The call came early on Nov. 5, 2008, telling Bishop Bryant Robinson Jr. that his new church was ablaze. Only hours before, Barack Obama had been elected the nation’s first black president. Now Robinson’s nearly completed church, home to a largely black congregation, was burning like a matchbook, the flames lighting the night sky.

The fire, which prosecutors say was set by arsonists angry at Obama’s election, was on Robinson’s mind as he addressed a group of Harvard undergraduates on a warm spring afternoon outside the Macedonia Church of God in Christ. The church in Springfield, Mass., had risen again, with their help.

Forgoing a week at the beach or at home, the students joined the annual Alternative Spring Break trip sponsored by Harvard’s Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) to help rebuild churches destroyed by arson. During their week on-site, the volunteers helped to paint almost the entire interior of the 18,000-square-foot church in bright pastels.

“You guys were on the other side of that flame,” an appreciative Robinson told them.

Robinson said later that the students’ support “just renews the spirit, the soul.” Their participation reminded him of Obama’s optimism, Robinson added, “when he says we are moving toward a more perfect union.”

Harvard’s service ethos is at the heart of its founding mission, which focused from the start in 1636 on educating ministers to serve their surrounding communities. Now, that service commitment extends across the modern University and includes students, faculty, alumni, and staff. Some efforts are embedded in altruism, and some in curriculum. But all aim to do good, as a rising focal point of Harvard life.

Harvard President Drew Faust has made service a core value of her administration. She regularly reminds the Harvard community that with the University’s great resources comes great responsibility. “We as a University live under the protections of the public trust,” she said at last year’s Commencement. “It is our obligation to nurture and educate talent to serve that trust — creating the people and the ideas that can change the world.”

Buttressing that ideal, Harvard will soon announce the winners of the first Presidential Public Service Fellowships – 10 students from Harvard College and the graduate and professional Schools who will work in public service for the summer. Created by Faust, the program provides grants of up to $5,000 for undergraduates and $10,000 for graduate students for a range of efforts, including government and community service, nongovernmental organization and nonprofit work, and innovative projects that serve the common good.

For many participants, such public service proves transformative. Some volunteers say their experiences prompted them to change their academic direction, while others point to the lasting friendships they made in working toward shared goals.

Emmett Kistler ’11, who for three years has participated in the Alternative Spring Break sessions led for a decade by Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and Harvard College lecturer on history and literature and public policy Tim McCarthy ’93, was so inspired by his experiences that he changed his concentration. After his first trip as a sophomore, the Eliot House resident traded his chemistry classes for ones involving religion and civil rights. He is completing his thesis on Martin Luther King Jr.

“This has been one of the most shaping experiences of my college career,” Kistler said.

Other participants point to the personal bonds they forged. Several students working on the Springfield church said they had made lasting friendships with fellow undergraduates.

Freshman Rachel Horn said that she missed the break time that she could have spent with her family, but that her parents understood she wanted to make service “a big part of what I did in college.”

“I love the sense of community that it has given me,” said a paint-spattered Horn as she added another cream-colored coat to a wall near the church’s sanctuary. “I love doing this work, but I also just love meeting the people. All the people on this trip have been incredibly friendly, and I feel like I am really close with them, even though I have only known them for a week.”

PBHA is the gateway to service for Harvard undergraduates. The student-run organization has 1,500 students participating in more than 80 social service and social action programs. The numbers of participants and programs have risen steadily over the past decade.

This year, 110 students participated in one of 11 Alternative Spring Break trips, which included everything from working with AIDS patients in New York City to creating affordable housing in El Salvador.

Service, front and center

For Harvard’s Schools, serving others is often part of the curriculum.

At Harvard Law School (HLS), every student must complete 40 hours of pro bono legal services before graduating. But most students do far more. The HLS Class of 2010 averaged 556 hours of free legal services per student, and some students completed 2,000 hours or more of free services during their three years at the School. Such efforts are managed through the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs (OCP).

“It’s a dual mission of providing services to the community but also teaching students how to be competent and ethical lawyers,” said Lisa Dealy, assistant dean for clinical and pro bono programs. “We feel that all lawyers have an obligation to serve their communities (and the world). And through the HLS clinical and pro bono programs, we hope to instill in students that public service ethos.”

One of the largest providers of free legal services in Massachusetts, the School’s clinical arm is also believed to be the largest clinical legal education program in the world, offering clinics in nearly 30 areas, including immigration, international human rights, and child advocacy law. Under the supervision of the School’s 60 clinical instructors, students represent clients in actual cases.

Serving the community has another important benefit, said Ronald Sullivan, a clinical professor of law who directs Harvard’s Criminal Justice Institute, in which third-year HLS students, supervised by clinical instructors, represent indigent criminal defendants and juveniles in local courts.

Providing quality representation allows defendants, their families, and friends to feel that they were heard, something particularly important in communities of color, where distrust of the criminal justice system can be widespread, said Sullivan.

“One of the ironies that every good criminal defense lawyer experiences is a client who gets convicted and turns to you and says ‘thank you.’ It is a profound expression of the recognition that their voice was heard,” Sullivan said.

