Davis Nguyen ’15 did not think when he matriculated at Yale that he would spend his time volunteering in New Haven.
Now in his junior year, Nguyen assists with PALS tutoring and mentoring. He also reaches out to Vietnamese children in New Haven through the Asian American cultural center.
“I had no intention of volunteering for New Haven directly,” Nguyen said. “I thought it would be for students at Yale and not so much reach out of town.”
Nguyen’s story is common. When wide-eyed freshmen wander through Phelps Gate for the first time, they know little of the city that sits beyond Yale’s Ivy walls. But as they continue to experience Yale life, they soon become parts of the New Haven community.
Though some question whether Yale students do enough to volunteer in the Elm City, Yale’s location right in heart of urban America often forces students outside of their academic bubble and supports Yale’s vision of community and civic engagement.
Drawn into the city
“On your way to the bookstore you’re going to pass a bunch of homeless people,” said Leah Sarna ’14, Dwight Hall co-coordinator. “New Haven is a great asset to Yale because you can’t just bury your head in the Ivy tower. If you’re a sensitive person, you walk around New Haven and you see social issues.”
Sarna is not alone. Andrew Grass ’16 did not consider New Haven when he applied to Yale, but he was drawn to volunteering once he stepped off campus to campaign for U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy. Julie Qiu ’14 said that she chose Yale for the “community feel” rather than for New Haven, but she has since volunteered at Yale-New Haven hospital.
Dwight Hall approximates that 67 percent of students at Yale are involved in volunteering, based on a random sample taken in 2007. In comparison, the website for Harvard’s Phillips Brooks House said that 1,400 people — or approximately 21 percent of undergraduates — volunteer at the school. At Cornell, approximately 54 percent volunteer through Cornell’s public service center, according to statistics provided by the Cornell Public Service Center’s annual report, though 73.8 percent of Dartmouth students volunteer at the rural New Hampshire school, according to Helen Damon-Moore, the director of service and education at the Tucker Foundation.
“It’s not necessarily about being in an area that’s in a dense population or in an area with urban challenges,” said Johnny Scafaldi the director of development and alumni relations at Dwight Hall. “It takes talented, visionary, committed people, contributing to a vibrant democracy.”
Scafaldi also noted that the number of people volunteering at Yale has increased over the years. In 2001 there was an estimated 2,500 student volunteers, increasing to a total of about 3,500 in 2012.
The Tower Walls
Despite Yale’s high rate of volunteering, some students argue that the effort is too insignificant and often patronizing to those in New Haven.
Max Rolison ’15, the new membership coordinator of Dwight Hall, said that it can be difficult to get programs started in New Haven Public Schools because Yale students have a bad reputation. Often they cancel on plans to arrive in a school, Rolison said. However, he added that the public school system appreciates students who are dedicated to their program and participate consistently.
Volunteering is not the key to integrating Yale with New Haven, said Christian Rhally ’15. Rather he thinks the only real way to integrate town and gown is to make meaningful friendships outside of Yale. Volunteering, he said, “is not like two friends hanging out and having a drink, it’s not an equal relationship.”
There are also Yale students who do not have the time to participate in New Haven. ike Erica Leh, they would like to be involved off campus but find themselves too busy with classes and on-campus extracurricular activities.
“I feel bad that I’m not doing a lot of volunteer stuff in New Haven and I did a lot of it in high school,” Leh said. “If I had more time those are the things that I’d really like to get into.”
Morales agreed, adding that college is often a time of self-discovery and for this reason it is often easy to justify not engaging your community.
Part of Greater Education
Those who do feel the pull to partake in civic service in the Elm City said that it contributes to their education and understanding of the world around them.
Life skills, Rolison said, are learned through volunteering. During Hurricane Sandy, for example, Rolison said he raked leaves for the first time as he led students through relief efforts.
“Yale teaches me intellectual skills but all of my actual life skills comes through work that I do at dwight hall,” Rolison said. “It’s really crucial for Yale students to realize that there’s more to this world than this academic bubble.”
More than just providing practical, a glimpse into New Haven can provide students with the real world education that they need to understand how to lead and engage with their community outside of college. For this reason, Bonita Grubbs, the executive director of Christian Community Action in New Haven, has always seen student volunteering as a two-way street. It is beneficial to the community and it is also a way for students to grow.
“Yale has the opportunity to see the real world and to be educated by people in this community,” Grubbs said. “If Yale thinks about students as future leaders, there is value to understand, to be in touch with a world other than their own.”
In 2002 there were 60 member organizations in Dwight Hall compared to 90 in 2013.