“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,” said Harvard President Drew Faust during her 2010 Commencement address. With the Harvard Alumni Association’s (HAA) sixth annual global month of service taking place this month, alumni are putting the University’s core value of public service into practice in their communities around the world.
“Our alumni care deeply about service, and there’s a long tradition of service in the alumni community,” said Kristen DeAmicis, director of university-wide alumni engagement for the association. “The global month of service is an opportunity for us to recognize and celebrate the service that’s already being done by alumni, and engage new people in service as well.” Opportunities for alumni to connect with each other and their communities abound during the month of service, from initiatives to clean riverbanks to helping community food banks to mentoring young people and providing pro bono professional services.
The effort kicked off last Thursday evening at the Harvard Divinity School (HDS) with an association-sponsored panel on public service moderated by Gene Corbin, assistant dean of student life for public service. Panelists included Emily Click, HDS assistant dean for ministry studies and field education and lecturer on ministry; Christine Letts, Rita E. Hauser Senior Lecturer in the Practice of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS); and Laurence Ralph, assistant professor of African and African American Studies and assistant professor of anthropology.
Corbin opened the discussion by asking why public service is so vital for a research university. Click had an answer: “Excellence in scholarship does not stand in isolation,” she said. “It needs to be partnered with service to human needs.”
Ralph agreed, adding, “Public service enriches learning. About 52 percent of undergraduates will be engaged in some form of public service before they graduate, but we need to make their engagement more sustainable, to develop the habit so it becomes a lifelong value.”
Letts emphasized public service as a way to grapple with difficult issues and help teach students complex problem-solving skills. “We want to give students a skill set and an understanding of the broader problems,” she said, “instead of having them just feel good about a single intervention.”
The panel turned next to alumni’s role in public-service initiatives. “Our alumni go out and establish organizations that are making a difference in our communities,” said Click, “and then they open them up for our students to come and learn. I’m so thankful for what they do. Alumni also serve as experts and give feedback” on integrating educational approaches with real-world practice, she noted.
Ralph said Harvard’s alumni network provides invaluable professional support. “Personal relationships among alumni make a big difference, especially when people find themselves uncomfortable in seemingly intractable situations,” he said. “Alumni are indispensable in offering support and giving our undergraduates opportunities to serve.”
He added, “Sometimes it’s important to hold students in places of discomfort” so they can expand their personal and professional development, and question their status and assumptions. Alumni mentors can play a key role in that difficult process, he said.
A final issue was how the University values and recognizes public service, on campus and among alumni. “We need different ways of describing contribution and achievement,” said Letts. Corbin added that “at the institutional level, we need to say, ‘We value public service.’ Recognition is a basic human need. President Faust gets it and has worked hard to highlight public service.”
The association’s Lisa Unangst, assistant director of HAA Clubs and shared-interest groups, said after the event, “We’re so grateful for the efforts our alumni make to give back in ways that feel relevant and authentic to them.“ She offered two examples: “The Harvard Club in Concord has had a long-term partnership with a nonprofit called Community Servings, and provides a group once a month to help make and deliver meals to people with critical and chronic illnesses,” she said. “The Harvard Club of San Diego is focusing its service efforts on sustainability, and working with an organization called Grid Alternatives to install solar panels in disadvantaged areas of Southern California.”
“Service is something our constituents are engaged with year-round, and we’re always looking for tools and resources to help support them,” she concluded.
For more information about the global month of service, visit the HAA’s website at http://alumni.harvard.edu/events/global-month-service or contact HAA’s Lisa Unangst at firstname.lastname@example.org.