When Fish Stark ’17 asked New Haven public school students in one of the classes he taught this summer to pick an issue that was affecting their community and propose a solution to it, he was surprised at what he heard.
Almost all of his students brought up issues of safety — in the form of either bullying at school or gun violence on the street. There was some talk about discrimination, about waste and blight.
“But really, there was a lot of optimistic talk,” Stark said. “They talked about leaders in their community, and even students like them who were working for a better future. They had this vision of a place they wanted to live.”
Stark lived in New Haven this summer, with funding from the President’s Public Service Fellowship to work at Squash Haven, a local nonprofit that offers after-school programming and squash lessons.
Throughout the summer, Stark said he was surprised at the amount of misinformation and misconceptions floating around among Yale students about the city.
“It’s really sort of stark to see the way that Yalies talk about New Haven, and then to go out and live there, work there, interact with the community, and just see how completely different out of sync these perceptions are,” Stark said. “I think understanding places, cultures, spaces that are different from our own is kind of crucial to our development as people, and I think that Yalies are sometimes limiting themselves by allowing themselves to lapse into stereotypes about New Haven and the people in it.”
According to the 2013 summer activities survey, only 19 percent of Yale College stayed in New Haven to work in the summer of 2013 — the last year for which data were available — whether it was for summer session classes, laboratory work or nonprofit work like the type that Stark took part in.
William Whobrey, dean of Yale Summer Session and Special Programs, the number of Yale students who took classes during the Yale summer session in New Haven was around 300, in addition to the incoming freshmen who took classes as a part of the newly formed Freshman Scholars program. Whobrey said that while the number of students who stay on campus to take classes is pretty consistent, it has generally been creeping up little by little each year.
“For some, it’s a great way to experience New Haven,” Whobrey said. “You get to live in the city and get to become more a part of that community.”
Most of the Yale students who take classes live off-campus, which Whobrey speculated is due to cheaper off-campus housing, and the relative freedom it affords.
Rebecca Bakal ’16, who stayed in New Haven this summer to work as an intern at the Common Ground summer camp, a farm-based educational camp at the Common Ground High School in New Haven, observed that she often spends much of the school year within a five-block radius, and the summer afforded her the opportunity to explore and interact with the larger city.
“I got to know people who are New Havenites in a way that I hadn’t gotten to before,” Bakal said. After heading to West Rock with coworkers, Bakal said that it “was a big surprise to find out that New Haven had such great natural resources like beautiful hiking and camping spots, and creeks to swim in.”
Bakal explored different parts of the city, like Fair Haven and West Rock, and was also able to develop relationships with local farmers through trips to the farmers market, things she said that she’s not able to do during the year.
However, Bakal also recalled a week where there were two muggings within a block of her apartment. She said the events took her aback — she hadn’t thought to feel unsafe in the city.
“I don’t know if shocking is the right word, but I was a little surprised because I spend so much time in that area and always felt so safe, and always continue to feel safe,” Bakal said.
Carl Stanley MUS ’15, who worked for the nonprofit Artspace this summer, helped renovate the old Goffe Street armory into a gallery space. As a part of the project, Stanley went around and talked to people in the traditionally underserved Dixwell neighborhood. Stanley, a former member of the U.S. Air Force, said that the program broadened his perspective on the city’s needs and priorities.
“I’ve got a big heart for New Haven now,” Stanley said.
Julie Greenwood, executive director of Squash Haven said that while many people are critical of New Haven’s relationship with the community, she has been very impressed with the Yale students who invest their collegiate years in their host community.
She said the opportunities that the kids have to interact with Yale students really exert a powerful influence.
In turn, Greenwood said, Yale students are able to learn a lot about the New Haven community, as well as what she described as the “strength and beauty” of the people and the city.
When Stark set out this summer to work for Squash Haven, he was nervous that his commitment to the city would be questioned in the face of on-campus discourse about activism with ulterior motivations.
“What I found is that really the idea of it being presumptuous for Yale students to be engaged with the community ends at the outer edge of the Yale bubble,” Stark said. “We owe it to New Haven to get involved, because we gain so much from this city, but we also owe it to ourselves, to break some of the inaccurate conceptions we have about this city and its citizens.
Of the 939 students that responded to the 2012 summer activities survey who worked or had an internship over the summer, 77 were based in New Haven.
Correction: Sept. 3, 2014
A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted William Whobrey on the number of students who took classes during the Yale summer session. It also misstated that the majority of summer session students live off campus to take classes, when in fact only the majority of Yale students do so.