“You guys brought your lunch?” Poncho Jackson focused his gaze on the bags of food student volunteers had carried into the Community Soup Kitchen in Christ Church. The plastic bags each contained two turkey or ham sandwiches neatly packaged in Saran wrap, a bag of chips, an apple, a large brownie and a plastic water bottle with a bold blue label — Yale.
Without skipping a beat, Jackson burst into laughter, amused that the students had chosen to bring their own food to a place whose purpose was serving it. The kitchen provides lunch to the homeless and hungry four days a week, with Jackson serving as the dining supervisor.
Christ Church stands at 84 Broadway, across the street from such Yale staples as the Yale Bookstore, the Apple Store and Urban Outfitters. But for Genevieve Simmons ’17 and the four other students who volunteered to work at the soup kitchen during Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, the building was unfamiliar. When the group first passed by the large Gothic church on the way from Dwight Hall, they kept on walking.
Simmons and her friends spent the first two hours at the soup kitchen grouping plastic spoons and forks, chopping up ham in the kitchen and bagging bananas to be donated. Simmons was standing behind a large countertop, slicing a pound of ham on a cutting board when Jackson called her over to the dining area to break for lunch.
The oversized bags of food remained in a closet, and Simmons stood in line behind four other student-volunteers. A vegetarian, she politely declined the meatloaf and accepted a tray of pasta salad and green beans from the same counter where, within an hour, over one hundred New Haven residents would file in to receive lunch.
Simmons believes that leaving campus once in a while is important. She runs through East Rock, bikes through downtown and has even jogged out to the University of Southern Connecticut. But staying in the walls of the University is easy, she said, adding that the idea of a “Yale bubble” certainly exists. Everything you need — food, shelter, your classes, your friends — are within a one-mile radius.
The University, however, strongly encourages students to explore the city, particularly through community service. The University offers the President’s Public Service Fellowship, which funds opportunities for students to work in New Haven’s public sector for up to 11 weeks during the summer. And on its official website, Yale highlights its ongoing partnership with the Elm City, proudly proclaiming that “more than 2,500 undergraduates — nearly one-half of all Yale College students — volunteer in community service activities in New Haven.”
According to a News survey sent to a randomized sample of undergraduates, 60 percent of the 142 respondents said they feel obligated to do some form of service work during their time at Yale. And 38 percent of those surveyed said they are currently a member of Dwight Hall, Yale’s center for social justice and public service. The group serves as an umbrella for 89 student-led service groups, addressing education, public health, social justice and international issues.
Despite these encouraging numbers, the true impact of Yale students’ service work is difficult to quantify. As Dwight Hall Executive Director Peter Crumlish DIV ’09 asked, “Can you really say, by the end of this week we created more ‘good’ in the world?”
FROM OLD CAMPUS TO FAIR HAVEN
A looming 19th century brownstone, Dwight Hall overlooks Old Campus as an unmistakable emblem of Yale, witnessing the daily rhythms of university life. But the building is also a stone’s throw away from the New Haven Green, a busy centerpiece of the city that ends almost at the point where Old Campus begins.
Dwight Hall was founded by Yale undergraduates in 1886. The organization grew out of an expression of Christian belief — one focused on giving to the poor and needy, Crumlish recounted.
“[In those days], it was the mindset of people who were privileged and went to a university like this that because they are privileged, they should find the needy and help them,” he said. “But that’s not the mindset anymore.”
Today, Dwight Hall provides an opportunity for students to connect with the real problems facing the community.
For Sophia Weissmann ’14, service manifests itself in her work as a Public School Intern at Fair Haven School, a K-8 institution that serves predominantly Latino and immigrant families. Weissmann explained that going to Fair Haven School is about much more than community service. It’s about learning how teachers and administrators interact; it’s about getting off campus and really understanding what it means to be a part of a city; and it’s about discovering her own place within New Haven, separate from Yale.
“For me,” Weismann noted, “Dwight Hall has been the cornerstone of the way I understand my place in the community.”
In contrast to other schools, whose center for community service is coordinated by the Dean’s Office. Dwight Hall functions as its own non-profit organization independent of the University. Students play a critical role in the governance of the organization. The leaders of Dwight Hall member groups make up the cabinet, which votes to promote provisional member groups to full member status and also elects the Student Executive Committee — 12 students who allocate funds and communicate with group leaders about Dwight Hall requirements and resources.