Second-year law student Jessica Lewis recently helped a young man to gain asylum status through Harvard’s Immigration and Refugee Clinic. She said the work “changed my experience in law school.”

Developing skills as a lawyer by working with another classmate and a clinical instructor, while forging a connection with her client, gave her a new perspective. “It makes you realize that the skills you are developing here are not just for you,” she said. “You can use them for other people to make a difference in their lives.”

HLS also has a dozen student practice organizations that work on real cases. For example, the School’s Harvard Law & International Development Society collaborates with the OCP to offer opportunities in law and international development.

In January, working with the Millennium Challenge Corp., a U.S. foreign aid agency, students visited the small African nation of Lesotho, where they worked on decentralizing health care services and on a land regularization project so residents could obtain formal documentation of their property rights.

“The most satisfying thing was knowing right away that what we were doing was really helping, and that we were able to give back,” said third-year HLS student Alastair Green.

Supplementing such efforts, last year HLS created the Public Service Venture Fund, which will start distributing $1 million in grants annually, beginning in the spring of 2013, to help graduating students pursue service careers. HLS students also have access to the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising to investigate such careers.

Aiding in public health

Through programs that address key issues such as global health, health policy, nutrition, and complex diseases, the Harvard School of Public Health works to inform policy debate, disseminate information, and support health as a public good and a fundamental right. The School has a network of students who work with local high school students on such critical concerns as violence prevention and safe-sex practices.

At Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM), students and faculty offer their skills in local communities, including HIV counseling and testing programs, as well as free dental services to the underserved. Through the HMS Department of Global Health & Social Medicine (GHSM), faculty and students help to tackle problems such as malnutrition and infectious disease in developing nations.

First-year HMS student Matthew Basilico ’08 plans to return to Haiti this summer to study the causes of poverty and ill health, working with faculty from GHSM and Harvard’s Department of Government. As a Harvard freshman, Basilico took what he called “a life-altering seminar” with Paul Farmer, founder of the HMS-affiliated aid organization Partners In Health (PIH), head of GHSM, and Kolokotrones University Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine. After graduating from the College, Basilico worked with PIH following Haiti’s devastating earthquake a year ago, helping to coordinate landing spots in the capital for planes carrying medical teams and supplies.

“There has been an enormous range of opportunities to be involved with global health work at Harvard,” said Basilico, “and there are incredible mentors here who highlight these issues.”

In addition, HKS trains public leaders to make a difference in the world. The Harvard Business School has a Social Enterprise Initiative that encourages “emerging leaders in all sectors to apply management skills to create social value” through enterprises involving teaching, research, and other activities. The Harvard Graduate School of Education prepares academic leaders who will work to improve community teaching and learning practices. The Harvard Graduate School of Design has a Community Service Fellowship Program in which students aid design and planning projects both locally and abroad. The Harvard Divinity School helps to bridge religious and cultural divides around the world.

Helping neighboring communities

Locally, the Harvard Allston Education Portal connects families in the Allston and Brighton neighborhoods with the University’s vast intellectual resources. The portal offers individual and small group mentoring, pairing Harvard undergraduates who have concentrations in science, math, and the humanities with local students to help polish their skills.

The portal also offers a lecture series featuring professors from the University’s new General Education curriculum.

Since the portal opened almost three years ago, 53 Harvard undergraduates have been student mentors.

Chioma Madubata ’11, a molecular and cellular biology concentrator, is a regular mentor. She leads experiments such as teaching how to make ice cream, using plastic bags and rock salt to show what happens when something changes from a liquid to a solid.

“It also shows that science is fun — and occasionally you can eat what you make,” said the Quincy House resident, laughing.

The Public Service Network

The Phillips Brooks House, which houses PBHA, is also home to the Public Service Network, which supports independent, student-led service programs, as well as the Center for Public Interest Careers (CPIC) at Harvard College, which assists students in securing paid public interest placements during summers and after graduation.

Natasha Alford ’08 said CPIC played a major role in “planting the seed” of her growing professional interest in service.

Familiar with the shortcomings of inner-city high schools, Alford arrived on campus hoping to make a difference. “I came to Harvard with the idea that I needed to do something,” she said. Through CPIC, she was placed one summer with an organization involved in foster care. The next summer, CPIC helped her to secure an internship with Facing History and Ourselves, which helps teachers to educate their students about social justice issues.

After graduating, Alford headed to a management investment firm. But she knew “something was missing.” Now she is working with Teach for America as an English teacher at a struggling charter school in Washington, D.C.

“It’s so rewarding. Every morning I wake up and I have a purpose,” said Alford, who credited CPIC for helping her to “find my place.”

One of PBHA’s programs is the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. Student run with 28 staff members and about 200 volunteers, the shelter in a church basement offers warm beds and hot meals to men and women during the winter. Volunteer resource advocates assist the guests with job searches and with applications for benefits and transitions to permanent housing. An outreach team delivers food to the homeless in Harvard Square.

Luci Yang ’11 volunteered at the shelter as a freshman, and quickly found her niche. Now, she is one of the two administrative directors. The experience made her think about public service in “many different ways,” giving her “a more rounded sense of what service could mean, and what it would mean to do service as a long-term career.”

Fresh paths to success