- I went to Yale for my undergraduate degree, and attended Cambridge in the UK for my post graduate.
- At Yale, I was part of a secret society and went on free ski trips with my classmates.
- At Cambridge, we had maids and frequently attended glitzy, formal balls.
After years of working in factory and hospitality jobs, my father and mother met while leading tour groups in Hong Kong, the city where I was born. As a young man, my father was so hungry that he’d slurp up all the condiments and sauces left over in plates and bowls whenever he had a chance to eat at a restaurant.
He couldn’t have imagined the feast awaiting me as a freshman at my Yale residential hall’s annual post-midterm brunch: juicy carved prime rib, heaps of buttery artisanal French pastries, plates of lobster eggs benedict in rich hollandaise sauce.
For my undergraduate degree, I went to Yale, and then for graduate school, I enrolled in Cambridge University. The two elite colleges afforded me luxuries my family once could only dream of.
At Yale, I was immersed in a culture of luxury for the first time
The contrast between my undergraduate bubble and the “real world” was striking. As a Yale student, I enjoyed subsidized ski trips to Vermont every winter, and we were greeted by sommeliers who led wine and cheese tastings at our headmasters’ sprawling residences. One classmate hosted a party by buying out the New Haven restaurant known for its $62 bone marrow entrée.
I also became more aware of my good fortune. Before my birth, my father became a businessman and succeeded enough to afford my private school tuition and extracurriculars. While some of my classmates worked at the school store to meet work-study requirements, I pursued an unpaid job at the museum.
Perhaps nothing symbolized Yale’s wealth more than its secret societies
I passed gigantic, windowless crypts between classes every day. Dreary and massive, these buildings belonged to Yale’s oldest secret societies — hundreds of years old, with members including former presidents, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts. The most famous one, perhaps, is Skull and Bones. As George Bush wrote in his memoir, “[In my] senior year, I joined Skull and Bones, a secret society; so secret, I can’t say anything more.”
In my final year, I joined a secret society at Yale, which was founded 20 years ago. We didn’t have a formal meeting place like Skull and Bones, but I loved my group dearly and wouldn’t have traded a moment with them for evenings in a stuffy old tomb.
Compared to Cambridge, Yale was the wannabe younger cousin
Upon graduation, I pursued a Master’s degree at one of the oldest institutions in the world, the granddaddy of poshness, the place from which the present King of England graduated in 1970: Cambridge University.
I easily remember the grave atmosphere of the university’s palatial grounds. Playing frisbee on the lawn? How crassly American. Colleges less than three centuries old? Positively plebeian. At Cambridge, students were not allowed to walk on the grass. We wore black billowy robes with subtle differences in sleeve lengths to connote the status of our degrees.
Colleges came with smartly dressed porters in suits and bowling hats, who helped us with everything from parcels to maintenance requests. I was shocked that most dorms offered cleaning services. My boyfriend at the time belonged to Cambridge’s Trinity College, where uniformed ladies knocked politely before tidying his room, emptying the wastebasket, and fitting his bed with neatly pressed sheets.
My Cambridge experience also included fireworks, fair rides, and six-figure party budgets
The pinnacle of glamor at Cambridge was the annual May Ball season — a series of parties featuring multi-course meals, carnival rides, craft cocktails, concerts, and general profligacy from dusk to dawn. St. John’s May Ball was once ranked by Time magazine as the “seventh best party in the world,” and Trinity’s budget was purportedly over $300,000 dollars in 2015.
Those who weren’t lucky enough to snag a nearly $400 May Ball ticket could trade physical labor for the “right to buy” next year’s entry at full price, skipping the waitlist. One friend worked a six-hour shift in exchange for attending the second half of the ball.
The real secret: The best moments weren’t exclusive or even expensive
In retrospect, it’s easy to be intoxicated by glimpses of high society and exclusivity. But my favorite memories at Yale and Cambridge were never at events in floor-length gowns or strappy heels. Instead, my university friends and I made memories drinking cheap beer in basement pubs, playing Pictionary in the rec hall, and cooking homemade concoctions in our tiny dorm kitchens.
I’m tremendously lucky to have experienced this universe of elite education, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.