrew Yang. I started studying past CNN political debates to model my own debate structure off of those, while also keeping it in a high school perspective.

It was scheduled to happen in March 2020. Then my school administration canceled any school functions right in the beginning of March. And I got sick, and to this day I have no idea if it was COVID.

Have you chosen extracurricular activities?
We had the activities bazaar the other day, and I signed up for maybe 20. I think I need to settle on three that I’m passionate about. I’ll be doing a cappella, which I’m super excited about—I have a bunch of auditions. And then I’m also planning on doing a consulting club or the Entrepreneurial Society. And I also want to do club polo. I’ve never ridden a horse before, but it sounded fun, so I’m going to do a clinic.

Is there anything else you want to say?
The hardest part has been my family. My sister called me last night, and she’s definitely feeling lonely. In terms of siblings, it’s just me and her. Because I’m in this new environment focused on meeting all these new people, it’s not as noticeable that I’m separated from my parents and my sister. It’s been really sad. My dad doesn’t ever cry, and he cried on FaceTime the other day.

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Quinn Zacharias
Daytona Beach, FL
PhD student, School of the Environment

Did growing up in Florida inspire you to study the environment?
Yeah, absolutely. The Everglades was right there in my backyard. It’s the largest subtropical wetland in the world, home to 26 endangered species, and it provides drinking water for nearly eight million people, so it’s very important. About half of it has been destroyed to make way for Miami and for sugarcane farms. It’s in a very perilous state.

Which aspects of wetlands interest you?
So I’m coming out of undergrad with a background in environmental engineering.  My system was the Everglades, where I did most of my undergraduate research. Now that I’m starting in the PhD program, I want to take this lens and apply it to a new cutting-edge field, perhaps looking at how you can use principles of ecohydrology to capture carbon out of the atmosphere.

What will you do for recreation?
I may join the club rugby team. Rugby, lifting weights, and tennis, those are my big sports.

What do you think of New Haven?
I’ve only ever lived in the tropics, so I’m a little nervous that it’s going to be really cold.

Have you had a chance to look around?
I went to the Boulevard Flea Market. When I got there, I could smell Indian incense burning, I could hear people speaking in Mandarin and Spanish and Hindi, and there was Caribbean music blasting. That’s probably the most multicultural thing I’ve ever been to.

1 comment

  • Sheila Levrant de Bretteville
    Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, 1:54pm November 06 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    wonderful to read these comments of how Yale is being understood in parts of the university I know less about... always like hearing the pints of view from diverse backgrounds and remembering my own education at Barnard before coming to Yale as a grad student and returning decades later to teach our very diverse group of students bring their different voices into their own work and also keep creating and joining groups to make work for and with others...

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