MORRISON: Leaving New Haven

commencement
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

This column was published as part of the special Commencement Issue for the Class of 2014.

As I set out to leave New Haven, I think most of Frank. Frank is a fourth-grader at Truman School in New Haven who I had the opportunity to tutor every week for over a year. And he reminds me of the ways that Yale students, specifically members of our class, have contributed most profoundly to change in New Haven when we have worked with and for the residents of this city. Whether it is the politicos helping to elect and re-elect local politicians, the dedicated mentors of the Future Project or the social workers-in-training at YHHAP’s No Closed Doors, our class has done good work to start to tackle some of the major challenges that the Elm City faces. These challenges range from one of the highest asthma rates in the country to 12 percent unemployment to a stubbornly high level of crime.

In doing so, we have made an important point about New Haven and about cities in general. Many young professionals in New Haven are fond of calling it the Greatest Small City in America, #gscia in Twitter lingo. Yale, with its investments in the Broadway shopping district, the Homebuyers Program and New Haven Promise, has buttressed the idea that New Haven is a city on the upswing, in a renaissance. And though Yalies are often criticized for trashing our host city, I think a lot of us have gotten to experience what makes New Haven great, from the theater and arts scene to the world’s best pizza and possibly the highest concentration of frozen yogurt in the Northeast.

But the work of those dedicated to New Haven in our class has shown that, as important as it is for us to celebrate what is great about this city, we cannot hide from the challenges that it faces. As students in a university whose model student is Nathan Hale, the original American example of self-sacrifice for the benefit of a community, we are compelled into lives of service. And service in New Haven is perhaps the first way that we entered that life.

Now most of us are leaving New Haven, perhaps to return at some point, but largely to venture to cities across the world. And no matter where we head, those cities and communities will face profound challenges. These challenges demand the attention of smart people. Just as many of us answered a call in New Haven to serve, we will have an opportunity to serve these other communities. And we must do so.

The world is not served, and we as individuals are not well served, by, in the words of Nelson Mandela, “playing small.” Whether we are working in global health or investment banking, our ability to effect change through service, support and advocacy is unparalleled. The city you are moving to needs you, and you can help.

Moreover, we can effect the greatest change by altering how we view cities, period. We can all think of cities that are strong and desirable and rebounding from past problems. But just as our obligation is to not shy away from the problems of the strong cities that most of us move to, we should also take a chance on the glum-looking cities, the Detroits and Bridgeports of the world that push us away. They are often the ones most in need of our skills — New York and D.C. are overrun with Yalies, after all — and they are probably the ones where you can make the biggest difference.

In essence, we should see those cities as the great opportunity to add value to society. We should feel that our society is judged not only by the urban successes it creates, but by the urban failures it neglects. Our obligated life of service as graduates of this university should point us to these areas of neglect, and we must seize the opportunity for change. 

Drew Morrison is a senior in Branford College.

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