“Public service is an integral part of a Yale education.”
In bolded font, these 10 words welcome the interested viewer to the Service page of Yale’s website. The prominence of the words on the page seem to convey Yale’s statement: the relationship between Yale and community service is a storied and continuous one. Since the founding of Dwight Hall — Yale’s Center for Service and Social Justice — in 1886, Yale and Yalies have prided themselves in upholding the longstanding tradition of giving back. According to its website, Dwight Hall engages 3,500 students in service opportunities per year.
“Yalies for whatever reason seem to all be connected by service,” said C’ardiss Gardner Glesser, co-chair of the annual Yale Day of Service, an international coordinated service event. “No matter if our alums were attorneys some place or doctors; whatever they were doing, there was a central theme of service connecting everyone.”
From championing summer volunteer fellowships to building partnerships with New Haven nonprofits, Yale’s investment in service is evident. Dwight Hall programs like Freshman -in-Service encourage Yalies to hit the ground running and participate in service activities from their first days on campus. Current students and alumni alike embrace this commitment to service as a fundamental aspect of the Yale identity beyond academics and prestige.
Of the Day of Service, Yale’s largest-scale community service project, which boasts sites in 25 different countries, Gardner Glesser explains, “Doing this kind of work in communities … really helps to show who Yale really is. It’s not just that we’re this Ivy League university that is just this way, I think it really helps change the perspective and … [show] that Yale is a service-oriented university. I would hope that people take away that this is really who Yale is. We are community-focused, and we want to build partnership and communities with those around us.”
While service at Yale is one of the University’s most longstanding traditions, like any institution, its place in the Yale community continues to change over time. It has adapted to shifting student priorities and concerns, including other extracurricular commitments and student employment. Within the service community, leaders work to make opportunities both engaging and accessible to students, and appeal to the many motivations of students seeking service opportunities. The history and tradition of service at Yale is clear, but the role it inhabits in today’s Yale and how current Yalies fit service into the increasingly crowded scheme of undergraduate commitments has become more complex.
Motivation for Service
The wide scope of service opportunities on campus indicate Yalies are invested in service. Abigail Cipparone ’19, the outreach coordinator for Dwight Hall comments on what makes students more likely to choose a particular service opportunity:
“They want to have a personal relationship, an inspiring experience when they are doing service.” She continued to explain how students look for an emotional connection when they are volunteering in New Haven.
Her perspective is supported by testimonies by undergraduates who engage in service.
Kaija Gahm ’20 volunteers at a Restaurant Rescue Project where she picks up extra food from Claire’s and brings it over to a halfway house on Howe Street. This initiative is a part of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, one of Dwight Hall’s largest member groups that serves as center for homelessness service work at Yale. She personally finds this project an ideal match, because she used to be bothered by how much food restaurants waste. Plus, being able to see the fruit of her labor is a big motivation to keep continue her efforts.
“I’ve been enjoying it because it feels like I’m making a tangible difference in someone’s day, and also because this organization seems to fit a real need,” Gahm says.
Restaurant Rescue Project is a relatively new initiative on campus, but there are many older groups that have been consistently working with the New Haven community. Ninety of these groups are members of Dwight Hall. However, the president of Dwight Hall, Anthony D’Ambrosio ’18 points out that not all of the member groups have the same level of student interest. D’Ambrosio explains that some “member groups have tremendous volunteer turnout and tremendous community just because of the issues that they work on behalf of. I think others struggle because they work with more niche issues.” He cites the Community Health Educators as a particularly popular service opportunity.
Sarah Landau ’17, the past co-coordinator of CHE says that they have somewhere between 80 to 100 members each year. CHE is a public service group that asks its members to go through an application process. Landau explains that the application is to ensure that each member is committed and passionate about serving with CHE, though the program tries to accept all applicants who are qualified. According to Landau, many of CHE’s members are also interested in careers in service such as education, public health and medicine. This observation reiterates the point that students are most interested in doing service when they feel personally connected to the issue.
Despite the success of CHE in attracting volunteers, certain service events this year have not been as successful as expected. This spring has seen a lower number of volunteers for Dwight Hall’s annual Spring Day of Service than before. Abigayle Troy ’18, the institutional service coordinator for Dwight Hall who is in charge of organizing the semesterly days of service, noted that while the past events had steadily attracted 100-something volunteers, this time turnout was 40 volunteers, according to a News article (“Spring Day of Service Sees Low Turnout,” April 10, 2017). She explained that this happened despite more aggressive advertising techniques, such as schoolwide email blasts and tabling in the dining halls. Troy believes that students can be doubtful about the impact of one-time service events, but in the end these events do fill a need in the community.
