He'd heard the negative stereotypes about Baltimore — about its crime rate, about its disparities in wealth, about its spike in violence this year — so when Dominic Yared of Lexington, Mass., thought about moving to the city to start his freshman year at the Johns Hopkins University this fall, he wasn't sure what to expect.
On Sunday, as he relaxed with new friends beside a bocce ball court in Little Italy, he seemed much more at ease with the idea.
"This is a beautiful city. I love the sense of history," Yared, 18, said as he squinted in the sunlight near the celebrated playing area at St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church. "The problems seem to have been grossly exaggerated."
Yared, a probable mechanical engineering major, was one of about 1,300 members of the Hopkins class of 2019 who were taking part in Baltimore Day, an effort by the university to familiarize its newest enrollees with the city that will be their new home away from home.
The new freshmen, who arrived on campus Friday and Saturday, were split into nearly 70 groups Sunday. Each group visited and spent three hours exploring a single section of town.
They were randomly assigned to take a Hopkins bus to one of seven neighborhoods, including Station North, Federal Hill, Druid Hill and Little Italy.
"The idea of the day is to get our students out of the Johns Hopkins bubble from the beginning and into places where they can learn to better understand the city that will be their home for four years," said Justin Beauchamp, coordinator of orientation and first-year experience at the university. "We want them to appreciate the city's history and culture and learn ways to engage in the greater Baltimore community."
With student "first-year mentors" serving as guides, the freshmen took part in planned activities, then were turned loose to wander and explore.
Station North visitors hit art galleries. Those in Mount Vernon met the curator of the George Peabody Library, the Druid Hill group visited the Maryland Zoo at Baltimore, and Federal Hill visitors saw both the American Visionary Art Museum and Fort McHenry.
In Little Italy, Eugenio Refini, an assistant professor of Italian studies, met three groups of students over the course of the day, leading each on tours of the neighborhood's Little Italy landmarks.
As traffic rushed by in the background in the early afternoon, Refini, a native of Siena, Italy, served up insights on the Italian-American experience in Baltimore.
He stood before about 60 students at the corner of Pratt and Albemarle streets and held up a succession of signs as he spoke. They contained factoids, including the number of Americans who claim Italian roots (17 million) and the number who came to the U.S. between 1880 and 2004 (5.5 million).
Refini led the group through stops at Columbus Plaza, the old President Street train station and the former Canal Street Malt House before showing them Vaccaro's restaurant and dropping them off at the bocce court.
Many had never heard of the game. including Farrah Lin of Tallahassee, Fla., who teamed up with Natalie Wallington of Greenwich, Conn., to give the game a try.
They lost to another twosome, but enjoyed the experience.
"It's like curling without the ice. It's also a little like pool," said Lin, who plans to major in chemical-biomolecular engineering. "I want to play again."
Wallington, who plans to major in international studies, said she was glad organizers gave the students a chance to venture out on their own.
She has always wanted to live in a city, she said, and feels lucky to be moving here in the aftermath of the unrest of April.
"I'm glad to have this learning opportunity, and I'll pitch in to help in whatever way I can," she said.
The students began their day with an hourlong lecture in the auditorium at Shriver Hall on Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus, where officials explained the intricacies of the university's transportation system, including ways of getting around the city.
Rollin Johnson Jr., director of the university's Center for Social Concern, told the students they should do what they can to "make this city your city" — and to get off campus and involved in social-justice activities.
Baltimore Day seemed to convince many that the city is a promising place to be.
Jack Nudelman, 17, an aspiring chemical engineer from Weston, Fla., said he had "heard it was dangerous and probably dirty" and that "pretty much everyone here has probably thought about" whether it's a safe place to study.
But after taking the tour, playing a bit of bocce, and saying goodbye to his parents earlier in the day, Nudelman said he already felt more connected to Baltimore than he'd expected.
"It's a lot nicer than you hear," he said. "This [day] has eased any worries I had."