The academic year that draws to a close today saw renewed emphasis on public service across Harvard. In her Commencement address, President Drew Faust underscored the University’s mission to serve the common good and announced enhanced support for students seeking service opportunities, including new Presidential Public Service Fellowships.
“It is a fundamental purpose of the modern research university to develop talent in service of a better world. This commitment is at the heart of all we do and at the heart of what we celebrate today,” Faust said in prepared remarks that also highlight the contributions that students, faculty, and staff make every day. “We as a University live under the protection of the public trust, [and] it is our obligation to … serve that trust — creating the people and the ideas that can change the world.”
The highly selective presidential fellowships will enable 10 students from across the University to spend a summer working with a public service organization of their choice or on a service project of their own creation. These students also will have the opportunity to participate in symposia and other learning experiences related to public service throughout the academic year.
In addition, Faust said that the goals of an anticipated University fundraising campaign would include doubling funds for undergraduate summer service opportunities and significantly increasing service opportunities for students in the graduate and professional Schools. The University also plans to create a public service Web site that will serve as a single entry point for students seeking information about career and volunteer opportunities.
The array of public service activities involving faculty, students, staff, and alumni this academic year was sweeping in its diversity: Students took advantage of the new winter recess to fight malnutrition in Uganda and promote literacy in El Salvador, and when they fanned out from New York City to the Deep South to perform community service on annual alternative spring break trips, they were joined for the first time by a group of alumni in the ongoing effort to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Harvard Law School (HLS) announced new funding to support postgraduate work in public service, the Graduate School of Design (GSD) put the creative talents of its students to work designing a library in Boston’s Chinatown, and scores of people from across the University volunteered at the Greater Boston Food Bank.
The University’s tradition of service dates to the 17th century. In 1636, the “College at Newtowne” was founded to provide the Massachusetts Bay Colony with the ministers needed in what was perceived as a wilderness. Six of the nine members of Harvard’s first graduating class became ministers, at least part time. Three of the six also were physicians.
By the early 17th century, Harvard’s Puritan origins had been supplanted by Unitarian leanings that secularized the University but allowed it to retain its sense of service to the greater good. When author Charles Dickens visited the United States in 1842, he castigated the young nation for its rapacious capitalism, calling America “a vast counting house” and Boston a place that worshipped the “golden calf” of mercantilism. But Dickens thought better of Harvard, writing that by serving the common good it represented “a whole Pantheon of better gods.”
Harvard’s “better gods”
Those better gods are evident in full measure now at Harvard, where every discipline is informed by the idea of public service. The Schools of medicine, public health, law, government, business, design, divinity, and education all have classes, clubs, initiatives, research, and projects devoted to the idea that every occupation can in some way spur service.
“If you’re at Harvard, you have privilege,” said Kaitlin “Katie” Koga ’11, president of Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA). “That’s something you should be cognizant of. We want people to think about living a life of service, in whatever they do.”
The effort to institutionalize public service at Harvard builds on a tradition exemplified by the Phillips Brooks House Association, the University’s signature social service club, which was founded in 1904. Today, there are about 1,400 active members — close to a quarter of the undergraduates.
PBHA alumni include former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter (who is delivering today’s Afternoon Exercises address), U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Roger Baldwin, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Some supporters call PBHA “Harvard’s best course,” because it offers not just opportunities to give back, but also first-rate leadership and management experience for its student officers, who can put 30 hours or more into their jobs each week.
The group is adding eight programs, in a sign of the widening interest in public service University-wide, with more service-related classes, club activities, and School-supported fellowships.
“The millennial generation’s strong interest in service is well-documented,” said Gene Corbin, PBHA’s Class of 1955 Executive Director, “and we are doing everything we can at Harvard to support and encourage this inclination.”
The recent financial crisis has prompted this new generation to embrace priorities beyond simply building wealth, he said. “Our students are now more passionate about how they can make the world a better place.”
There are other signs of the rising commitment to the ideal of commonweal. Last fall, the University held its first Public Service Week. Events and activities highlighted Harvard’s service history, celebrated its present, and encouraged a future of doing more.
There are many avenues to public service along with PBHA, including the Center for Public Interest Careers at Harvard College (CPIC). As many as 40 postgraduate students a year get full-time public interest fellowships from CPIC, which networks with 250 alumni and nonprofit groups nationally.
The group’s goal, said director Amanda Sonis Glynn, J.D. ’03, is to help students find a place for public service in every life choice or career.
The fellowships pay at least $30,000 a year, plus benefits, but students can choose from a range of paid summer fellowships as well — in the arts, journalism, education, medicine, public health, and housing and urban development. Last year, CPIC received more than 350 applications; 160 students took part in its programs, including 39 full-year, postgraduate fellows.
Elsewhere at Harvard, doing public service can mean volunteer work. For one, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences — the seedbed of Harvard’s newest science and humanities Ph.D.s — has its own volunteerism arm, Dudley House Public Service. Its reach is wide, from mentoring and letter-writing campaigns, to blood drives, themed fundraisers, and a walk for hunger.
The Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) has a public service task force that helps identify ways for graduates to volunteer around the world. In April, HAA held a Global Month of Service, sparking service events in North and South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
Shared-interest groups at HAA often take the same tack. One is PBHA-Alumni, a network of Harvard graduates who are amid service careers or who simply want to help out. With HAA, the group co-sponsored its first alternative spring break service trip in March to New Orleans.