A Bass Cafe survey of 20 undergraduates reveals that only four out of the 20 students polled had participated in a Day of Service during their time at Yale, and only 10 out of 20 regularly volunteered. While D’Ambrosio acknowledges that Yalies are very interested becoming involved in service, he also recognizes certain trends. For example, juniors and seniors tend to become less concerned with service as they are planning their lives beyond Yale. On this observation, he comments: “That’s concerning on a sort of, I guess, moral level because we should all be making time for service.” Still, he also expresses his appreciation for juniors and seniors who remain involved in service throughout their four years.
Gham thinks that Yale students don’t participate in as much service as they could because they spend a lot of time with other activities on campus, “or because they are reluctant to step out of the Yale bubble. Although she is involved in the Restaurant Rescue Project, she feels that she isn’t doing as much as she can and is thinking of rescheduling her time next year.
“I’ll have some choices to make about what matters the most to me,” Gham said. Her observations are supported by the answers given to the Bass Cafe poll. On average students reported that they spent 11.6 hours on their extracurriculars, excluding volunteering and employment.
To make volunteering a wider part of Yale culture, D’Ambrosio—not speaking for Dwight Hall, but rather himself—believes that participating in service should be a requirement for Yale students. He feels that “the vast majority of people here are incredibly privileged and ought to give back to the community that plays host to them.” In his opinion, a minimum service requirement for every student would enable Yalies to prioritize service more than they currently do.
Gham, on the other hand is happy that service is not required at Yale. She finds it a “welcome change from high school, when it seemed like a lot of people did service just to fulfill requirements or pad their resumes. I’m sure there’s some of that going on here, too, but I have heard a lot of Yale students talk with real passion and interest about the service they are doing. I think it’s a really important part of students’ time at Yale.”
Many Yale students seem to agree that spending time on service is a valuable deed. Matt Norris ’20 thinks that people tend to view volunteerism as more noble and would wish to be giving their time for free in an ideal world.
“So sometimes if you ask about volunteering, people will answer ‘No I don’t volunteer, but I work these jobs,’ kind of defensive, ‘don’t view me as this bad person,’ ” Norris said. Such a defense brings up the question of how Yale students can balance their time between employment, service and other commitments.
While many students express a desire to participate in service at Yale, students and organizers recognize the many hurdles to student involvement. Thus, many organizations, like Dwight Hall, have adopted new initiatives to address the student concerns about the accessibility of service opportunities. One such program is the Dwight Hall Outreach program, a relatively new program focused on fusing service with other extracurriculars and communities on campus, like sports team and residential colleges. According to a poll of 20 students in Bass Cafe, among undergraduates who participate in both service-related and nonservice extracurriculars on campus, students spend on average over four times the amount of time on nonservice extracurricular activities compared to service activities. According to Cipparone, the Dwight Hall Outreach program, which has been offered for the last four years, features three main branches: College Fellows, Yale athletics teams, and Yale Greek life. The program partners with these Yale communities by matching them with local community service organizations.
“I know in my daily life, there has been a lot of talk with my friends that a lot of people want to be involved, but don’t know how,” Cipparone explained. “Particularly athletes, or people who spend a lot of time in one extracurricular. They want to do service, maybe not weekly but once a month.”
While the program is still in development, Cipparone feels, it could provide those looking for service opportunities with visible models and reach people looking for occasional, low-commitment service opportunities not offered by Dwight Hall member groups. The program also hopes to expand to other extracurricular programs on campus besides sports teams, fraternities, and sororities. The young program however has found success within many Yale groups, who have built strong relationships with their partner service organizations.
“[Yale fraternity] Chi Psi has been consistent and [we] set them up with Amistad Catholic Worker house, going consistently to a community garden,” Troy affirmed.
Dwight Hall has also seen a recent uptick in the amount of service groups applying for provisional membership, a trend that suggests a greater move toward accessibility.
“Dwight Hall is expanding fairly rapidly. We have over the course of the last few semesters at least in my own memory, an unprecedented amount of applications for provisional membership. This is certainly an uptick in the amount of groups applying to be a part of Dwight Hall,” claims D’Ambrosio.
New additions to Dwight Hall’s existing pool of more than 90 groups often reflect concentrated student interest in particular areas of service and give students a multitude of ways to become involved. One recent example is the expansion of new groups focused on prison reform and re-entry programs, a service previously only addressed by the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project. D’Ambrosio points out, however, that the recent increase in number of groups may not be evidence of an increase in total amount of service.
