Sandra Ullman was pining for her younger brother and sister as she ambled around an extracurricular activities fair at the beginning of her freshman year at Harvard four years ago.
She was drawn to Recreational Experience and Arts Creativity with Harvard, or REACH, a volunteer program that pairs students with local special-needs children for weekly games and arts activities.
“It seemed like a great way to combine my big-sister instincts with doing something productive,” said Ullman, 21.
The English major from Bethesda, Md., signed up that day for what she would later come to consider her “most significant undergraduate experience.”
Ullman will be going to Harvard Law School in 2008 after taking a year off to work. She’s looking forward to putting her legal education to work advocating for children — thanks in part to Wendy Perez, the now 12-year-old girl with Down syndrome Ullman met through REACH.
“Sandy was one of our most dedicated volunteers at REACH, and she had a very special connection with Wendy,” said Margaret Tiedeman, who coordinates with the program’s volunteers. “Wendy is a little shy, but really opened up to Sandy, who helped draw her out and encouraged her to participate in events and play with the other little buddies.”
It took about a month of weekly visits, Ullman recalled, but Wendy slowly warmed to her. Four years later, Wendy beams as soon as she lays eyes on Ullman during their weekly visits.
Tiedeman said some of her fondest memories of the program are of a usually reticent Wendy sitting happily in Ullman’s lap at snack time, and of Ullman cheering for Wendy as the shy girl performed onstage at annual talent shows.
“Sandy has such a patient, gentle spirit, and Wendy really responded to it,” Tiedeman said.
Around the Barker Center, though, Ullman earned a reputation for writing probing papers that fearlessly challenged conventional wisdom. Sabrina Sadique, a teaching fellow in the Department of English and American Language and Literature, said Ullman’s literary criticism in English 166, “The Postcolonial Classic,” stood out and earned the highest grades in the class.
“Her final essay particularly comes to mind — a startling meditation on the politics of subordinating shame through rhetoric,” Sadique said.
In the paper, Ullman argued that Mohandas Gandhi’s frequent apologies in his autobiography were a sly effort to steer his audience away from his frailties, as opposed to a genuine expression of remorse, Sadique said.
Leah Price’s courses on 18th century women novelists and travel writers fired Ullman’s imagination early in her education and led her to select mostly electives within the English Department throughout her undergraduate years at Harvard, Ullman said. Even so, she’s looking forward to picking her own reading list this summer as she travels in Europe.
“Being an English concentrator for the past four years, I haven’t had much chance to read on my own. Personal reading became a thing of the past,” she said with a chuckle.
Ullman thrived intellectually in her English and American literature and language classes, and she seriously considered pursuing a doctorate in literature with a view to a life in academia. She had long aspired to a career in law, though, so the choice was an agonizing one.
In the end, following in her mother’s footsteps to law school felt right to Ullman, she said. She made the decision at the end of her junior year and hasn’t looked back.
“I have a detail-oriented mind, and I’m interested in writing and research,” Ullman said. “My mom is an immigration attorney. I’ve always been so inspired by the work she does defending immigrants. She’s a big inspiration for me. I think I made the right choice.”
Ullman hasn’t made up her mind about what she’d like to do after law school, but she hopes to participate in a special Harvard Law clinic that focuses on protecting the legal rights of children caught up in the court system. She’s always been interested in social justice issues, and the REACH program taught her those “big-sister instincts” don’t end with her siblings.
“I don’t think you’ll see me in New York in 10 years making tons of money,” Ullman said.
Maybe not, but the people whose lives she touched on campus won’t be at all surprised if 10 years hence Ullman is making a difference for children.