Now that you, the class of 2008 have arrived, unpacked your bags and boxes, transformed your Blue Book selections into classes and large piles of books, and been welcomed by President Levin and Dean Salovey, there’s only part of your orientation left. It does not appear on any schedule, and in fact, is entirely voluntary. You might have had a taste of it on a CityScape tour, or in your security meeting. But though what you will find there fulfills no distribution requirement and counts towards no major, the city of New Haven can be the richest and most inspiring classroom you experience during your four years at Yale.
There are ways to appreciate New Haven that are both easy and enjoyable, sort of like taking Physics for Poets as an English major. You can eat pizza at Sally’s and Pepe’s, and take a walk to East Rock. If you feel especially daring, you can live off campus in the Edgewood or East Rock neighborhoods. You might cast a ballot for aldermen in Wards 1, 2, or 22 next fall, when Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey’s seat will be up for grabs and Ward 2 Alderwoman Joyce Chen and Ward 22 Alderman Drew King will both be up for reelection.
These are all good things to do, and if you choose to do them, you will have the simple and pleasant New Haven experience shared by many other Yalies. You can pass through the city without getting too involved or interested in it, learn some of your first adult lessons in a place where the rents are low and the utility companies eccentric, and you will not have to give up any of your heart or make any meaningful contribution to do it.
But just as some courses at Yale can be taken as writing intensive, choosing to be a citizen of New Haven, instead of merely a resident of it, can be exhausting, demanding, and unbelievably rewarding. No matter where you come from, for four years, New Haven is your home. You may not worry about Connecticut’s tax structure, but some of the special tax exemptions that allow Yale to amass its endowment and pay for the incredible resources we enjoy played a role in last year’s New Haven budget deficit. You may not worry about the quality of New Haven’s public schools, which despite a massive overhaul are still struggling to meet state and national standards under the No Child Left Behind Act, unless you have a brother or sister still in the school system.
But there are countless other questions that long-term New Haven residents asked themselves this summer that should have mattered to you too, as you arrived in the final days of August. Would the police catch the perpetrators of a series of seemingly random shootings that happened over the course of one tragic weekend? They did, by shifting most of the city’s detectives over to the case, and a number of suspects are now awaiting trial. What impact will new businesses, parking lots, and other developments have on New Haven neighborhoods in coming years? The Board of Aldermen provided one promising answer by unanimously encouraging developers to negotiate mutually beneficial agreements with neighborhood groups, a step that would go a long way towards, among other things, improving Yale’s relationship with the city. In addition to these specific questions, New Haven has also been the site of recent disputes over some of the major issues in American politics today, including gay rights and labor issues.
In all of these debates over quality of life and civil rights, your voice as a Yale student and concerned citizen can make New Haven better for everyone. One of the turning points of my life came when, along with 500 other students and New Haven residents, I marched on City Hall to demand equal rights for New Haven’s gay and lesbian couples because I could no longer tolerate continuing injustice in a city that I had come to love. I found my place, with other Yale students, alongside workers on picket lines who were demanding that our university provide a measure of justice to the workers who make Yale function and thrive. My sophomore year, I was one of hundreds of Yale students who cast ballots for a progressive future in three of the city’s 30 wards.
There are few tangible rewards for this kind of citizenship, for finding your home, and for working to make it better. Signs from marches, campaign t-shirts, and a handful of colorful buttons may be the only concrete mementos that stay with when our work is done, though the real results will last much longer. You may not earn another line on your resume by putting in extra hours tutoring a child with whom you feel a special connection, and Yale awards no commencement day prizes for the number of voters you register, or the times that you speak out when you feel that something is wrong. But if the role of a Yale education is to make us whole and prepare us to be citizens, then there are few classrooms with more light and truth to offer than the city that, at least for the next four years, is home.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a junior in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.