Senior Spotlight: Jenn Richburg ’24 Reflects on Her Years of Service at Dwight Hall and the Urban Resources Initiative

Since coming to Yale, Jenn Richburg ’24 has devoted her time to service. Arriving at Yale amidst the pandemic, it was difficult to find opportunities to engage in direct service, so Jenn spent her time assisting with research for the Yale Prison Education Initiative at Dwight Hall (YPEI), which offers rigorous, for-credit Yale College courses and programming to incarcerated students in two Connecticut prisons. Then, as restrictions began to lift in her sophomore year, Jenn’s roles in various New Haven and Yale-based community service organizations grew.

Her role with YPEI, for instance, continued to expand throughout her four years at Yale. According to Jenn, one of her favorite memories from her years of service was of YPEI, just a few days into her work with the organization. At the time, the YPEI team was preparing a graduation ceremony for some of its students and evaluating prospective students eager to join the program.

“[YPEI Founding Director] Zelda Roland and I arrived at the prison, and she just left me in a room full of students,” Jenn explained. “I was terrified. Not because these people were incarcerated, but because it was my second day! But they just wanted to talk to me. I can’t recount all of the conversations I had that day, because I was there for hours, but I can tell you that I met an artist, a philosopher, a mathematician, and all of them—even the people I did not list—just wanted to learn. To have a pure love of learning is something I have never found anywhere else before I spoke to them—not at any school, workplace or personal space…It was a beautiful experience, and a transformative moment.”

Jenn solidified her involvement by becoming a Dwight Hall Community Response Fellow with YPEI, a position she still holds today. Community Response Fellows is an academic-year fellowship administered by Dwight Hall that supports the existing relationships between Yale students and community partners in the social sector. Currently, she is working on a re-entry guide, a 100-page document designed to help those recently released from prison integrate smoothly into life post-incarceration. Jenn has also served as a Dwight Hall Summer Fellow with YPEI, working as a TA for a class on criminal procedures. “Being a Summer Fellow helped me establish myself in the field [of prison reform] and figure out what I loved about it, and also helped me ease into the community that YPEI fosters,” she said about the experience.

In addition to her work with YPEI, Jenn found a home in her work with the Urban Resources Initiative (URI), a Yale School of Environment and New Haven community partnership that emphasizes community forestry—that is, the combination of social renewal and environmental protection necessary to ensure urban areas are vibrant and healthy for all their inhabitants. As a sophomore, Jenn was accepted into URI’s apprenticeship program, during which she helped plant trees around New Haven. Having greatly enjoyed this experience, Jenn went on to volunteer with URI the following summer and throughout her junior year. “If you’re even vaguely interested in plants and environmental stewardship and community, I would reach out to them,” Jenn encouraged. “They changed my life.”

To illustrate that point, Jenn shared a story about her time with URI. The summer between her sophomore and junior years, Jenn worked with the Botanical Garden of Healing, a garden dedicated to all victims of gun violence in New Haven that was founded by three mothers who had lost children to gun violence. One Tuesday, Jenn arrived with the three mothers to work at the garden.

“We just talked and laughed and really got to know each other,” Jenn recalled. “Before this, the three of them and I were disconnected; my job was to help them but they felt it was my job, not my desire. But that day, they really got to know me, how much I loved the garden, and how much I admired them, and I learned about them too. We stayed for about one to two hours, but it felt like a pleasant lifetime. It wasn’t plant-related, but I felt a connection being made, and it was the most meaningful moment of just that week! Imagine making meaningful moments with your community every single week. That’s what URI does.”

Right now, Jenn is unsure about her career path. She has considered applying for fellowships, in part because she appreciates the community they offer. But she emphasizes that she embraces uncertainty. “Really, I do not know [what lies ahead] and you’ve got to learn that that’s okay,” she explained. “You might not know, but you’ve got to put yourself in opportunities that will help you figure it out.”

Reflecting upon her long legacy of service, Jenn emphasized how inspiring the people she met have been. “The people you meet, the people you help—those people change you!” she said. “They make you feel like a part of a community, a community that I’ve been looking for for a long time. Whether it was planting things or educating incarcerated students, I felt like I was growing within a group of people I could be proud to belong to.”

Jenn’s growth and commitment to service over the years exemplifies the Grow pillar of Dwight Hall’s Engage, Grow, and Advance program delivery model, which seeks to nurture and guide students on their paths to becoming thoughtful and engaged citizens and leaders.

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