Most all of us Yalies “do” something besides studying and socializing — crew, drama, the YDN, whatever. That is the cause of one of the biggest differences between freshman year and those that followed: the change from asking a new acquaintance “Where are you from?” to “So, what do you do?”
Well, I do a lot of union stuff and even more political stuff. Not Yale Political Union type stuff, but local electoral politics. Now that I’m done, I have a chance to look back and figure out what that has meant to me.
These activities that we incorporate as part of our identity are a fundamental component of our Yale education. My suitemate is a Group IV major, and he’s getting decent vocational instruction. I try to remember, however, as I pay $34,000 a year, that I’m not a consumer of rote facts and concepts, but part of a great university, receiving the finest liberal arts education possible. And academics have been only a part of that.
If prompted, my old jock roommate can wax poetical for hours about the lessons of teamwork, discipline and camaraderie he drew from the crew team — as well as proper grip technique. I’ve learned a lot about the specifics of politics, which will serve me well as I stumble into real life (as I’m sure my friend’s knowledge will serve him), but I’ve picked up a lot more than that. The near universal admonition of every New Havener I meet is: “Don’t let your schooling get in the way of your education,” and I hope I’ve been doing well by them.
Early in my education, I became aware that this great university of which I am a part does not exist in a vacuum. The University is starting to progress under its current leadership, but it’s still a big baby, blissfully unaware of the strains it puts on those charged with caring for it and the mess it makes around itself. I wanted this institution I’m a part of to grow up and be responsible, so I decided to work with the Federation of Hospital and University Employees (FHUE) unions. Along the way, I’ve learned still more.
If Yale is part of the New Haven community, I am too. I have townie blood — my grandfather was a cop in this city — but that idea still took some getting used to, partly because of Yale’s insularity and partly because it involves a new level of independence. I live here, not at my permanent billing address. I decided that I’m not just in transit these four years in some spaceship taking me from childhood to adulthood, but already part of a real community. And I have a set of both privileges and obligations because of that. I see engagement in politics as no different from being a teacher, a good parent or a responsible employer — it is a way of being a productive part of one’s community.
So I registered voters on Old Campus or Dixwell Avenue, canvassed for local aldermen, and now support Mayor DeStefano as he continues leading New Haven forward. In some sense, my college experience has been an extended civics lesson, though being a member of a community is more than some academic discovery. Since I want to help my community overcome obstacles in its way, I have been learning how to organize it to be an active community in control of its fate.
As a senior, I learned that I will not actually be leaving the Elm City this May. This complements the earlier discovery I made that while I am a part of the institution of Yale, both it and myself are parts of a wonderful place called New Haven.
Rob Smuts is a graduating senior in Silliman College. He is a former president of the Yale College Democrats.