‘Bright College Years’ in Double Time

Photo courtesy Susan Winnett

A transfer student faces the challenge of joining “the Yale experience” already in progress

By Susan Winnett ·

When I packed up my car and left Binghamton, NY in the middle of the second semester of my sophomore year, I could never have imagined that I’d be moving into a dorm room in New Haven eight months later. My first Yale application had been a disaster, so I went to SUNY, studied hard, got terrific grades and, two years later, tried again.

The second time around, there was, miraculously, an acceptance letter. My father beamed: “My daughter is a Yale man!”

My application essay had stressed my desire for a community that shared my love of knowledge and my commitment to hard work, and I had remarkably few qualms about meeting the academic challenges facing me. The prospect of finding my way into the daily life of social Yale, however, was daunting. I took my first meal in Saybrook dining hall amid a sea of unfamiliar faces, most of them  male and  all seeming to know each other. What place was I going to find in that pre-established conglomerate?

A glance through the 1974 Yale Banner confirms something that I sensed then: The decisive experiences of our class as a class took place during its freshman and sophomore years. However vital my memories of our junior and senior years may be, they cannot compare for drama with the stories I heard about the birth throes of coeducation, the absurdities and wonders of life in Vanderbilt or the immediate aftermath of the Panther trials. For my classmates, junior year might have been what Brad Graham, in his Banner essay, termed “a void.” For me, it was an immersion in the very rich and daunting legacy of the two years I’d missed.

As I looked around me as we sang “Bright College Years” at the Senior Dinner, I realized that I had not entirely put in the time that the song celebrated and that two years in double time could never entirely equal four years of Yale time.

​While at SUNY Binghamton, I had become adept at the “grim professionalism” that Kingman Brewster diagnosed at Yale. To that extent, I fit in well. I found a first ersatz family in the small group of masochists with whom I began an Intensive German class that met twice a day for the entirety of my junior year. But there were also unforgettable faux pas. Coming from a state university, I didn’t know what a mixer was and remember the mortification of walking into my first one wearing cutoffs and a T-shirt. But I gradually became as familiar to my fellow Saybrugians as they became to me (perhaps, alas, because I went to a mixer in cutoffs and a T-shirt). When I sat next to Barbara Borst in Alvin Kernan’s Shakespeare lecture, I felt the beginning of a bond that has survived until this day.   By the time Sandee Blechman returned from her semester in Mexico, I had become part of the community that welcomed her back.

My bright college years went by more swiftly than those of most of my classmates, in a way that one might compare to double time in music. In many ways, I did catch up, and never did I feel, nor was I ever made to feel, that I had not earned my Yale degree. But as I looked around me while we sang “Bright College Years” at the senior dinner, I realized that I had not entirely put in the time that the song celebrated and that two years in double time could never entirely equal four years of Yale time.

I was fortunate to be able to stay on. During the welcome meeting of the graduate program in Comparative Literature, the director of graduate studies (himself a Yale B.A. and Ph.D., and someone who had clearly not been a supporter of my application) acknowledged that I had been a Yale undergraduate by remarking, “I guess you’re going to want to leave pretty soon.” Partly to prove him wrong, I didn’t, although it took me an embarrassingly long time to get my doctorate. By the time I did so, I’d moved to Germany and an entirely different kind of academic world. Although forbiddingly functional architecture, unconscionable student-faculty ratios, and general anonymity seem a legitimate–or at least arguably defensible–price to pay for the free public university education my students are offered, my two years as a Yale undergraduate remain the touchstone for what I think every student’s college education should be. It was a precious gift.

After graduation, Susan Winnett [SY] stayed at Yale for a PhD in Comparative Literature. She met her husband, Gerd Witte, during a research fellowship in Berlin and spent the next decade bouncing back and forth between the US and Germany, working as an adjunct at the University of Hamburg, a Mellon Faculty Fellow at Harvard, and Assistant/Associate Professor at Columbia. After the birth of her son, Noah, in 1993, she settled in Germany and from 2008 to 2023 was University Professor of American Studies at the Heinrich-Heine-Universität in Duesseldorf. Since retirement, she’s been enjoying reading books that are not ‘for school,’ cuddling with her Jack Russell terrier, Bessie, choral singing, reviving her rusty guitar skills, and catching up with dear friends.