The ebb and flow of student interest and involvement in New Haven follows a pretty predictable pattern. Every two years, a flashy aldermanic campaign grabs student interest and, for a brief period of time, focuses our collective attention on New Haven, its challenges and opportunities, its relationship with Yale and our responsibilities to the city around us. (Yalies, after all, love a good election.)
But eventually the posters come down and canvassers stop interrupting students’ afternoon naps, and the discussions about the city’s job crisis, efforts to create community centers for New Haven youth and the goal of truly connecting Yale students to the city fade into the corners of Yalies’ consciousness. These issues become relegated to the tight circles of Yale politicos and social justice activists.
We can do better than that. It doesn’t do us any good — nor is it respectful to the city that supports our Yale experience in so many ways — for us to take a fleeting interest in New Haven for a semester, only to retreat back behind the iron gates come January for rounds of consulting interviews and beer pong.
It’s also important to recognize that student engagement in New Haven is one of those things that’s far easier said than done. First, because New Haven is originally, and often solely, presented to Yalies in a political context, it’s difficult for people disinterested in urban politics to understand what meaningful engagement in our city looks like for them.
And second, because information about opportunities to engage in New Haven is sparse compared to information about other campus commitments (“Do you sing?” just rolls off the tongue a lot better than “Do you want to work in the city’s Office of Economic Development?”), it’s easy for Yalies to go through four years entirely unaware of the dozens of opportunities to learn about, explore and celebrate New Haven while working alongside New Haveners.
So in that spirit, here’s something simple that any Yale student can do to follow through on their obligations to New Haven, meaningfully contribute to our city’s tradition of social change and have an incredible experience: spend this summer making a contribution to New Haven.
Every year, Yale offers its students dozens of paid opportunities to spend a summer working with nonprofits and city agencies in New Haven. The President’s Public Service Fellowship, which accepts applications through next Monday, is the largest of these, but there are others — the Ulysses S. Grant program, which offers Yalies opportunities to design their own summer courses and teach gifted students from New Haven Public Schools, the Courture Fellowship and the Dwight Hall Summer Fellowship are among the others.
Because many New Haven nonprofits often have large workloads and small staffs, you won’t spend your summer in a cubicle stapling papers — you might develop programming for a new teen center in Dixwell for the city’s Youth Department, you might identify additional locations to offer mental health services to new mothers for a community health organization, you might help the city administer a $1,000,000 grant to revitalize the struggling Newhallville neighborhood — these are all organizations looking to welcome Yale interns for the summer.
And when you’re not working, you’ll have a chance to explore New Haven’s patchwork of parks and restaurants, take in the one-of-a-kind International Arts and Ideas Festival on the New Haven Green in June or watch the 4th of July fireworks from the base of East Rock — all while enjoying the company of the hundreds of Yalies who are in town working, taking classes and doing research over the summer.
The deeper, more engaged service that results from a sustained commitment with an existing community organization — working with New Haveners instead of for them — is what makes us feel like citizens instead of four-year tourists, and helps build real understanding and trust between Yalies and New Haveners.
I had the privilege of spending the summer of 2014 teaching middle- and high-school social studies at Squash Haven, and the past summer teaching preschool at the Calvin Hill Day Care Center. At first I worried that the New Haveners I was working with and learning from would look at me as a privileged outsider — but instead, I found welcoming and supportive people who became trusted mentors and friends. At first I worried that I was going to feel lost living on my own in my first real summer away from home — but by the end of the summer I realized that New Haven had become my home as well. At first I worried that I was making the wrong choice, with a finite number of summers to explore different places and challenges — but I now look back on these decisions as the best choices I have made at Yale.
Spend a summer in New Haven — you won’t regret it.
Fish Stark is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .