As I enter my sophomore year, it’s already easy to look back with nostalgia at freshman year. It’s a time for exploration, edification and mishap. It serves as everyone’s integration into Yale. Every day, and every sight, offers new experiences and opportunities — doors that are open and waiting for us to walk in and discover ourselves and what lies at our fingertips. The possibilities seem almost limitless in regard to classes, majors, clubs and social organizations.
But this particular freshman cohort has the unique benefit of entering the University during a time of heightened political energy. While an aldermanic race occurs every two years, this is the first one in recent memory where there’s an early primary. Seeing the passionate teams from both Democratic candidates and the Republican, Ugonna Eze, I’m sure almost as many freshmen have been asked if they’re registered to vote as those who have been lobbied to join one of our many a cappella groups. As a member of the Yale Democrats, I must confess to being complicit in the class of 2019’s politicized introduction to the University.
But while many students know about the Baker’s Dozen or the Duke’s Men heading into college — indeed a cappella might be the reason they chose Yale — the mention of Ward 1 often draws blank stares. Sometimes, I’m even asked whether freshmen should have a say in the politics of a city they haven’t started exploring. But this inexperience isn’t actually that big a deal. I would wager that the vast majority of even most seniors don’t know the very basics of politics in the Elm City. Furthermore, we only have four fleeting years at Yale and it’s our responsibility to make the most of this ephemeral wind ow by starting right from the get-go.
We should participate because we have an inherent obligation to better our community. Ward 1 — the ward which includes most Yale students — is the easiest mechanism by which we can reach out and partner with our fellow citizens to make the Elm City a better place for all of us. I’d argue there is no better time for students to begin their relationship with New Haven than as freshmen; while they may come in completely uninformed, it doesn’t take a lot of time for them to surpass the admittedly low bar of the median Yale voter when it comes to Elm City politics.
There’s a reason why a cappella groups or student publications recruit freshmen so aggressively. It’s because the first organizations or lifestyles you embrace are likely to be your most formative and consuming over these next four years. The best writers and the best singers are likely upperclassmen, but organizations invest in freshmen in the hopes they will deepen their skill sets and dedicate themselves to the respective cause.
Similarly, freshmen who are entering Yale at a time of great civic debate have the rare, almost unprecedented, opportunity to begin to not just learn about New Haven but also make local politics a pillar of their college experience. In a city rife with so many problems, an army of committed freshmen is a resource we can’t afford to squander.
Yale’s relationship with New Haven has been poisoned at times by misperceptions by both sides. Too many students think of New Haven as a drain on the University, a deterrent to prospective students, investment and a source of high crime rates and costly unions. Many residents of the city view Yale students as brash, affluent would-be investment bankers and consultants. As with every stereotype, there are truths and exaggerations in both narratives. But if we encourage the class of 2019 to study this city, the issues surrounding Wednesday’s election and the three candidates clamoring for our vote, I am confident that they can be the vanguard for a renewed town-gown relationship that is built upon mutual trust, empathy and self-interest.
The twin narratives that breed contempt and disdain won’t disappear overnight. But today’s freshmen can begin a culture on campus where civic engagement with New Haven isn’t an extracurricular option nestled between club sports teams and Greek life; it’s an expectation that everyone plays their part as would-be voters and constituents.
The right to freely vote is one of our most sacred American ideals. Men and women have fought to protect this right — as Yale opens its gates to more and more veterans every year, some of these brave individuals will be in your classes and dining halls. But this column isn’t just a paean to democracy. We already live on a campus where too many people want to work in Washington and everyone has an opinion on the 2016 presidential election. This Democratic primary, and the broader Ward 1 debate, truly represents one of those rare moments when students can come together and enhance the role of local politics in our lives and communities.
Benjamin Nadolsky is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .