Kurt Schmoke ’71, the current dean of Howard University Law School and the former mayor of Baltimore, discussed his experience as a public servant and encouraged students to take on civic responsibility during the first annual Distinguished Mentor talk at Dwight Hall Chapel Thursday.

Schmoke spoke to an audience of about 75 people including New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., students, faculty and alumni on the Dwight Hall Board of Directors. A former Yale Corporation senior fellow, Schmoke drew on his experiences as a member of the White House domestic policy staff under the Carter Administration and as the state attorney for Baltimore from 1982 to 1987 — along with his roles as mayor and dean — to explain the importance of public service.

Schmoke is the first representative of the Distinguished Mentor program. The program was created by Dwight Hall alumni from the board of directors to give students access to role models who embody Dwight Hall’s mission, Dwight Hall co-coordinator Michelle Rosenthal ’05 said, in the opening of the talk.

“Dean Schmoke epitomizes what we view as a civic leader,” Dwight Hall co-coordinator Brian Goldman ’05 said. “He’s somebody that has been extremely successful in public service all his life. It was a logical choice.”

In an introduction, DeStefano said Schmoke understands the “politics of compassion.”

During his speech, Schmoke urged students to become service-minded activists. He called public servants “modern-day Nehemiahs.” Nehemiah is an Old Testament prophet who told others to join together and rebuild the Jerusalem wall, Schmoke said.

“I challenge you to go back to your communities, take your section of the wall and try to rebuild your communities,” Schmoke said.

Through personal anecdotes, Schmoke shared the lessons he learned from his career in public service and leadership. After delivering a controversial speech as Baltimore mayor in 1988, in which he said the public health implications of drug use should be more important than the criminalization of drugs, Schmoke said the press wrongly reported that he supported the legalization of drugs. Schmoke said this was a “defining moment” in his career.

“I realized how important language is in policy debates,” Schmoke said. “I was re-elected, but it impacted future options.”

Schmoke’s service began while an undergraduate at Yale when he co-founded Calvin Hill Day Care in 1969 after his roommate complained that Yale dining hall workers could not afford good day care. Calvin Hill Day Care still serves New Haven today.

Schmoke told students that they should pursue careers in civil service. He encouraged them to form their future plans according to what they want to do not what they want to be.

“When I was a senior in college, I had a plan,” Schmoke said. “I wanted to be mayor. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t understand until later there is a big distinction between being and doing something.”

Sarah Cannon ’06, coordinator for Dwight Hall’s Community-Based Learning program, who attended the talk, said she thought Schmoke’s advice to students about choosing a career was helpful.

“What he said about thinking about your future in terms of what you want to do and not who you want to be is the most valuable guidance I’ve been given about my future since I’ve been at Yale,” she said.