By Michael Weiner
Way back in 12th grade, when I was considering whether or not to attend YU, I heard lots of comments from people – many of whom had never even stepped foot inside the institution – bemoaning its lack of diversity among the student body. It’s too inwardly focused, too detached from the outside world, too provincial and small-minded, they said.
Just for the record, I had no concerns about the other garden-variety criticisms one often hears about YU: its uninspiring physical location, small humanities departments, or penchant for New York navel-gazing. That was all just fine from my end. A lack of diversity, on the other hand, really got to me.
Because lurking behind the obviously true claim that YU is a homogenous place was the scarier idea that YU students were actually just boring, with no interests or passions beyond what’s deemed acceptable by convention. I had nothing against accountants or occupational therapists; rather, I was simply afraid that everyone at YU pursuing those careers wouldn’t be interested in having the kinds of conversations I wanted to have. You know what I mean; the kinds that happen in the movies where a great teacher gets his students all fired up about philosophy, or about fiction, while they all stand on their desks, or something like that.
Was it true that no one stands on his or her desk at YU? I didn’t know, but I needed to find out. My request was minimal: I didn’t demand a Nicaraguan roommate or an African drumming club. I wasn’t interested in diversity for its own sake. I merely needed confirmation that there were students at YU who thought about more than just their major and their dating lives, had some creative juices flowing, possessed passion about engaging with ideas for their own sake, and had some vulnerable self-expression to spare.
Urgently seeking clarity on this issue, I spent many hours discussing these questions with past and current YU students, as well as furiously fumbling around the web to find anything that could show me the heterogeneous, non-career-oriented side of YU.
At some point in this research process, I stumbled across The Observer. I don’t recall exactly what led me there, but I somehow found a link to an article that sounded intriguing, and began to read.
Preparing myself to be smug about the poor quality of the paper, I was in for a surprise when it turned out to be almost literally the opposite of what I imagined. I vividly recall the initial jolt of surprise that I got reading that first article and thinking, “This is actually really good.”
Over time, and by reading more articles, I came to appreciate what I think really makes The Observer special. It isn’t the writing or the editing, good as they are. Rather, it’s the utterly unique kinds of stories that it tells.
By way of example, ever since randomly finding that first piece back in 12th grade, I’ve read Observer articles covering topics ranging from a woman’s chronicle of her love for baseball and the Mets to another’s painful ambivalence about the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision; from opinion pieces weighing in on the latest feminism and halacha controversy to feature stories about the inner workings of YU academics and social life.
The first big idea here is that, going through the list, none of these pieces are about money or marriage. It’s a shocker, I know. But even just perusing the latest issue—or literally any issue— of The Observer is enough to undermine the canard that all YU students are boring automatons uninterested in deep thinking, creative writing, or bold self-expression.
The second big idea here is that The Observer is unique. Say it with me: nowhere but here. Indeed, where else in the world can religious women express themselves so openly and so articulately about the thoughts and themes of their lives that matter most to them?
The Observer turns the whole narrative of what a Stern student is supposed to be upside-down. Within its pages, we find a whole symphony of voices making bold arguments and writing sharp rejoinders, taking unpopular stances and talking about sensitive subjects.
They speak for themselves, and show the world a portrait of YU that’s far more than just a series of recurring stereotypes. Reading The Observer is an education, an opportunity to be confused and then enlightened about how observant women navigate the world so differently than I do. It’s a trip to a foreign country that you’ve heard a lot about but don’t yet fully understand. The challenge and the opportunity for learning is in the attempt to really understand this very different culture by seeing the world as they do, through their stories.
So there you have it. A big part of the reason why I ultimately decided to attend YU was actually due to reading The Observer. Thanks for sharing your stories with the world. You never know who might be reading.