Wonzheng Wang, of southern China, admits he doesn't have much time to get to know his neighbors in Oakenshawe or take an interest in the community.
"I go to school every day," Wang, a first-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, said apologetically Sunday.
Wang, who is studying applied mathematics, lives with four Chinese housemates in the 300 block of East University Parkway. Gamely, though a little uncertainly, they spent the first day of the Chinese New Year on Sunday joining homeowners and other Hopkins students in sweeping some of Oakenshawe's alleys.
"We want to help the neighborhood to clean up," Wang said. "It's our duty."
Students got a noseful of how filthy an alley can get, as they picked up everything from beer bottles to wet plastic bags of discarded dog poop.
The cleanup, designed to help Hopkins students meet their neighbors and learn community etiquette, was the brainchild of Oakenshawe resident Karen Stokes, a mother of two college students and executive director of the Greater Homewood Community Corp.
"I am really sympathetic to the fact that young people are learning to live in a community," Stokes said. "Our job as community leaders is to help them do that."
"We're trying to instill in them in that they're not just tenants in a property, but part of a community," said Jennifer Mielke, who recently succeeded Salem Reiner as Hopkins' director of community affairs.
"The key is to get the (students) to understand the basic responsibilities of living in a neighborhood," said Mark Counselman, president of the Oakenshawe Improvement Association.
Mielke and retired Northern District police Officer Jon Walter, who succeeded Carrie Bennett as student-community liaison for Hopkins' Homewood campus, spent Thursday evening knocking on 22 student-occupied houses in the 200 and 300 blocks of East University, notifying students and distributing fliers about the planned cleanup.
"A lot of students were like deer in headlights," said Walter, who arrived Sunday in a car full of shovels, brooms, rakes and gloves.
Anthony Lordi, 21, a junior studying public health, was receptive when Walter came to his house in the 300 block of East University.
"The guy knocked on the door and asked for help with the cleanup, so I showed up," said Lordi, who grew up in a close-knit neighborhood in Philadelphia. "I don't know anybody here, so it's a good chance to get to know them."
Hopkins students have fought a reputation as boisterous partyers with little affinity for the residential neighborhood.
"It's always good to let them know that we care," Lordi said.
The cleanup appeased some residents after a lapse in community outreach as Hopkins transitioned from Reiner and Bennett to Mielke and Walter. Reiner, who was well-known to north Baltimore community leaders, has joined the Hopkins president's office as associate director of economic development.
Bennett, who was also well-known as keeper of the peace between students and their neighbors, has moved back to Carlisle, Pa., to care for her ailing father.
Mielke said that Bennett always introduced herself to new students and explained to them how to be good neighbors.
"In the transition, that didn't really happen," Mielke said.
"This is a good sign," said Counselman, whose son, Matthew, 6, did his share of picking up trash. "We thought the university stumbled a bit in the transition. But they really picked up the ball this weekend."
Ideally, the cleanup would have happened at the beginning of the Hopkins school year, Counselman said.
For Mielke, the cleanup was a way of introducing herself to Oakenshawe residents and students alike. The Ednor Gardens resident, 40, came to Hopkins in October 2012 from Baltimore Housing, where she was a development manager for seven years. Before that, she worked in the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods.
Mielke said replacing Reiner means "big shoes to fill." She said she is trying to reach out to all of the communities near the Homewood campus and has already appeared before community associations in Oakenshawe, Abell, Charles Village, Wyman Park and Waverly.
"I'm a planner by background," she said. "I like community development."