“So this is Harvard?” asked a 10-year-old girl as we walked down Massachusetts Avenue. It had barely been 10 minutes since we’d left her affordable housing complex. “I’ve never been there. I thought it was like, miles away or something.”
It took a while, but finally it clicked: This girl had lived within a mile of Harvard for years, but had no idea she could walk there. But what would make a young girl who has Harvard nearly at her fingertips feel that it is so far out of reach? What can we do to make it more accessible to people right outside our doorstep and to people even farther away?
What brought the little girl and I together could be a window into Harvard for many: mentoring. Mentoring is so integral to and pervasive within the fabric of the University community that I have sought to make it a central part of my life.
It’s easy to get caught in the “Harvard Bubble,” the sheltered world in which we forget that there are significant things happening elsewhere. Between the 21,000 students and 2,100 faculty across 12 Schools, groundbreaking achievements are being made every day. As a freshman, I was thus surprised by just how small the radius was within which I needed to search to find individuals who remain unaffected by what happens here. I grew more and more interested in sharing what I learned at Harvard each day with others, hopefully to augment their lives. I have also been lucky enough to have mentored amazing youth, who have taught me unexpected things and helped me pop out of the “Bubble.”
In my first semester at Harvard, I worked with several other students to create a chapter of the national DREAM Program here. It was my first foray into working with youth, and I was excited to give Cambridge kids a taste of the campus that was so close to their homes. The program was fulfilling, but most emphasized community building and personal development. I wanted my role as a mentor to take a more academic direction. As a result, the next year I worked as a mentor for Crimson Summer Academy (CSA), a Harvard organization that invites high-potential, low-income students from Boston’s public high schools to spend three summers in a rigorous college-preparatory program on campus.
The mentor role was dynamic: We assisted the teachers in class, tutored the students, helped with homework, and kept order in the dorms at night. Most importantly, we built relationships with the students, and often discussed our Harvard experience with them. The “scholars,” as we called them, were curious about everything from our social lives to what classes we planned to take to the kinds of activities we did on campus. I remember sitting on the steps of Weld Hall with one boy, a rising junior at the time, as he excitedly asked me questions about Harvard for 45 minutes. While they were interested in my life here, I was constantly learning about their experiences growing up in Boston, and the challenges that they faced at home, in their neighborhoods, and at school as they attempted to achieve their academic and professional goals.
I felt a sense of responsibility to these students. As mentors we could inspire them to aspire to lofty academic goals, but we’d do them a disservice if we didn’t couple that inspiration with the academic and social support they needed to succeed. In CSA we achieved this multifaceted purpose; nearly all the program’s seniors went on to great colleges and universities, and one whom I got to know during my summer with CSA is now a freshman at Harvard.
My memorable and enriching experience at CSA inspired me to continue to couple relationship-building with academic development. During all three of my years here so far, I’ve tried to allow youth education and mentorship to penetrate my academic and extracurricular pursuits, but it hasn’t been easy. In the past year I’ve been involved in health education in both New York City and Boston, but I haven’t had many opportunities in that sphere to couple relationships with academics. Luckily, I am now in a unique position as co-chief executive officer of Smart Woman Securities (SWS) to make education and mentoring as widely accessible as I’d like. SWS was started at Harvard in 2006, to educate college women about finance in their personal and professional lives. It has grown into something of which my co-CEO, Meredith Toman, and I, as well as our current and past executive board members, are exceedingly proud. We offer Harvard women introductory and advanced finance education courses, the opportunity to manage investments in a $21,000 fund, and regular career panels and events. This organization epitomizes my belief in coupling learning with relationships.
Community is a major part of our culture, and we have three levels of mentorship to foster it: external, in which alumni build relationships with members; internal, in which the most experienced members work with the newest ones; and families, which are groups that bring members of various levels together to share ideas and advice. The strengths of our program, and the successes of our members, lie in the fact that we couple preparation in finance with social support, allowing women to build networks that give them opportunities and help them become leaders.
I would have loved to have a resource like this in high school. Many SWS members tell us that they first became interested in finance, and understood its relevance to their growth as independent women, when a firm or nonprofit organization approached them in high school. This semester, the SWS executive board planned our first High School Conference, a daylong program to give girls a basic understanding of personal finance, expose them to business and finance professionals, and help them start building networks. This is an opportunity for us as college women to build relationships with high school students, and share what Harvard has given us.
This University teaches many things. We can choose from more than 40 fields of concentration and 3,000 courses. Our faculty members are among the highest achievers in the world. Still, without the insights, advice, and experiences of my peers, I would not have explored many of the extracurricular opportunities that have let me put my coursework into action. The students and faculty inspired my academic ambitions, and the relationships we have built guided me along the road to achieving them. To offer youth the same guidance is the least that I can do with the opportunities and platforms that I’m lucky enough to have as a student at Harvard.