Bulldog Days is a time for dreaming and exploring. We’re told that the possibilities for our undergraduate education are limitless. We’re told that Yale provides us innumerable opportunities for growth, self-discovery and true friendship. As we drift from stately Gothic buildings to gorgeous manicured quads in search of free food, we use the campus as a canvas for our hopeful visions. We project the future memories we’ll make, and we create a set of goals and dreams for our Yale experience.
Class of 2020, as you start to imagine what your time at Yale will look like, I hope you’ll envision a Yale experience that includes being an active, engaged resident of New Haven.
It’s possible to go through four years of Yale without fulfilling any of your responsibilities as a citizen of the Elm City — remaining inside what’s called the “Yale Bubble,” never extending your knowledge of your host city beyond its delicious restaurants. But if you ignore the larger city, you’re not just doing a disservice to the community — you’re doing a disservice to yourself.
When I think about the moments that I’m always going to remember from my time at Yale, I’m struck at how many of them did not occur on campus. I’ll always remember running a relay race on an August afternoon at Scantlebury Park with one of the tiny fifth graders I taught the summer after my freshman year. I’ll never forget watching the sun set over the Long Island Sound as I ate dinner with a group of Fair Haven neighborhood activists at the Boat House Café. I’ll remember the farmers’ markets, knocking on doors in the Dixwell neighborhood to get out the vote in local elections, the lessons I learned from New Haveners who came here long before me and will remain here long after I leave.
Coming into Bulldog Days, I wouldn’t have thought that these would be my most treasured memories at Yale. My friend’s father had told me, “Be careful in New Haven!” When I had first visited campus, “Don’t go past Popeyes,” was the joking refrain among my hosts. The pernicious stereotype is that New Haven is unsafe, crime-ridden, “ghetto,” and that we’re better off staying behind the iron gates.
That’s not New Haven’s story — as if there could even be one New Haven story. New Haven is not a monolith. It’s made up of many rich communities and vibrant neighborhoods. Nearly all of the world’s cultures are represented. Diversity abounds in our art, our food, our politics. It’s wildly unfair to let unfounded assumptions about crime define our perception of the revolutionary city that invented the hamburger, the Frisbee and the lollipop.
Of course, all stereotypes have some basis in fact, and it is true that after the city lost many factory jobs in the late 20th century, New Haven faced its fair share of struggles with poverty and, yes, crime. But by making incredible strides in job training, community policing and supporting at-risk youth in the past few years, New Haven has become an incredibly safe city. It’s a city, yes, and students must practice common sense, just as they would in New York or Boston. But those who label it as an unsafe slum aren’t just ill-informed, they’re perpetuating alarmist, outdated and racist stereotypes.
New Haven is a beautiful city that welcomes so many Yalies with open arms as active members of its many communities: its places of worship, schools, shelters, galleries, theaters and restaurants. And for all the city gives us, Yalies have the opportunity to give in return. It’s naïve to think we have the answers to all of New Haven’s problems, but by supporting and working with the local leaders who know the city’s challenges better, we can play a role in the social change that New Haveners are working toward.
But the real reason to learn about New Haven is not because it has a lot to offer you, or that you have a lot to offer it. It’s because understanding and getting involved in the community that surrounds you is a basic act of respect and citizenship. We are here for four years at least, and we’re New Haven citizens whether we choose to accept that responsibility or not.
While you’re learning about all that Yale has to offer, learn about New Haven too. Visit Dwight Hall’s open mixer Tuesday night, sign up for service groups at the extracurricular bazaar, go to tonight’s “Social Justice and Cookies” event to learn about the great work Yalies do with New Haven’s homeless population.
And as you daydream about your new lives as Yalies, remember also the incredible gifts and opportunities that come with being a New Havener.
Fish Stark is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .