When Caroline Smith ’14 met with New Haven Director of Transportation, Traffic and Parking Doug Hausladen ’04 earlier this month to talk about developing alternative modes of transportation in the city, she did not expect a casual comment about a potential Elm City “bike month” to spur a new city initiative.
Now, Smith is busy collaborating with Hausladen, Karolina Ksiazek ’15 and Elm City Cycling — a bicycle advocacy group — to plan the New Haven Bike Month, slated to kick off in May. The bike month is the most recent example of public service projects Smith has taken on since graduating from Yale College last year. She also works at SeeClickFix, a company which developed an app that allows residents to take pictures of non-emergency issues in their communities to report to municipal government.
Smith is among a number of Yale students and alumni whose initial introduction to public service in New Haven inspired them to continue their involvement beyond an internship or volunteer experience. While some may jump for finance jobs in New York, tech startups in San Francisco or government positions in Washington, D.C., other recent alums think they can make more significant contributions in the Elm City. According to Office of Career Strategy Director Jeanine Dames, 118 students from the class of 2014 reported that they would be staying in Connecticut after graduation.
“New Haven has been a catalyst for me to do almost every project I’ve wanted to do in my community,” said Smith, who regularly attends meetings of the city’s Board of Alders. “If you have an idea, and you want to make it happen, this city is one of the best places to do that.”
All Yale students are residents of New Haven, but several students and alumni interviewed said they do not think many venture beyond Yale’s iron gates during their college careers.
Ward 1 Alder Sarah Eidelson ’12, who represents much of Yale’s campus, said she became invested in making New Haven a more permanent home after witnessing, as alder, the tangible change residents could bring about in city policy due to New Haven’s small size.
“The contributions that Yale students can make to the city are limitless,” City Hall spokesperson Laurence Grotheer said. “Several city leaders are examples of that.”
One of these leaders, Mayor Toni Harp, first came to New Haven as a graduate student at the School of Architecture and, after becoming immersed in the community, decided to stay in the city and pursue a career in municipal politics, Grotheer said.
Though created after Harp’s time, the President’s Public Service Fellowship — a fellowship established in 1994 to provide undergraduates the opportunity to work in New Haven — has inspired others, including Steven Maasbach DIV ’15, to invest in the community. Since 1994, the fellowship has grown from 20 Yale students working full-time for eight weeks during the summer to 36 fellows in the summer of 2014. Last summer, these students worked for up to 11 weeks at 34 different organizations across the Elm City.
“I knew a little bit about New Haven, but being a President’s Public Service Fellow forces you to engage with the community, the government and any aspect of New Haven or society as a whole,” Maasbach said. “It was a spectacular segway into getting involved, and I’ve been plugged in ever since.”
During his fellowship, Maasbach was placed at Beulah Land Development Company, which aims to rebuild New Haven’s most underserved communities, and has since worked with the University’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs. Maasbach said he hopes to stay in New Haven beyond graduation and return to Beulah despite the so-called lure of big cities, where making a significant impact in city affairs can be especially difficult.
Nick Defiesta ’14, a former city editor for the News, said he first developed a soft spot for New Haven as an undergraduate, adding that he even learned more from the city during his time as a student than he did from Yale at large. Defiesta is currently a policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children, a non-profit promoting the well-being of Connecticut children and families by advocating for strategic public investments and public policies.
Defiesta said there was a sense among his undergraduate peers that four years of college in New Haven would push graduates to move elsewhere, but that a growing number of nonprofits, startups and development opportunities have made the city more attractive for young professionals in recent decades.
“[People] sometimes come to Yale despite New Haven, not because of it,” Defiesta said. “But give it another decade or two, and you’ll come to Yale in large part because of New Haven.”
Jared Milfred ’16 said he developed his passion for city politics by attending meetings of the Democracy Fund, New Haven’s public campaign financing initiative. Milfred said he was first introduced to the fund when then-chair Ken Krayeske met with Democracy United, which is a student political advocacy group founded by Milfred. After speaking with Krayeske, Milfred said he started attending Democracy Fund meetings at City Hall with the intention of learning about the program but was invited by the Board to run for a position. As of last November, Milfred is the new chair of the fund.
“New Haven is the perfect size for a college student to get involved in city politics,” Milfred said. “It’s big enough that there’s a lot going on, but, at the same time, it’s not so big that the whole system is already professionalized.”