Did you know that 100% of Board members make financial gifts to the Dwight Hall Annual Campaign, including the students? This month’s donor spotlight features Keniel Yao ‘19, one of our remarkable student Board members. Keniel is one of 6 student members serving on the Dwight Hall Board of Directors. He also serves as the Impact Analysis Coordinator on the Student Executive Committee.
Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Keniel in Dwight Hall.
Can you tell us about your background and current interests?
I am an international student from Auckland, New Zealand. I’ve done a lot of community work back home, especially in the area of youth development - ensuring that youth are involved in the community and consider themselves to be active changemakers.
Coming to New Haven for my first year at Yale, I began to consider whether these experiences were actually impactful beyond the individual. Sure, a lot of students are learning a lot about themselves through their engagement in the community, but how much does the community benefit from their involvement?
I was really interested in becoming involved with Dwight to learn more from the institutional side and begin to assess and analyze the impact of their service beyond the ethical and moral side of things.
Since my sophomore year, I’ve been involved with Dwight Hall as the Impact Analysis coordinator on the student Executive Committee and initiating dialogue on the impact of Yale student work in New Haven. I want to help Dwight Hall students quantitatively and qualitatively analyze their effect on New Haven as well as reflect on how such data might improve their own organizational processes and leadership structure.
Outside of Dwight Hall, the big love of my life really is to go into nature. I really, really love hiking and going on beaches. It’s a big part of my background growing up in New Zealand. It’s a bit difficult to do that in New Haven, even though we are right on the shoreline. As an international student I can’t really drive anywhere, so I don’t get to nature as often as I’d like.
Why did you decide to come to Yale?
I did not really consider coming to the U.S. until my senior year, when a friend of mine who was involved in the same kinds of activities got accepted to Harvard, so I decided to give it a shot. I ended up taking about 9 months off before college because of the differences in the hemispheric schedules. I got to attend Bulldog Days after being admitted and that was my first time being in the U.S.
Where do you see yourself in the long-term?
Difficult to say - I have no idea what I am going to do, but I enjoy traveling and experiencing other cultures first hand. I like placing people in dialogue with each other. I’ve spent the past two summers in China interning and learning the language. I think my future may have something to do with China.
What is the culture of service in New Zealand?
Volunteering and community service are a huge aspect of community life in New Zealand. Even in primary school, students would sell chocolate for charity and participate in food drives on a yearly basis.
The 40-hour famine is a very big thing back in New Zealand. So students are actively encouraged to give up food for 20-40 hours once a year to reflect on hunger issues. It’s part of the upbringing in practically every New Zealand school. A lot of that follows existing organizational initiatives, but a big initiative we are trying to drive is to see how the viewpoint of youth can be translated to active engagement in the community.
How does youth voice differ from adult voice?
We probably have a more idealistic view of the world. Potentially, especially in this era, I think our understanding of technology and its influence on psyche or on how society operates is very different from the adult experience. The way we navigate cities with applications, the way we engage with friends on the internet or in the virtual realm are very different and these are forces that will shape society in ways that I don’t think adults can even forecast.
Perhaps being brought up in a different environment, adults see the immediate impact of technology and have a certain adverse perspective to its consequences. Young people grow up learning to use technology as a tool - it doesn’t have that emotional or moral valence. It’s more embedded within us. So when we envision what the future looks like, the values it should have, and how technology interacts with that, youth will have a more powerful and relevant viewpoint than adults might have.
How did you first come to be involved in Dwight Hall?
When you leave your home town and come to a new place, it’s difficult to connect and learn to care for community from the outside, but that is something I really wanted to learn how to do. I wanted to learn about American culture, and particularly about life in New Haven. So my point of contact was through Dwight Hall’s First-Year in Service program where we got to go out to different sites, talk to different people, hear from different leaders in New Haven and begin to understand how the city views Yale and how Yale views the city.
What were some lessons you learned from that experience?
A lot of people like to pretend that they know what they are doing, but I think a lot of times in the non-profit or social sector, you’re working in foreign territory. It was impressive to learn how leaders adapt and how they forged their own path - creating new programs, creating new ways of evaluating their effect. I learned how people adjust their life so they don’t burn out and how one can live a sustainable life that is still radical. That balance is really, really difficult, but very important.
Why does Dwight Hall matter?
I think that Dwight Hall demonstrates that Yale still cares from an institutional perspective. The institutional symbolism of Dwight Hall is something significant beyond a mass of individuals. It provides an intermediate ground where New Haven and Yale can come together, both physically in terms of a space but also interpersonally.
It is the place where activism becomes practical. We are not just tossing around ideas that we think are good or bad; we’re not just railing against something but really trying to solve challenges and find practical solutions. That’s a struggle for many students. It is all fine and well to write opinion articles, or shout down a professor, but to actively go out and figure out how to make the world a better place by bringing together communities or bringing together people with different viewpoints to strive for a constructive compromise is something that you’re forced to do in Dwight Hall, especially on the Student Executive Committee.
What is your experience on the Student Executive Committee like?
I’ve mostly been involved in the administrative or bureaucratic dimension of service, which is often neglected. The vision that ExComm provides for service and social justice on campus is incredibly important. It sets the tone and expectation for what can happen at Yale. It’s important to do all three - serving, being an activist, or being in the back office making decisions that impact other people. Decision-making is critical because that is where values are forged. Making difficult decisions that may not please everyone or speaking up where people may not agree with you takes courage. So is being able to reason out an argument that may not be popular, but is practical and applicable.
What are your favorite things to do in New Haven?
I love cycling, going to East Rock, taking that mental break and trying to enjoy the environment. Even when snowing, it is really beautiful.
If you could change one thing about Dwight Hall, what would it be?
I really want to see an intersection of both the modern and historical Dwight Hall that can be represented architecturally as well as in students’ minds. I think spaces play into how students consider and cognize. What is the future of social justice and service and how can that be linked with the history of the organization?
In the physical sense, as Dwight Hall is being renovated, how do you keep the sense of history of Timothy Dwight, Bill Borden, and all the artifacts in the Chapel as well as considering, “what’s useful space?” that will help students in the 21st century brainstorm about how to make change. Are we just a storage space or are we an incubator for change?
What inspires you to be a leader of social change?
I mostly just get indignant about things. I really love systems and improving systems. I love to join things that are concrete and working well, and making them better. I see in Dwight Hall a huge opportunity to do just that.
Why do YOU support Dwight Hall? What makes it worthy of support from others?
The amount of good students do - and the bang for the buck - is incredible. Dwight Hall uses its resources well to bear the overhead and provide resources while students volunteer a lot of their time. A small amount of money goes a very long way in helping students to engage and to give up their time well.
What advice would you give to other students passionate about public service?
I’m a believer in the Socratic method so for the most part, I see that asking well-constructed questions are more important than any advice I can give. That being said, I believe that responsible public service and community leadership demands total commitment. We’re so blessed at Yale to have the opportunities to learn so many fields, and develop so many different aspects of our persons. It’s an injustice to hold any part of ourselves back when interacting with and serving those around us. We need to learn to love our communities with our whole hearts, all aspects of our minds, to listen with both ears, and to give of everything that has been given to us.