The benefit of this model, Crumlish explained, is that beyond just providing service opportunities, Dwight Hall allows students to develop leadership skills and take initiative on their own projects, unburdened by any expectation to pursue specific forms of work.
“We don’t tell people this is how you should make the world better,” Crumlish said. “If you have an idea, it’s our job to help you be as effective as possible.”
THE DICHOTOMY OF HELP
On a Wednesday morning last fall, Weissmann entered Fair Haven School’s Family Resource Center to find coordinator Luz Betancur bent over a desk, examining a scattered array of CD-ROMs along with a new computer and printer she had just received from the district. At 8:45 that morning, Weissmann had boarded the city bus on the corner of Orange and Chapel Street, prepared to perform her usual task: supervising preschoolers while their mothers took an English language class in the library. But within minutes, Weissmann found herself trying to install a printer, working more as a technician than a teacher.
At the end of her two-hour shift, the printer still didn’t work. The following week, Weissmann returned to the Center and spent over two more hours on the phone with tech support, following detailed instructions to install the software. Determined to fix the problem, she was late to her afternoon class back at Yale. When the printer company, Hewlett-Packard, agreed that Weissmann had exhausted all possibilities, it deemed the printer defective and promised to deliver a replacement.
After two more weeks of frustration, the new printer finally arrived. This time around, the machine cooperated.
In a mixture of excitement and relief, Weissmann screamed with delight, “Yes, Luz, we did it, we did this together!”
“I know it’s a small thing, but it was so satisfying,” Weissmann recounted. “Some of the things I do are really fun and inspiring … setting up a printer is neither fun nor inspiring, but it’s one of those things you might have to do when you are working in a school.”
As a PSI, Weissmann serves as liaison between Yale and Fair Haven, finding ways to best match University resources with the needs of the school. Rather than approaching her role in service as a “provider,” Weissmann said she goes into the school to learn about and help meet its needs.
But some students approach service entirely differently.
Like Weissmann, Suzannah Holsenbeck ’05 served as a PSI in college. Among those engaged in service, there was a clear dichotomy, she said. While some students learned about the issues facing New Haven before determining how they could help, others immediately felt they had a solution to the city’s problems and the power to “save everybody.” Those students who carefully evaluate the needs of New Haven are usually more effective, she explained.
Even today, there are students who are skeptical about Yalies’ approach to service. Last semester, MEChA de Yale, a Dwight Hall social justice group, began leading protests every Friday against Gourmet Heaven’s alleged unfair labor practices.
Some students, like MEChA Community Action Chair Evelyn Nunez ’15, consider boycotting the 24-hour deli as a way to work towards fair wages and worker justice, but others assert that students do not need to interfere in such issues.
In a New Haven Independent article that has circulated widely among local residents since its publication on Jan 15., Alexander Saeedy ’15 said he chose to ignore the protests and continue purchasing food at Gourmet Heaven because students do not have a place in this fight.
“I’m doing me. The Department of Labor will do them,” Saeedy told the Independent during a protest earlier this month. “I think this is emblematic of this belief Yale students have that they can create a world free of problems and full of happiness and justice.”
Whether the act of protesting outside of Gourmet Heaven will create justice is yet to be seen, but most students do agree that they can — to some degree — make positive change during their four years at Yale. Only 1 percent of those surveyed indicated that students cannot make any positive change, and 25 percent said students can positively impact the city “to a large extent.”
The complexities of New Haven’s needs have not dissuaded students from establishing more service groups each year. James Doss-Gollin ’15 founded New Haven REACH in 2011, a group that aims to increase college access for youth in the city. REACH became a provisional Dwight Hall member group January 2013.
Doss-Gollin said he is thankful for the resources Dwight Hall provides, particularly monetary funds and printing access. Through Dwight Hall, he has also found other Yale groups doing similar service projects on campus and has combined resources with some of these organizations.
“It’s nice to be able to count on them for our basic needs,” Doss-Gollin said. “It’s a lot better than having to write even more grants.”
But with a growing demand for service work-related funding, not all member groups have been able to receive the amount they requested.