“I think that what you’re probably seeing is Yalies for whatever reason wanting to create their groups … and shifting their volunteer hours away from other groups. Instead of one group having 200 volunteers monthly, it allows 50 and a few groups will exist in its place. And that’s not something we necessarily encourage. An increase in group application is not necessarily a good thing for service especially when those group applications center around the same issues,” he conveys.
Despite these concerns, D’Ambrosio emphasizes that Dwight Hall’s main goal is to increase the amount of quality service being performed at Yale, whether it is through accessibility initiatives or promoting member groups.
“The goal of our executive committee is to maximize at all times the amount of service being done and to maximize the amount of good service being done at Yale and in New Haven,” he concludes.
While efforts at accessibility have worked to address the gap between service and extracurriculars, students and leaders express concerns over the impact of student employment and the student effort expectation on campus-wide involvement in service activities. Out of a poll of 20 students in Bass Cafe, 14 out of 20 worked regular jobs and those working jobs worked an average of 7 hours per week.
Though D’Ambrosio personally concludes that Yale students as a whole do not participate in enough service activities, he acknowledges the difficulties of simultaneously holding a paid job and finding time to volunteer.
“I know for a fact that lots of people are unable to volunteer consistently because they have restrictions like having a student job. So I don’t at all criticize people who do that because that’s a necessity,” he said.
Cipparone, who is on financial aid and required to contribute student effort, describes the difficulties of balancing service with paid employment.
“I am semi-involved in [student-advocacy group] Students Unite Now. The amount of time people in Dwight Hall volunteer is a lot and doing that with the student income contribution is hard. But I have been able to manage to make a balance. I think the SIC itself is keeping us from doing that, student employment and service should be able to go hand in hand, but the SIC is a barrier to that,” she explains.
Norris, who is involved in SIC-related activism on campus, points out that while the student income contribution forces many students to get student jobs, he argues that the benefits of paid employment may always serve as a barrier to service involvement, despite widespread student desires to volunteer for free. In the 20 people surveyed in Bass Cafe, six out of the 14 students working regular jobs did not have a student income contribution.
“In my opinion, no matter if the money is directly going to SIC, people still need money badly here. There are people on financial aid that need money to exist, to go home and to get their food. Money will always be an issue even if the SIC isn’t a thing,” Norris explains.
To help combat this issue, Norris suggests that community service organizations could offer more flexible opportunities for students to volunteer who are unable to commit to regular hours due to their academic and financial responsibilities.
Norris recommends, “More common low-time commitment events. When there is one day of service per semester, some people cannot make that date. Perhaps every week or every two weeks Dwight Hall can send out a newsletter detailing all the events that are smaller commitments. Because sometimes you can’t make the Day of Spring Service because you have a shift all afternoon or have a big essay due.”
The Future of Service
Recently, Yale students have embraced an alternative form of service associated more with social justice and activism on campus. While students appear to value opportunities to get involved in the Yale and New Haven communities through traditional volunteer efforts, like working in community kitchens or cleaning local parks, they also emphasize the importance of serving the Yale community by speaking up about issues that affect Yale students.
Newly formed organizations, like Students United Now, as well as the older institutions like Dwight Hall and the Women’s Center seem to be welcoming this new vision of service. D’Ambrosio stresses the importance of social justice aspect of Dwight Hall’s mission.
“It’s our goal that if a student wants to be heard regarding an issue of service or social justice, we use our institutional microphone to allow them to be heard,” he declares.
Norris personally considers his participation in student income contribution activism and his role as a member of the Women’s Center to be forms of service to the Yale community. Of the women’s center staff, five to six staffers work paid jobs in the center, while 30–40 volunteer members keep the center running in the hours that the center budget cannot afford to compensate.
Of his role in social justice service, Norris explains, “The point of investing your time, your energy, your resources into [SIC activism] is so that people in the future will be able to delegate their time as they want. This is the type of volunteerism that opens more doors for people and then they can delegate their time to service or the arts.”
While the ways in which Yalies participate in service are changing, conversations with both service leaders and volunteers reflect that engagement with one’s community remains a desire among members of the Yale community. Yet, many variables continue to affect whether students are able and willing to volunteer their time. Even though not all Yalies are equally involved in service on campus, their readiness to work toward a culture of more accessible and prominent service opportunities at Yale is a public service to all.
Contact eren kafadar at
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