Ostensibly, Harvard is a place to broaden one’s knowledge base and acquire new and important skills that carry over into life and a career. Things like course choices, papers, lab work, projects, tests, and grades all have a clear, direct effect on a student’s satisfaction. That’s why academic support resources, like advisors, counselors and tutors, are so essential.
What happens outside the classroom — who you meet, what House you live in, who shares your suite, how you feel about yourself, who your friends are, and what you do after class and on weekends — plays an equally important, if not greater, role in shaping a student’s College experience. Yet it’s not always clear to all what campus options exist for assistance with one’s social life.
Helping students bridge in-classroom learning with on-campus life, the Office of Student Life partners with the undergraduate residential Houses and provides support for student activities and social organizations, including the Harvard College Women’s Center, the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, and the Phillips Brooks House Association, among many others.
“We’re really here to help students to engage with each other and the campus community; to provide support and reduce barriers for them to engage, and to partner with offices across the College and University to help students have the best out-of-classroom experience that they can,” said Katherine O’Dair, the new Harvard College dean of students who leads the Office of Student Life.
O’Dair joined Harvard in September after 12 years at Boston College, where she was associate vice president for student affairs. Before that, she worked at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts University. She was popular enough that Tufts students found an unusual way to thank her when she departed: They named a new student activity van “Katie.”
“I think we’re at a moment in time in higher education, at a moment in time here on campus [where], more than ever, we need liberally educated leaders who are going to help us solve conflicts [and] to work across difference. I think that is the most important thing,” she said, when asked why she came to Harvard. “I want to be here right now to contribute to that.”
With O’Dair and Alex Miller, assistant dean of student life, both new to Harvard, they’ve been reaching out to students since the fall to get a better sense of what today’s students want and need as the office reassesses how best to meet their changing and diverse needs.
Since arriving, O’Dair has attended many informal dinners and social events to get to know students and campus life better. This spring, she’s been hosting informal gatherings in the Mather House apartment where she lives during the school week to meet students and have them meet each other. “I learned a lot about students just by listening to them,” she said, so “we’re incorporating that into the work we’re doing.”
Located in University Hall, the Office provides help, offers advice, or just serves as a sounding board for students across a range of areas, from discussing weekend parties and how to meet new people to homesickness or loneliness to social and political issues like criminal and social justice. O’Dair said in time she hopes more students will drop in and share what’s on their minds so the office can find new ways to support their ideas.
“What I love about [Harvard] is that students are free to express their opinions, they have agency over what they like and what they don’t, and they let us know about it,” she said. “So part of [our challenge] is, how do we provide forums for and opportunities for students to come talk to us?”
Some recent dominant events, including the 2016 election, the ongoing discussion surrounding Harvard’s final clubs and other single-gender social organizations, and the food service workers’ strike last fall, prompted fresh thinking about how to better meet students’ concerns and enhance their campus experiences.
“I think the strike, in many ways, revealed inequities that were always there, but that became more apparent to students,” said O’Dair. Those who could afford to dine out in Harvard Square did so, while those who could not were relegated to the limited menu available in those dining halls that remained open.
“The silver lining was it made students appreciate House life and their dining hall and how important it was to be with their community,” she added. “It gave students more appreciation for our system — it’s not just about food, it’s about community,” she said.
This spring, the office will help coordinate a slate of shows, parties, and social events for students. In addition to hosting “Saturday Night Live” comedian Leslie Jones’ appearance and a campus Mardi Gras celebration last month, it’s helping hold a “College night” at the Queen’s Head Pub every Thursday and the annual Yardfest in April.
The office is also working to deepen the connection with faculty members to enhance learning opportunities outside the classroom and will hold a new leadership-recognition reception later this spring to honor student leaders who have made meaningful contributions in arenas ranging from community service and the arts to athletics and student government.
Also, students can now apply for a new collaboration and innovation grant that provides up to $3,000 to support student-run events that unite different student organizations, as a means to help foster community.
“What we heard from students is they want more opportunities to come together across their student organizations, perhaps across class year, and this collaboration grant is designed to help do that,” said O’Dair. Unlike past practice, the grant lets students take the programming initiative, much like the Undergraduate Council’s Club 1636 pilot program, where the council hosts nights at hot spots around the Square to give undergraduates an alternative to private parties on and off campus, she said.
Since the best ideas come from students, not administrators, she added, “Our philosophy is not to do for them, but to provide them the resources and the infrastructure for them to create their own experiences.”