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My Semester at Yale

·9 mins

I vividly remember the joy of receiving the nomination from the International Office in Tübingen to study at Yale University in November 2022. More than a year later, I am on my way home, and I can swear I just arrived a few days ago. Let me recap the experiences and learnings during my semester at the Ivy school.

Academics #

As a visiting scholar of the Baden-Württemberg exchange, I was exempted from tuition and amazingly flexible in my academic endeavor. Officially, I was part of the Department of Psychology, the primary affiliation of my academic advisor, Ilker Yildirim. Nevertheless, I was allowed to enroll in any courses offered by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and followed my interest in Computer Science. I decided on the relatively novel lectures on Graph Neural Networks by Rex Ying, AI Foundation Models by Arman Cohan, and Algorithms of the Mind by my advisor. All of them were offered to an audience of undergraduates and graduates from different majors and programs, which is why the curricula started from the basics. However, the depth and complexity of the topics quickly increased, and we discussed the most recent research. I immensely enjoyed all of them and learned a lot. The portfolio grading, which comprises any activity from participation to final exams, motivates the students to keep up with the course material.

Naturally, the fact that some lectures were created shortly before they were held for the first time left some marks on the organization. Sometimes, deadlines had to be pushed, or assignments needed to align better with the current material. One learning activity I rarely encountered at German universities seemed to be the standard in my courses: final projects. As grad students, we had to develop our research ideas relatively early in the semester and pursue them. The teaching team offered support during the entire process. Seeing the other students’ ideas during the final presentations was terrific. My final projects worked more or less, but I certainly learned a lot through them. For all course-related issues, each course offered daily office hours held by graduate teaching assistants or undergraduate learning assistants. In Germany, I usually formed study groups to discuss assignments or had to hand in assignments as a group. At Yale, one can also rely on the assistance offered by the teaching staff.

Besides my coursework, I participated in my lab’s activities. I learned about their research from the weekly meetings where lab members and collaborators presented their work or current publications concerning their topics. My main project was implementing a cognitive model of physics perception within a probabilistic framework written in Julia, a new language to me, which is fortunately relatively easy to learn with prior experience in other languages. I enjoyed the close collaboration with Mario, the PhD student working on this project. By implementing the mechanism, I better grasped how the Bayesian framework can be applied to human visual perception. This aligned very nicely with my advisor’s course that I followed simultaneously. I once even spotted a few code snippets I had written in this collaboration in a lab section of the course. All in all, the academic experience was great. I was surrounded by bright minds and studied recent and exciting topics with the researchers who have co-created these fields.

Getting the head out of the lab #

Apart from academics, Yale knows how to impress. The communication and onboarding for exchange students were almost perfect. “Almost” because there is a separation between degree and non-degree-seeking students that limited the number of activities I was officially invited to. However, there are plenty of events that one can attend throughout the entire semester with any status. They range from lunch talks offered by the departments over social events targeted at international scholars to events for graduate students, such as free food and drinks in Gryphon’s, a graduate-only pub (mainly because most undergraduates are below the legal drinking age). Offering free food is a general theme at Yale and something that I perceive as a game changer to increase the inter-departmental exchange and should exist at more educational institutions to that extent. Moreover, I had access to the second-largest gym in the world, featuring two swimming pools, one with 50-meter lanes on the third floor (world record, built 1931), and dance studios that are often free to use.

Although the administrative units already offer many activities, students also engage in the creation of extracurricular activities. As one of my resurrected passions in Tübingen, I was amazed to become part of club sports in Ultimate Frisbee. This level of sports is not as high as the varsity sports, but believe me, it did not feel less competitive. The team practiced three times a week and tried to push each other to achieve the best possible result in the sectionals and regionals that would happen during spring. A friend who lived in my house invited me to the practices of the Yale Tango Club, where I soon enrolled in classes offered by a teacher couple from New York. Even though I was initially more interested in the Salsa and Bachata classes, the great community and inclusive leadership made me dance significantly more Tango.

My extracurricular highlight was Yale Danceworks. This association is mainly run by undergraduates, and after performing with my Hip Hop crew in four shows at the end of the semester, I understand why it needs the time of an undergrad. The dedication and perfection of Yale’s most numerous, non-audition dance group are simply stunning. My subgroup performed to Kendrick Lamar’s and Rihanna’s Loyalty, with funny remarks about Ivy schools such as secret societies. The hard work of rehearsing the dance with our two lovely choreographers finally paid off when the audience kept cheering for the entire two minutes of the dance.

Living in “Elm City” #

New Haven, located midway between New York City and Boston, could have a better reputation due to its allegedly high crime rate. The Yale administration is eager to make the campus safe and inform its members about public safety issues. Since the New Haven Police Department is said to be understaffed, the school runs its police, which is prevalent around the campus. However, during the move-in weekend for Yale College’s freshmen, Yale made national news when the Yale Police Union handed out flyers to students and their parents, fearmongering them with cherry-picked adverse “facts” about New Haven’s criminal statistics. It was theorized to be a negotiation tactic in their bargaining - to me, with a bitter aftertaste. I eluded some parts of the city at night and preferred using my bike instead of walking after dark. In the end, I only heard about crime, mainly robberies with no physical injuries, via live email alerts to my Yale account.

Besides these incidents, the area has a high quality of life. Elm City is infamous for its food culture, claiming to have the best Pizza in the US and offering a whole roster of international cuisines. The food trucks that line up midday at pivotal places on campus complete the offer for every budget. New Haven is beautiful in the fall, with a color intensity unprecedented in any place I lived before. The real estate is a mixture of stone and wooden houses, and especially in East Rock, it is a feast for the eyes. The Victorian style made some of these homes seem like a dream come true for their wannabe-princess daughters, featuring little towers and extensive porches. With its memorial atop, East Rock Park draws in students for quick recreational activities like a short hike or bike trip. Connecticut offers beaches and small mountain ranges, unbeknownst enough to never become crowded but pleasant enough to serve as a weekend nature escape.

Exploring the two faces of the United States #

Of course, I could not sit tight in my college town but explored the two countries waiting for me: the unpolitical, ever-lasting landscape on the one side and the heated, polarized societal debates on the other. With my girlfriend, I did a classic road trip in the West. We headed off from San Francisco and passed several National Parks and natural wonders, including Yosemite, Mount Whitney, Death Valley, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, and Pinnacles. Roughly 3000 miles later, we headed towards New York to explore the Big Apple. After getting used to the lonesomeness of the “real America,” the crowds of locals and tourists were overwhelming. A much shorter trip during the Thanksgiving break allowed me to see Niagara Falls and Canada’s two biggest cities. The secret highlight of the trip was a late Thanksgiving dinner with a friend I made in Montpellier this spring in Burlington, Vermont, an underrated city in my view (and the origin of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream).

During my travels, I met people from the entire political spectrum. For example on the Berkeley campus, a socialist spoke to me about the housing crisis and tried to convince me that any wage labor is exploitation. I also encountered libertarian ideas and people calling for law and order. After October 7th, the political debate on campus gained momentum. All Ivy schools were torn between free speech on campus and influential donors who threatened to withdraw their money if universities did not position themselves strictly against antisemitism. Students also demanded that Yale stop its investments in the defense industry. Another debate that kept the campus on its toes was affirmative action, meaning to favor students from historically underrepresented groups. After the Supreme Court ruled its unlawfulness, admission offices strive for new ways of creating diversity and equity in the student body.

Overall, I noticed as many similarities as differences between the US and Germany. Both countries follow the same economic principles, but the US seems to take it a step further in many ways. The divide into federal and state laws is also based on similar ideas. Still, the differences in taxes and gas prices between American states made the state borders much more apparent compared to German federal states. The fact that education is a business in the US may impact the willingness to invest in one’s formal training. In contrast, German students almost take free education for granted.

What will stay #

This report mainly focuses on what I did, learned, and noticed, but what made my semester at Yale most worthwhile were the incredible humans I met. I was constantly surrounded by ambitious, inspiring, and diverse people from every place in the world, with many objectives for Yale. Still, all were united in their belief that science improves our lives and that understanding the world better is vital. My time at Yale is over - but these meaningful connections will last a lifetime.

Dominik Glandorf
Dominik Glandorf