Yale’s Feel Good Family Weekend

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

Last week, Yale polished its boots and opened its doors to thousands of Yalies’ relatives for the annual tradition of Family Weekend. By October, students have made meaningful progress into their classes, and extracurricular groups have begun to find their feet for the semester. With that in mind, thousands of family members visited to get a glimpse of and partake in the excitement and dynamism of Yale’s campus.

Last year, Marvin Chun told the YDN that a goal of Family Weekend is to give families “a sense of what their children experience at Yale on a day-to-day basis.” There’s a distinct tension between this stated purpose and the actual happenings of Family Weekend. The extra pomp and circumstance that accompanies Family Weekend shows on a yearly basis is not really representative of day-to-day Yale, so is Family Weekend a genuine attempt to share the Yale experience with parents, or is it a marketing project to showcase Yale at its most bustling with extravagant extracurricular productions?

At its best, Family Weekend facilitates a time and space for families to connect with their children over the boundless opportunities that Yale affords its students. Parents, who are emotionally and financially invested in their children’s education, lay gleaming witness to the developmentally valuable communities that their children both benefit from and contribute to. More cynically, however, Family Weekend can be construed as a marketing scheme to assure parents, and particularly first-year parents, that Yale is a wonderland of endless opportunity. Failing to showcase Yale at its most bleak and stressful is a pointed omission when claiming to represent everyday student life.

Nevertheless, activities abounded for last weekend’s guests. A capella, dance, comedy, and theatre groups planned Family Weekend shows; sporting groups, from club sports to varsity teams, scheduled games to add to the festivities; professors even gave lectures specially targeted for students’ family members. Family Weekend is especially exciting for first-years who get to show their parents the newfound activities and communities that are beginning to make Yale familial. Reciprocally, first-year parents are eager to share in the new excitement.

I spoke with Professor James Sleeper, YC ’69, about how Family Weekend has changed since his days as a student. He didn’t recall a designated Family Weekend from his time at Yale, but we ended up discussing whether there exists a tension between the communal aspect of Family Weekend and a marketing initiative put on the by the University as a corporation. He joked, “if there are too many functionaries running around with clipboards and whatever has replaced walkie-talkies, they’re overdoing it.” He added, “I wouldn’t expect to see much of that or of ‘advertising’ or fundraising efforts.” His point: the intent of the weekend should be to foster a warm connection between families and the school. His warning: trying too hard to advertise Yale will leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the interested and analytical attendee.

Leaders of student groups organized shows, performances, and events to showcase the array of interests and talents that the campus nurtures. Last weekend, “All 4 You: A Family Weekend Show” brought together four of Yale’s dance groups — Rhythmic Blue, YaleDancers, Taps, and the Yale Undergraduate Ballet Company for one collaborative show. Isabel Wolfe SY ’19, one of the presidents of YaleDancers, commented on how exciting the weekend is for first-years and their parents in the dance world. She explained, “College dance is a completely different world to pre-college dance.” Faith Tomlin ES ’21, whose parents visited this weekend, agreed. Tomlin and Wolfe explained that college audiences are livelier and more involved in the performance than the more competitive, pre-college audiences that their parents are accustomed to. Wolfe explained that Yale’s audience involvement strengthens camaraderie between the dancers and displays the mutual appreciation and warmth the dancers share with the school. Wolfe suggested, “the relationship between the dancers and the audience is especially heart warming for parents to see.”

In addition to seeing their own children enjoying new worlds of dance, parents had the opportunity to watch other dance groups perform in the same weekend. Typically, dance groups on campus ensure that their performances do not overlap in an effort to increase attendance and allow students interested in dance to attend as many shows as they can. Last weekend, however, they collaborated to bring parents a more representative sampling of Yale’s dance scene. Imani Butler JE ’20, one of the presidents of Rhythmic Blue, was thrilled with the results. “We got lots of positive reviews from people after the show, not just parents of dancers but also visiting families who just happened to stop by and enjoyed it!” she said.

In all of the performances from Family Weekend, there was a common thread of showcasing the groups’ new members. Butler said, “Family Weekend is all about showcasing the first-years.” She commented that the expected audience is largely friends and parents of first-years, so RB catered their performance accordingly. Wolfe echoed the centrality of the first-years, explaining to me that one of the two dances that YaleDancers performed was exclusively performed by the group’s first-years.

Shades of Yale also prioritized first-years, advertising their show on Facebook as an introduction to their “fabulous new taps.” For their performance, Shades gave all the new taps a solo or duet. Meera Shaw, GH ’22, a new member of Shades, shared that her parents had hardly ever seen her sing before Family Weekend. She was excited and nervous for her first performances, but was blissful following her parents’ reaction. “They loved the show and did not stop talking about it for the entire day after,” she said.

Marvin Chun understated the goals of Family Weekend, and, to be fair to him, a weekend isn’t enough time to get a sense of day-to-day life at Yale. It isn’t Yale’s aim to showcase every aspect of Yale student life, but rather to share with parents the diverse and welcoming communities that groups form on campus. The performances are certainly not a part of the everyday Yale that Chun claimed to seek for Family Weekend, but for some, they are enjoyable and sentimentally meaningful. For others, the weekend seems a self-promotional charade of a similar vein to Bulldog Days.

When an institution with interests as diverse as Yale’s invests in a large-scale event, the line between self-promotion and genuine representation is difficult to discern. Family weekend is a show, but, importantly, it is a show whose ethos is defined by Yalies themselves. Yale gets the word out and provides a few guest lectures, but at the heart of Family Weekend are the students who organize events, perform for, and spend time with their families. Largely student-initiated, Family Weekend is a genuine initiative to foster a shared appreciation of Yale and all the communities that Yalies create within it.

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