Our student body is a mosaic of trips to Africa, campaigns in inner cities and hours spent tutoring the needy. As much as cynics may consider Yale’s social conscience to be a reaction to privilege rather than a sign of philanthropy, that’s neither entirely fair nor accurate. While there is certainly a share of disingenuous people within our ranks, the students who become involved in Dwight Hall or other service organizations more often see their commitments as ends in themselves. Because no one forces us to join service groups, the college application-induced pressures to volunteer are no longer part of the equation. However, while our motivation may be good, the process of navigating the many opportunities it leads us to can raise a few interesting questions.
On Saturday, Sept. 7, freshmen got their first taste of on-campus altruism in the annual Freshman Day of Service, which is organized by Dwight Hall. Over the course of the day, students were promised they could “work side-by-side with other service-minded freshmen” and “make a difference in the New Haven community.”
Although many of the projects sounded good on paper, in practice a substantial number of freshmen left the day feeling uninspired by their work. One student explained that his proposed activity — putting on a theater show for children from New Haven — ultimately dissolved into a leisurely brunch and acting games when no kids actually showed up for the performance. Another student was told she would work directly with New Haven families when in actuality she spent the day mowing lawns. While these might have satisfied our high school selves, eager to appear well-rounded to colleges, this type of manufactured aid no longer appeals to those who want to create tangible change. Students who volunteer are not content to settle for something that appears earnest, but in reality is a just a glorified day in the park.
Beyond the organizational problems of this year’s Day of Service, the very concept of these types of events is objectionable. In essence, the underlying philosophy behind the Day of Service sends the message to New Haven residents that the issues facing their community are presented to Yale students like samplings on a charity buffet, becoming merely an opportunity for freshmen to select which entrée looks most appetizing to them. Yet the reality is that true need cannot be reflected on a calendar or wrapped up neatly with a packed lunch included. It allows students to believe that their civic engagement can be checked off like a to-do list, something that is so distant from their daily lives that it warrants its own holiday of sorts. If the Day of Service is intended to be a way to introduce freshmen to local organizations at Yale, then we should simply have a club fair and leave it at that. Otherwise, we are no better than humanitarian role-players, who strap on caps of social consciences for the morning, take out our helping shovels and insist on doing good. This mindset is neither helpful for the community nor authentic to actual service.
While a Day of Service may not be constructive, this is in no way a challenge to the essential role Dwight Hall plays on campus. After speaking to upperclassmen and some faculty, I have received great advice about causes under its umbrella that are extremely worthwhile. Perhaps this is how students should be integrated into service. Not with the pomp and circumstance of a ceremonial day, but rather introduced through the informal suggestions of individuals who have been part of positive change themselves.
Although resources are finite for many things in New Haven, we are lucky in that well-intended students are one of them. No matter what organizations we signed up for, acting as responsible activists requires we stay in touch with why we became involved in the first place. Whether we do service “for God” or “for country,” it is most important that we don’t simply do it “for Yale.”
Larry Milstein is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.