FOCUS brings city to students

A group of undergraduates is working to spark their peers’ interest in New Haven, and pop the Yale “bubble” out of which many students will not emerge until they graduate.

Yesterday afternoon in the Dwight Hall common room, the student coordinators of “FOCUS on New Haven” hosted a discussion panel to introduce freshmen to New Haven’s resources. FOCUS, a pre-orientation program for rising sophomores, attempts to introduce Yale undergraduates to the city early in their student careers by encouraging them to spend a week performing community service before classes begin.

“FOCUS’ goal is to help students understand the connection between community service and social justice by focusing on New Haven,” FOCUS co-coordinator Brett Hernandez ’06 said. “It is also an impetus to creating a community of civic leaders on campus.”

The panelists were Office of New Haven and State Affairs Program Director Reggie Solomon ’98, Dwight Hall Program Director Johnny Scafidi ’01, Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04 and Shonu Gandhi ’03, who is managing New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s gubernatorial campaign.

The presenters largely focused on the opportunities provided by the city’s small size. Gandhi, who said she has long been interested in education reform, said she pursued a role in city politics to gain more decision-making power after feeling ineffective while volunteering in public schools. She also noted that she would not have been given the chance to manage a gubernatorial campaign had she worked in a larger city.

Healey said, like Gandhi, he has also gained experience in small-city politics by becoming an alderman while a sophomore at Yale.

“What I find particularly special about New Haven is that it allows for so much growth in personal and professional capacity at a very young age,” he said. “Where else would a 19-year-old be an alderman?”

Healey said he thinks many students might feel intimidated when presented with the opportunity to fill such important positions. He said students do not need to make decisions for the community, but rather, simply to recognize the community’s problems and come up with creative solutions.

Scafidi agreed that it is important for students to identify the city’s needs. He encouraged them to read local newspapers and participate in various community initiatives before shaping their role as volunteers. Students, he said, should choose activities that do not displace community members’ efforts to help themselves.

Solomon said Yale students willing to help New Haven should consider starting for-profits instead.

“For people who don’t have a job, non-profits can’t do much,” he said. “They are the long kiss goodbye.”

Whatever way that students choose to help New Haven, Scafidi said Yale students need to adopt New Haven “as their community.” Regardless of whether they plan to stay in the city after graduation, students should treat the city as a place to which they will one day return, Solomon said.

“No matter where you’re from, Yale will always be home for you in some ways,” he said.

But Gandhi said Yale students should not constantly feel that they have an obligation to improve New Haven — their primary responsibility is to enjoy the city. She encouraged current students to visit the city’s theaters, bars and restaurants.

George Le ’08 said he was impressed with the panelists’ presentations.

“[The panel] was informative,” he said. “It showed all the opportunities in New Haven that most Yale undergraduates don’t know about.”

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