Yalies live in New Haven nine months of the year, claiming the city as their home away from home. But only about 30 of those students, according to data published by the Office of Institutional Research in 2010, actually trace their roots to the Elm City.
Eleven Yale students interviewed from greater New Haven — which includes neighboring towns such as Woodbridge and Hamden — said they take pride in being locals. Yet from the moment they stepped through Phelps Gate as Yale students, they said, all found themselves needing to defend their hometown from stereotypes of the city as both unsafe and dependent on Yale’s presence for its value.
Still, their experiences present varying definitions of what it means to be from the Elm City: Yale students who see themselves as local residents attended both private and public schools within the greater New Haven area, including neighborhoods such as Woodbridge, North Haven and Hamden.
“We see a relatively large and diverse contingent of students from this wide range of schools,” Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel said. “As to backgrounds and what attending Yale for a student from the area has been like, I would be very reluctant to generalize. I think you would find quite a diversity of stories.”
While the majority of Yale students from the greater New Haven area interviewed attended private high schools, all 11 interviewed offered reasons for why they identify as true New Haven natives and feel an obligation to stand up for the city as a whole — regardless of their varied upbringings.
The issue of safety in New Haven is often discussed seriously among Yale students and administrators: New Haven saw 34 murders last year alone, the highest count in the past 20 years. But this year, no homicides have been recorded. Though Yalies from New Haven said they recognize that some neighborhoods may be unsafe at certain hours, they said their classmates often exaggerate the extent to which living in New Haven is dangerous.
The New Haven students interviewed said they find themselves countering the city’s negative reputation to their peers, citing restaurants, cultural events and a sense of community as reasons to enjoy living here.
Kayla Williams ’13, a women’s, gender and sexuality studies major who has lived in New Haven since the age of five, said she often confronts stereotypes about New Haven while at Yale. A graduate of the Cooperative Arts and Humanities Magnet High School on College Street, Williams said she struggles in particular with people who consider Yale the only worthwhile component of New Haven.
“Something that has bothered me about a lot of students at Yale is that they think of New Haven as just a rung on the ladder to help them get where they’re going rather than a city they’re part of and live in for four years,” Williams said. “They see it as a means to an end.”
Williams recalled an incident during her freshman year when a suitemate told her she did not believe New Haven could exist without Yale. Williams said she found the comment to be “hurtful on a personal level,” adding that she frequently hears students voice what she called “hyped-up” concerns about New Haven’s crime problems.
Lynette Perez ’15, who attended Hill Regional Career High School on Legion Avenue, agreed that the city’s “bad reputation” is undeserved. While she said her neighborhood, the Hill, may not be the safest in the city, Perez added that she has lived on the same street her entire life without encountering any dangerous situations.
“Some of the people living around me know the police very well for the wrong reasons,” she said. “But despite that, I don’t feel unsafe in my community.”
James Doss-Gollin ’15, who attended Wilbur Cross High School near East Rock Park, said he understands students’ concerns about safety but occasionally feels the need to correct their assumptions. He also said he had experienced stereotypes about the people with whom he had grown up. But when he invited a few of his friends from the local area to hang out in his suite, Doss-Gollin said his Yale friends were surprised by how well they got along with the “townies.”
While Doss-Gollin said he laughs off many snide remarks about New Haven said offhand, Marian Homans-Turnbull ’12, a graduate of Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, said she always “yells at her friends” for making disparaging comments about the city. She added that she often invites her friends to explore the city’s neighborhoods with her “to break out of the Yale bubble.”
THE ‘REAL’ NEW HAVEN?
Within the group of New Haven students who study at Yale, over half of the students interviewed said they have noticed a significant difference between those who come from private school backgrounds and those who were educated in New Haven’s public school system.
“I want people to understand that there are different types of New Haven students,” Williams, educated in New Haven public schools her entire life, said. “Just because [Yale students] say they’re from New Haven doesn’t mean they’ve had the same experience.”
Williams said she faced more challenges in being competitive for a spot at Yale than local private school students may have.
She said her family raised her with the notion that she would one day be a Yale student, and that her grandmother used to refer to her as “her little Yalie.” But even after being admitted, Williams said people applied stereotypes related to the city’s public education system to her own upbringing and intelligence.
Sofia Gearty ’13 attended Choate Rosemary Hall — an institution whose alumni include John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson and Paul Giamatti ’89 DRA ’94 — and said that while she understands how public school students might not think those from private schools understand “the real New Haven,” she identifies strongly as a New Haven citizen. Gearty grew up in downtown New Haven, and her family now lives in East Rock, she said.
Still Doss-Gollin said he thinks there is a “very big gap between the public school kids and the private schools kids within New Haven.” He added that he feels it is very easy for private school students to live in New Haven without ever interacting with the parts of the city outside the Yale bubble.
As a student who went to public school, Doss-Gollin said he felt alienated by how much Yale’s campus seemed to dominate the downtown area when he was younger.
“It was really weird coming here at first because the boundaries between the city and the University are so strong,” he said. “I used to walk by the gates of Old Campus and think that wasn’t my world — it was a world designed to keep people from my background out. Now I feel welcome. And I think it’s been good for my friends to know someone who lives here.”
All but one of seven students interviewed who attended private schools in the greater New Haven area said they have a parent who has taught at Yale.
William Koh ’12, a graduate of the Hopkins School, said Yale was an integral part of his childhood. He recalled attending Harvard-Yale football games with his family, including his father, Harold Koh, who served as dean of Yale Law School until 2009.
William said he feels a connection to both the city and the University, and that he would be lying if he were to say he only identified with one or the other. Koh said his time at Yale has solidified his connection to New Haven. He is currently writing his senior thesis about the similarities between urban renewal in New Haven and South Africa, he added.
“I am very surprised and happy when I hear about Yale students who have found jobs here and end up staying here,” Koh said. “I used to really want to leave in a way that was very final and never thought I would come back here… New Haven will always be a place that I enjoy being.”