Classical studies course at Yale helps first-generation college students flourish
Isaidy Medina is a junior double majoring in English and History at Yale University’s Silliman College. She also works at the Yale Center for British Art.
Medina, a first-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic who moved to the U.S. as a young child, was able to thrive by leaning on connections she made studying ancient Greek philosophy.
“It was important I had that support group of someone who understood my background and understood what I had done already,” Medina said.
Medina used to be a member of the Freedom and Citizenship program at Columbia University. She was enrolled in the program while still a high school junior.
It’s one of several similar programs at universities and colleges nationwide connecting classical literature and philosophy with contemporary issues to public high school students.
Bryan Garsten, a political science professor at Yale, founded a similar program called "Citizens Thinkers Writers." The program is part of the Teagle Foundation’s Knowledge for Freedom initiative, which is made up of similar programs. Citizens Thinkers Writers is a founding member of the initative, along with the Freedom and Citizenship program from Columbia University. The program at Yale University hosts high school students over the summer to engage in discussions about politics and philosophy.
Garsten said the programs don’t just teach classical literature, but also act as a mentorship program.
Other universities are creating similar programs, he said.
“The model is spreading. So we've got something on the order of 30 colleges and universities around the country, starting similar programs,” Garsten said.
The program revolves around a seminar-style setting, where instructors take texts from Greek philosophers and hold discussions about the texts with students.
The program at Yale is open to New Haven Public Schools students, and while anyone can apply, the program prioritizes people who are the first people in their families to go to college.
"Citizens Thinkers Writers," founded in 2016, had 12 students in its first year.
The program also invites people from New Haven to talk with students, who then make the connections between the readings and how it applies to modern life.
“It's been all sorts of people, someone who works for the mayor's office, someone who works with IRIS on refugee issues,” Garsten said.
Before that happens, students need to read the texts.
Medina quickly realized how the work she was taking part in through the program differed significantly from what she was learning in school.
“It was so different because those were not texts that we were reading in high school, my high school would not have taught the Socratic dialogues,’’ Medina said.
Other program alums such as Henry Seyue, who is now a law student at UConn, said they were required to prove their arguments or perspectives to a mentor.
Seyue said his mentor once dismissed his analysis of Socrates. He first thought his mentor was being rude, but later realized it strengthened his ability to engage with the material.
“I came to the realization that ‘so what’ that he kept asking me that seemed kind of condescending at first, was an attempt for him to get me to give a rich analysis of why what I'm reading matters to my life,” Seyue said.
Participants and alums recently held an inaugural conference which brought together participants from similar programs under the Knowledge for Freedom initiative and alums participated in a panel where they shared their experiences and offered suggestions to help improve the program.