A Yale journey marked by scrums, crowns, and a life-changing polar plunge

During her time at Yale, Olivia Sally tackled a variety of academic and physical challenges — including one that changed the direction of her life.
Olivia Sally

Olivia Sally (Photo by Daniel Havlat)

If you had asked Olivia Sally a year ago where she’d be after graduating from Yale, she would have answered that she would be in law school. But a conversation with Mira Debs last spring changed everything.

Sally had just dipped into the icy waters of the Madison Surf Club as part of a polar plunge event at the invitation of her teacher, Debs, executive director of Yale's Education Studies Program. While chatting over post-plunge tacos, Debs mentioned the life-changing experience she had as a Rhodes Scholar, and asked Sally whether she’d considered applying for a similar fellowship.

After eventually applying for, and receiving, a Marshall Scholarship, Sally decided to pursue a Master of Education and Master of Public Policy during two years in the UK as the first member of the Yale Education Studies Program (and the first member of Pauli Murray College to receive the scholarship).

Leaping into frigid waters was just one of the many physical challenges Sally took on while at Yale. A starter on and recruiter for the rugby team, she also completed the “75 Hard” fitness challenge (a 75-day challenge consisting of a strict set of tasks to improve sleep, diet, fitness, and mental acuity), and competed in pageants like the Miss Volunteer America Pageant, which included a swimsuit competition component. As a senior, she also decided to train for her first marathon, the San Francisco Marathon, which she will run back home in the Bay Area in late July.

 Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris and Olivia Sally
Olivia Sally with Vice President Kamala Harris

All of those experiences have helped me to find a sense of strength that is more tethered to me,” Sally said.

Another important part of her Yale journey was the community she discovered in her residential college, Pauli Murray College. The legacy of the college’s namesake — the revered jurist, author, and civil and women’s rights advocate — felt especially meaningful to Sally, a descendant of American enslaved people. “Pauli Murray is a glimpse into the future of Yale,” she said. “Having Pauli Murray as this icon who represents social justice represents the trajectory that Yale is taking.”

Her favorite memories of college life include “family” dinners each Sunday, the annual water balloon fight during the North Campus Olympics, and painting a mural in her entryway dedicated to her hometown of Oakland, California. 

President of her secret society, a member of the Political Science Advisory Committee, and a lifelong activist, Sally’s academic path initially was more politically focused — punctuated by an internship with Vice President Kamala Harris where Sally found herself writing Tweets, helping to arrange the Veep’s motorcade, and meeting other national leaders. But after taking her first Education Studies class, with Debs, Sally realized how much the world of education needs more champions. When she was younger, Sally attended a Title I school where she was placed in classes for at-risk children. As an Education Studies Scholar, Sally was driven to give back and extend the educational privileges Yale afforded her.

A group of friends hugging

In her classes and beyond, she designed innovative solutions to early inequities, which ultimately aimed to empower children to achieve upward mobility. “It’s been really exciting being able to start championing early education with things that I've learned at Yale and with my past life experiences.”

After she finishes the fellowship, Sally is contemplating a future in education policy work — after completing law school as planned.

As she wraps her time at Yale, Sally has tried to soak up each moment with the friends she made through rugby, Pauli Murray College, Education Studies, working in the butteries, and beyond with feelings of gratitude and excitement for the future.  “I did not realize how many families I would leave with,” she says. “Genuine families.”

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