While operating as a non-profit allows Dwight Hall to maintain independence and foster student leadership, it also means that the organization cannot rely on Yale for all of its funding. Yale provides Dwight Hall with its building, some monetary support as well as some in-kind donations, but as with other registered non-profits, Dwight Hall relies on grants and donor support for most of its monetary resources
According to a “fact sheet” released by Dwight Hall, the Yale University Office of New Haven and State Affairs (ONHSA) contributed 5 percent of Dwight Hall’s nearly $900,000 operating budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. The remainder of this sum was funded by a combination of grants, individual donors, facility rentals and its endowment. Each Dwight Hall member group is required to complete four hours per semester of Phonathon, during which members call potential donors to solicit contributions to the organization. Twenty-seven percent of the 2013-2014 budget is supported by donor funds, the fact sheet notes.
Still, several members of Dwight Hall groups interviewed cited a shortage of funds as one of the biggest roadblocks currently facing the organization.
“We are financially strained by the resources we have,” said William Redden ’14, who served as Dwight Hall’s Financial Coordinator two years ago. “We are capable of [obtaining our own funds] but could always use more from Yale.” Redden noted that because Dwight Hall operates independently of Yale, the group is responsible for a large share of its development.
Over the past decade, Dwight Hall has grown tremendously, both in the number of member groups and in the amount of service each group performs. In the past 10 years, member groups have increased from 66 to 89, Crumlish said. The influx of groups has meant more funding requests. Though Dwight Hall has increased the total amount of money it allocates, supply has struggled to meet demand.
The executive committee accepts funding applications from its groups each semester. The amount of money requested from the Campus Community Fund — the principal source of funding for Dwight Hall groups — has grown significantly over the past two years. In the fall of 2011, member groups requested a total of $18,321.91 and in the fall of 2013, that number had risen to $27,180.34, according to data collected by the student executive committee.
During these semesters, Dwight Hall only distributed $8,544.13 and $12,523.87, respectively. The student executive committee has the difficult job of determining who should and should not receive funding. After the committee accepts or rejects a group’s funding request, the group must submit their receipts before they actually receive money from the Campus Community Fund. Thus, the difference between funding requests and allocations is in part attributable to groups spending less than they initially requested, former student financial coordinator Michael Wolner ’14 said. But he added that Dwight Hall could not possibly fulfill all of the requests it receives.
“If, during my fall semester, we had given out everything that was requested, we would have used up the budget for the entire year,” he noted.
REACHING ACROSS THE GREEN
As far back as he can remember, Doss-Gollin’s Sundays morning were spent at Church of the Redeemer on Whitney Ave. and Cold Spring St., and week nights were for playing soccer in New Haven’s youth leagues. When he walked past the gates of Old Campus, it was a foreign and imposing space.
As a senior at Wilbur Cross High School, Doss-Gollin considered himself lucky to have parents who hold college degrees. He had two people who could help him navigate the application process, but a lot of his friends were left floundering.
“My parents knew that at the end of Junior year, it’s time to start thinking about college and SATs,” he said. “But a lot of my friends — their parents didn’t go to college, some didn’t finish high school, and some didn’t even speak English.”
During his first year at Yale, Doss-Gollin’s younger friends sent him their college admissions essays for editing. The following year, he received a flood of about 20 applications — students from his high school soccer team and friends from his church who wanted guidance. When Doss-Gollin discovered that his classmates at Yale were excited to help read through these applications, he realized that he had an opportunity to create a significant impact on the lives of public school students in the city.
In the summer of 2011, Doss-Gollin worked with two of his friends to create a website and founded REACH.
Starting a group from scratch wasn’t easy. When Doss-Gollin and his friends called New Haven Public Schools to tell them about REACH, they were met with trepidation. The schools were accustomed to having multiple Yale groups come in, and they didn’t necessarily want more help.
Doss-Gollin recounted a conversation with an administrator who seemed frustrated that so many students from the University want to have access to their schools. Even if they are well-intentioned, the official explained, they don’t always understand how the school operates or what the children’s lives are like outside of school.
As a native of New Haven, Doss-Gollin understands where the administrator was coming from.
“I think a lot of people are rightfully a little cautious of groups wanting to come in and tell them how to do things,” he said. “Sometimes, especially from the perspective of an overworked administrator, it can be more work than it’s worth.”
And saying that you go to Yale carries a whole other set of implications, he added.
When Doss-Gollin was a student at Wilbur Cross, he and his friends would formulate theories about why Yale students stayed trapped inside of a bubble. “Was it because they were scared of us, or because they didn’t like us? My friends and I came up with all sorts of theories.”
While hostility towards Yale students doing service does exist, Claudia Merson, Director of Public School Partnerships at Yale, said it has lessened over time. When Merson began her post in 1995, working with the schools was markedly more challenging than it is now. There wasn’t a designated liaison between the school and Yale. Students communicated directly with the school principal, who was likely busy with more pressing issues.
That same year, Merson helped found the PSI program for Yale students.
“We call them the semipermeable membrane,” Merson said. “They are working in two different worlds … PSI’s have to be bilingual and bicultural.”
The relationship has also improved, Merson said, because NHPS and Yale have coordinated their calendars so that each side knows when events and tutoring sessions are feasible.
Still, Holsenbeck recalled being met with some hostile reactions from teachers as a PSI in 2004.
“When I went into schools, there were teachers who didn’t want anything to do with me just because I was a Yale student,” she said. “They felt [we] were snobby, that Yale students had flaked in the past … they had ideas of what Yale represented.”
Even now, having student volunteers can sometimes be a burden. On the MLK Day of Service, the natural rhythms of the soup kitchen were interrupted by its five student visitors.
Jackson had to orient the students around the kitchen and explain how the process would work: In about two hours, over 100 people would line up out the door to get their lunch. Some might be mentally ill, others might come in drunk, Jackson said, reassuring the students that he would protect them if a difficult situation arose
Having a new group of volunteers — while helpful — introduces its own set of challenges
“Sometimes, having Yalies, or really any volunteer group, come in, is more work than help,” Jackson admitted. “They finish one task, and then they just sit there instead of asking what to do next … And then we also have to watch out for their safety.”
But Jackson suggested that service is perhaps the best way to establish a connection between Yale and New Haven, however tenuous. Still, he thinks more needs to be done in order to truly close the divide.
“This could be the beginning of a bridge, but Yale and New Haven are still separate entities,” he said.
CYCLES OF PROGRESS
On next year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Jackson will likely go through the same process again: explaining what the soup kitchen does, that spoon goes on top of fork, and that it’s two, not three, bananas per bag. Perhaps Simmons will sign up to go to a different site, or maybe she will have another commitment and won’t participate in the Day of Service at all.
Each year, a group of student leaders graduates and a new cohort of freshman — many of whom have never been to New Haven — become residents of the city. Dwight Hall groups cycle through leaders and must work with students whose goals may diverge from those of their predecessors. Given this constant rotation, sustainability becomes an important factor in evaluating the effectiveness of Yale students’ service.
When Holsenbeck returned to Yale five years after graduating, she discovered that many Dwight Hall groups, fully functional during her time as a student, had completely disappeared. Only “a handful,” she remarked, were still going strong.
The groups that remained, such as Community Health Educators and Elmseed Enterprise Fund, were the ones with a sustainable model. To be sustainable, student groups must have a clear mission and had a logical plan for leadership transitions, Holsenbeck said.
Doss-Gollin said REACH recently underwent a board change. The model is sustainable, he explained, because while he is no longer in charge of the organization, he is still involved and available to help the new student leaders maintain the program.
Among the students who REACH assisted last year is Alondra Arguello ’17. She signed up for REACH when the organization’s email address was written on a classroom blackboard. She immediately emailed the group and was matched with student mentor Marisol Dahl ’15.
Arguello credits REACH with part of her Yale acceptance. Dahl would revise her essays within hours and Arguello would send them back, receiving additional feedback almost immediately.
Now, Arguello said, she feels empowered to help other students reach their full potential. She is currently organizing a panel of Yale students to lead an informal discussion with NHPS students who want to pursue college. Despite the stark differences between Yale and New Haven, she said, there is still good reason to bridge the gap.
Arguello recalled that in high school, “People viewed Yale as a place where they would never be.” Now, she remarked, “This is my place.”
Correction: Jan. 24
A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Dwight Hall was founded in 1866. In fact, the organization was established in 1886.