This summer, “FOCUS on New Haven” widened its lens: For the first time, the program added incoming freshmen to its usual cohort of sophomores and transfer students.
Leaders of the weeklong pre-orientation program — in which students explore the city through discussions, guest speakers and daily community service — decided last spring to include freshmen as part of Dwight Hall’s growing outreach efforts.
From Aug. 20 to 25, 38 freshmen and about 20 sophomore and transfer students volunteered at nonprofit organizations during the day and met with community leaders at night to discuss urban issues and social justice. FOCUS coordinator Timothy Gavin ’17 said the program aims to get students better acquainted with each other, New Haven and opportunities at Dwight Hall. Participating students were sorted into work sites based on personal preference and spent six hours a day volunteering. This year’s freshman volunteer sites were Chapel Haven, the Sunrise Café — a volunteer-run program that caters to low-income members of the New Haven community — Neighborhood Housing Services and Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services.
“This year there were two ‘branches’ of FOCUS: One branch was dedicated to introducing freshmen to the city of New Haven and many of its ongoing conversations, and the other was dedicated to sophomores and transfers,” Gavin said. “We think of the sophomore program as more of a ‘disorientation’ insofar as we’re seeking to dismantle common myths about New Haven and undo a year’s worth of conditioning … but the freshmen don’t show up tabula rasa.”
One of the goals of FOCUS is to break down the notion that Yale and New Haven exist entirely separately from one another, Gavin said. He added that once students better understand the relationship between Yale and the city, they can engage more meaningfully within New Haven and work to break down the “Yale bubble.”
FOCUS group leaders were responsible for reaching out to the volunteer sites, establishing contacts and creating work schedules, according to Matthew Coffin ’19, a FOCUS site leader and the associate coordinator of development for Dwight Hall. While freshmen worked in groups of 10 to 15 at each site, sophomores and transfer students worked together at separate locations.
“Dwight Hall is undergoing a lot of changes right now and is looking to bring about a new generation of people who are really excited about service and a new year of good leadership and so we kind of viewed the FOCUS program as a way to figure out who’s super interested and invested in community service,” Coffin said. “It’s also a way to help incoming freshmen get out of the Yale bubble and break down this preconception that Yale is safe and everywhere else is unsafe.”
Three freshmen interviewed said they chose FOCUS because they wanted to do a pre-orientation program that involved community service. Elayna Garner ’20, who volunteered at Chapel Haven, said volunteering at the special-needs facility was an empowering experience and the dozen students at her site have remained close even after the program ended.
Dwight Hall Institutional Service Coordinator Abby Troy ’18, who was a site leader at IRIS, said many of her freshmen have demonstrated interest in Dwight Hall initiatives like “Freshman In Service” and have even discussed going back to volunteer at IRIS as a group reunion.
“It’s good to be in the know,” Garner said. “If you’re going to volunteer in the community and try to help the community, you need to know the community.”
Mohammed Hussari ’20, who volunteered at IRIS, said it was interesting to see the managerial aspect of the organization and help refugees start their new lives in New Haven. Susie Beyl ’20, another IRIS volunteer, said her favorite part was helping clear up the negative stigma of Yale students volunteering in the community by showing refugees new to the country that Yalies are welcoming.
“It was particularly nice to see that Yale and New Haven are two parts of the same entity,” Hussari said. “FOCUS definitely changed my initial preconceptions.”
FOCUS was established in 1991.