While at Yale, Vance fell in love with one of his fellow law students, Usha. He describes her as intelligent, direct, and infinitely knowledgeable not only about the world, but also about Yale, where she’d gone as an undergraduate student. As such, she became his “Yale spirit guide” and his general life coach as he navigated his strange new upper-class existence. In writing about Usha, Vance begins to consider the notion of “social capital,” saying that “the networks of people and institutions around us have real economic value.”
For Vance, the “networks of people and institutions” available to him as an upwardly mobile young man centered around Yale, which provided him with connections to open doors that would otherwise have remained shut. In some ways, Usha was one of these resources, considering the fact that she acted as his “Yale spirit guide.” For the first time in his life, Vance had successfully built a support system for himself that extended beyond Mamaw’s loving but inherently limited aid.
In addition to Usha’s advice, Vance experienced more tangible forms of social capital, too. For example, every August, Yale Law School hosts recruiters from prestigious law firms. This is a “marathon week of dinners, cocktail hours, hospitality suite visits, and interviews.” When Vance went through this experience, he was invited to one of New Haven’s fanciest restaurants with a group of other students who were candidates for positions at a well-respected firm. He was baffled by the riches he witnessed in this restaurant, fumbling his way through the evening and trying to avoid making a fool of himself. At one point, he retreated to the bathroom and called Usha to ask her which of the many pieces of silverware he was supposed to use first. “The interviews were about passing a social test—a test of belonging,” he writes. In the end, he received a job offer from the firm.
The fact that law firm interviews were “a test of belonging” once again illustrates why it is so difficult to attain—and then maintain—upward mobility. After all, Vance had grown up without the lavish indulgences and customs that these law firms expected prospective employees to have. Without any knowledge of this social context, how could he possibly succeed? Fortunately, as Vance previously noted, “social capital” is comprised not only of institutional connections, but also personal connections—and because he had already been at Yale for a year, he had established some of these personal connections. As such, he was able to rely on Usha to help him navigate an otherwise unfamiliar rung of the socioeconomic ladder.
One of Vance’s professors, Amy Chua, helped him make decisions about his career and personal life. At one point, he decided he wanted to obtain a clerkship with a judge. Amy questioned his motives (it didn’t seem to align with his career goals), but nonetheless connected him with a judge she knew. When he made the short list, she told him she didn’t think he was pursuing the clerkship for the right reasons, advising him instead to focus on his relationship with Usha while figuring out a career path that made more sense. Vance listened to her, and to this day believes she delivered the best advice he’s ever received. “Social capital isn’t manifest only in someone connecting you to a friend or passing a résumé on to an old boss. It is also, or perhaps primarily, a measure of how much we learn through our friends, colleagues, and mentors,” he writes.
Again, Vance demonstrates the importance of social capital, underlining how useful and necessary it is to be able to draw upon the wisdom of peers and mentors. Although the hillbilly community he came from was tight-knit (because of its commitment to the group identity), the individual members rarely banded together to share resources or knowledge. The only time Vance had witnessed this sort of communal support system was when he attended Don’s church. Importantly, Vance managed to avoid falling off the socioeconomic ladder because he wasn’t afraid to ask for help from people like Amy.