FOCUS on New Haven 2023 Introduces Incoming Students to the New Haven Community

FOCUS on New Haven 2023 successfully connected hundreds of first-years, sophomores, transfer students, Eli Whitney students, and Yale student leaders in service with the New Haven community. Now a Camp Yale orientation program, FOCUS was established in 1991, operates through Dwight Hall, and is largely student-run. It combines hands-on service projects with opportunities for students to hear from New Haven community partners and spend time exploring the city.

FOCUS launched on August 16th with 59 FOCUS leaders gathering for internal trainings and reaching out to community partners. These leaders welcomed all first-year students and helped them move in. 

The program operated from August 22nd through August 26th with 284 student participants (in addition to the FOCUS leaders). Participants had a three-day, family-driven engagement experience that featured volunteer work, community exploration, active listening, and reflective conversation. Community speakers shared fundamental values and best approaches for symbiotic and respectful community engagement. 

In order to encourage student interaction and close group dynamics, participating students were split into FOCUS groups led by one or two undergraduate FOCUS leaders, called “FOCUS Families.” These groups then traveled to various locations around New Haven to engage in numerous projects and activities with partner organizations and local nonprofits.

Twenty-eight organizations partnered with FOCUS this year. Some of these included Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, Bregamos Community Theater, and Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), all of which play integral roles in New Haven. Students engaged in activities such as preparing and distributing meals for those experiencing food insecurity, enhancing the IRIS garden, and working on an art installation for the Community Theater. 

FOCUS 2023 Co-Directors Emma Yanai ’25 and Arielle Alouidor ’25 were inspired to lead the program because of their positive experiences as participants two years ago. Emma noted that FOCUS was “instrumental in introducing me not just to Yale, but to Dwight Hall and the New Haven relationship.” For many first-years, Camp Yale will be the first interaction that they will have with Yale’s campus and New Haven not just as a visitor, but now as a citizen. To Arielle, this turned it into a landmark experience, as FOCUS “felt like the first class I took; it was also separate from Yale in its own way, which is what I deeply appreciated.” 

Like Emma and Arielle, many undergraduate FOCUS leaders were past FOCUS students and returned because of their passion for the program. Bella Panico ’26, a sophomore, reflected on her time in FOCUS last year: “FOCUS served as an outlet for me to acclimate to Yale and begin to understand my role as a member of the New Haven community.” The program is designed in a way that encourages first-years to consider the complicated relationship between Yale and New Haven and to explore community efforts where they can become involved. 

Similarly, Emily Aikens ’26 recognized the effectiveness of FOCUS: “I think it’s really important to become familiar with New Haven and its history with Yale before you enter your freshman year, and FOCUS does a great job of teaching students about that information.” In this way, FOCUS serves as an essential and unique introduction to the community that pushes students to remain conscious of the Yale-New Haven relationship, and their own relationship with both. 
FOCUS is notable in the value it provides to the community and in its power to forge close personal connections. Bella further mentioned, “through FOCUS, I was lucky to be introduced to some amazing people—including my best friend who I will be co-leading with—during a very intimidating time of transition.” This year, they returned as FOCUS leaders to The Diaper Bank of Connecticut, where they once volunteered as students. Through time spent together during the service projects and back on campus grabbing meals with their group, students have a unique opportunity to become deeply familiar with a small group of people and form valuable relationships before the start of classes.

As Co-Directors, Emma and Arielle had a vision to strengthen these current benefits and also to rearrange the programming to make the activities more engaging and comprehensive. Instead of keeping the three-day volunteering structure of last year with Zoom meetings interspersed in between, the program now includes two days of on-site volunteering with one Exploration Day. During this day—which groups participated in on either Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday—students were able to hear from speakers such as James Jeter (Dwight Hall Civic Allyship Initiative, Full Citizens Coalition) and Debra Riding (IRIS) in a more intimate setting. 

Students also visited community partners that they were not working with on their primary service project. The vision behind this initiative was to provide students with more direct contact with various organizations around New Haven so that they can develop a deeper understanding of the city as a whole. Lectures by speakers were replaced with seminar and Q&A-style discussions to allow for in-depth conversations and greater student participation. 

An emphasis on meaningful interaction was at the heart of FOCUS 2023. Instead of expanding to more sites and community partners, Emma and Arielle narrowed the partnerships to prioritize and strengthen existing relationships. Since Camp Yale programs became mandatory for incoming undergraduates in 2022, the amount of students enrolled tripled, putting a strain both on community partners and FOCUS administrators to expand partnerships to other organizations. By focusing on sites that Dwight Hall already has close relationships with, FOCUS leaders ensured that the work being done by volunteers would be beneficial to the community. Arielle believes this would serve students well in developing consciousness around their newfound role as a Yale student: “Before you get thrown into the Yale bubble and into academics, I think there’s a moment to appreciate being where you are, so you can continue to appreciate it for four years or maybe more.”

At the conclusion of the program, Emma and Arielle reflected on its success. “Given this feeling of change, I was just incredibly grateful to everyone who worked with and in FOCUS this year,” commented Arielle. “From Dwight Hall to the dining halls at Saybrook and Branford, the leaders and the board, and community partners, sites, speakers, restaurants, everyone worked so hard with us for the participants, who were so enthusiastic and so involved. I appreciated everybody’s efforts and was so proud. The day-to-day did mean difficulties, but everyone handled them so well.” 

Emma felt a similar way: “While there were definitely challenges along the way, I’m really proud of what the FOCUS community was able to accomplish this year. We hosted our first community dinner and in-person speaker events since 2019, and it was really gratifying to see the engagement these events generated. Every single leader and participant contributed thoughtfulness, hard work, and dedication to service throughout the program, and I’m excited to see all the amazing things they will accomplish throughout the rest of their time at Yale.” 

Community partners also shared their gratitude for the FOCUS volunteers on social media. Junta for Progressive Action commented: “Extending a heartfelt thank you to the Yale FOCUS group for their unwavering support during our back-to-school event and the preparations leading up to it. Your dedication in transforming Junta’s outside area, prepping school bags, and aiding our future move to the new building by clearing out our old files has been truly remarkable!” Likewise, The Diaper Bank noted what a pleasure it was to have the incoming students join them to package necessary sanitary supplies. 

FOCUS 2023 was a great success due to the intention and effort put forth by the FOCUS Directors, leaders, and participants. Dwight Hall extends its appreciation to all those who made these multi-day public service experiences possible.

About the Author