More than 20 alumni and friends spent a week sprucing up buildings at the Pentecost Baptist Church in Gentilly, a neighborhood heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Nearly five years later, the area still has gutted shotgun houses, but busy construction sites too.
Mary Brownlow ’74, associate pastor at Norwich Congregational Church in rural Vermont, was among Harvard alumni repainting a community center at Pentecost Baptist. Sweating and shaded by a wide-brim hat, she said of her good life at home: “You want to break out of that bubble once in a while.”
At Harvard College, alternative spring break expanded from one trip in 2001 to nearly a dozen this year. In March, 85 undergraduates served in 10 domestic locations and one in El Salvador.
Emmett Kistler ’11 helped to rebuild a church in rural Hayneville, Ala., a few miles south of where Civil Rights activists marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. “You get down here, and it’s revitalizing,” he said. “You can get back to Earth and see what’s important.”
Harvard’s winter recess, new this year, quickly became a vehicle for service trips. Students went to Uganda to fight malnutrition, to northern India to tutor, and to El Salvador to promote literacy.
Harvard undergraduates traveled to the Dominican Republic as part of a 10-day water purification project, bringing with them a low-tech bucket-and-valve chlorination system.
For a time, the students quickly shifted their focus to Haitian relief following the devastating earthquake there. Back on campus, students organized concerts and collected funds for the Haitian aid effort.
“Everything has gone up”
At the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, PBHA remains the most robust expression of the Harvard service ideal. It runs 12 summer camps, along with programs in adult literacy, tutoring, housing, community health, and other areas. (PBHA also oversees the only student-run homeless shelter in the nation.) The group’s programs number nearly 100 now, the most ever.
Koga was a freshman in the fall of 2007 when she got in on the ground floor of the North Cambridge after-school program. Ten tutors and 10 students jammed into a tiny school library room three days a week. Today, 60 tutors meet with students four days a week in two spacious community rooms in an apartment complex.
“You learn to think at Harvard,” said Koga, a Kirkland House junior from Hawaii. But public service teaches you to act, to manage, and even to see the career potential of doing good. “It’s incredibly experiential.”
Professional and graduate Schools at Harvard also report more interest in public service options, in the classroom and out.
“Everything has gone up,” said Alexa Shabecoff, assistant dean for public service at the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising at the Law School. “Numbers of students doing public service over the summer have gone up, numbers doing postgraduate work as a first job, numbers doing clinics have gone up.”
In addition, she said, HLS is committing more financial resources to public service activities, including winter-recess funding, clinics, loan repayment, and postgraduate fellowships. In February, the School created a Public Service Venture Fund that awards grants to students pursuing service careers.
At Harvard Business School (HBS), courses and research devoted to nonprofits have risen steadily since 1993, when the Social Enterprise Initiative was established. There are now 95 faculty members involved in related research, said initiative director Laura Moon, and 400 case studies and case teaching notes have been developed. “Across a range of dimensions, we’ve seen increasing numbers.”
More than half of all second-year students took social enterprise electives last year, she said, and the related student club, with around 400 members, is one of the largest at HBS, where 7 percent of recent graduates entered the nonprofit sector. The School’s student-led Social Enterprise Conference draws about 1,000 attendees every year.
HBS alumni are highly engaged too, said Moon. About a third actively serve on nonprofit boards, and contribute $4 million in pro bono consulting annually.
This year, HBS also offered its first international immersion program, in Rwanda, and celebrated its fifth year of offering a similar short-term consulting program in New Orleans.
Harvard’s Schools of law and business have active fellowship programs relating to public service or the nonprofit world. The Social Enterprise Summer Fellowship program at HBS, for one, has provided support to more than 1,000 students since its founding in 1982.
In May, HLS awarded its first Redstone Fellowships to 26 students for postgraduate service work. The fellowships are supported by a gift from Sumner M. Redstone ’47, who donated $1 million to be used by the Law School and the College to support students committed to such work.
At Harvard Medical School, officials have provided $1.5 million in debt relief to graduates entering public service fields. More than 60 percent of students there already participate in service programs.
Institutions old and new
Some of Harvard’s graduate Schools embraced public service from the beginning.
The Harvard Divinity School (HDS), founded in 1816, continues the mandate of 1636 to educate leaders in religious thought whose purpose is to minister and teach. “Public service is an important part of the culture here,” said HDS spokesman Jonathan Beasley.
At the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), “public service has always been at the core of the mission,” said Dean David T. Ellwood. The Student Public Service Collaborative works to integrate service into the School’s culture.
In April, HKS held a Public Service Week, with panels and programs on health care, public sector careers, race, poverty, human rights, urban schools, employment, and other issues.
At the Graduate School of Design, architecture students and alumni last summer started the China Storefront project, a library with 39 volunteers and two paid staff members. GSD students created the space in a vacant commercial storefront.
GSD offers the Community Service Fellowship program, in which funding is available for 10-week summer internships in the Boston area or for international travel throughout the year. Proposed projects have to address public and community needs on a local scale.
There has been a similar, and related, upward trend in human rights programs, course work, policymaking, and advocacy.
Trevor Bakker ’10, a pre-law student, shows the modern face of public service. Working at the Hayneville, Ala., site in March, wearing kneepads and spattered with mortar, he had earlier learned to cut floor tile. “We have both a moral obligation and an intellectual imperative to put the books down once in a while,” he said, “and give of our time and resources to those who can use our help.”
Includes reporting by staff writer Corydon Ireland.