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Campus Consciousness

The other day, I walked into Book Trader Cafe to read some emails and get started on my work. It was freezing outside. I walked to my favorite spot at one of the window stools and opened my laptop. As I began working, I periodically looked up from my laptop screen to watch the passersby. Happy couples and friends huddling together in the cold, solitary students and New Haveners walking briskly with their hands stuffed in their pockets and their breath creating puffs of clouds exiting from their lips.

About twenty minutes later, I heard a tap in front of me on the window. I looked up. A man was standing outside holding a sign up to the window that read, “Hungry. Please help.” I was startled and reached for my wallet, but then remembered that I wasn’t carrying any cash on me. I sat there facing him with my mouth open and started to shake my head to apologize, but he seemed to see my look of rejection before I could even mouth the words “I’m sorry” and gave me a half-smile and a wave before darting off.

I felt guilty as I always do when I see homeless people or people in need. As a child, when my parents drove past people standing alone with cardboard signs at the side of the road, I used to burst into tears. It’s just not fair, and it shouldn’t happen here in the US, or anywhere, for that matter. But about ten seconds after he had left, I felt a pang in my stomach. I remembered that I wasn’t carrying cash on me because I hadn’t needed to — my parents had given me a gift card for Book Trader a few weeks ago and that’s what I’d used to buy my coffee. I could have helped him, I thought.

I looked at the tabs open on my laptop: Canvas, Spotify, and several clothing websites that I’d been looking at in my spare time. I felt awful. What was wrong with me? How was I so preoccupied online shopping for things I didn’t need that I couldn’t remember my gift card and help someone out who actually needed something? I was in the middle of an email. I told myself I’d finish it and send it, and then look for the man and ask him if I could buy him something at Book Trader. A few minutes later, after pressing “send,” I slammed my laptop screen down, packed my things in my backpack, and ran outside in the direction he had gone.

He was nowhere to be found. I walked up and down Chapel Street and I couldn’t find him. I swallowed a lump in my throat and tears of frustration rolled down my cheeks. What if I’d just closed my laptop mid-email? Could I have found him then?

The thing about Yale is that it’s not a closed campus. In order to get from class to my dorm, I walk past stores, cafes, and non-students. Our campus isn’t a physical bubble, it’s a metaphorical one. We have managed to create a bubble that weaves through the streets of New Haven, and we have created it out of invisible yet painful structures of power and privilege. We walk to class and ignore the people around us because we’re busy and stressed out and have our own things to worry about. But every once in a while, something like this happens and we’re forced to look at ourselves and reconcile our privilege within the greater New Haven community. We’ve all read articles about Yale in the context of New Haven before. This is not a new concept. But what can we do about it on a day-to-day basis, especially in the cold winter months?


1. Carry around small snacks with you (health bars are a good option).

If someone approaches you on the street and tells you that they’re hungry, you can give them something without adding time to your own walk across campus or wherever you’re headed. It takes literally two seconds and it could really help someone out.

2. Keep spare cash on you if you can.

I learned a lesson. You always need cash on you; cards can’t cover every situation. This is also just a good idea generally for your own emergencies.

3. You can order affordable hats, gloves, scarves, and socks on Amazon and keep them in your room.

On especially cold days, you can bring some of them along in your backpack and hand them out to people who look like they may need them.

This is a short list, but when it comes to things like this, small acts of kindness make a big difference. Our community does not just include libraries, our residential colleges, and the places we frequent on weekends. Our community does not just include the invisible Yale bubble. Our community is downtown New Haven, and we share it with others. Even if you don’t do any of the above things, smile at the people standing on the corner with cardboard signs (girls, obviously take this with caution, because I know street harassment is also a thing). Kindness is an ebb and flow, and as Thanksgiving and the holiday season approach and the temperature drops, it’s something we should be even more aware of.

Stay warm inside and out, Yalies.