At a late-afternoon reception in University Hall’s Faculty Room last week (Nov. 13), Harvard President Drew Faust and Harvard College Dean Evelynn Hammonds gratefully acknowledged a $1 million, multiyear gift from Charlotte Chen Ackert ’76 and David Ackert to the University’s Center for Public Interest Careers (CPIC). The Ackert family has been an avid supporter of CPIC in recent years, providing volunteer services and financial support and developing placements for interns.
“And now, wild cheering of thanks” for the Ackert family, said Faust, who is also Harvard’s Lincoln Professor of History. (She got her wish, from an animated assembly of 120 people.) The gift has already made hiring a second CPIC fellow possible, Faust said, and will improve the office’s outreach, mentoring, and networking missions.
Faust also announced what will be good news to the large numbers of Harvard College undergraduates attracted to public service summer jobs, internships, and careers. She and Hammonds have just appointed a new Public Service Committee, charged to investigate how to ease and broaden related information.
“Harvard undergraduates are particularly interested in public service work,” said Faust, who asked the committee for recommendations by the end of the spring term. “We want to respond to that need.”
In any given academic year, more than a third of Harvard undergraduates do public service volunteer work, she said. Surveys of graduating seniors show a recent uptick in interest in the public sphere. And a 2008 study by the Harvard College Office of Career Services concluded that work in the nonprofit sector is the single greatest area of interest for Harvard students.
But there are barriers to satisfying that interest, University officials said, and the new committee is charged with looking into them. For one, meaningful job searches in the public sector or among nonprofits are often hampered by recruiting methods (and budgets) that don’t match up to the worlds of finance, banking, and investment.
Giving students the means to search for jobs over a broader range of careers — thanks to the Ackert family donation — has added meaning in a period of economic downturn, said Hammonds. “This gift,” she said, “comes at a timely moment.”
The new committee will also report back on the range of opportunities students have for summer, term-time, and postgraduate work in the public service sector.
Faust also asked the new committee — chaired by Charles Cardillo ’91, executive director of the Harvard College Fund — to explore the best practices of Harvard’s peer institutions, and bring lessons learned back to Cambridge. (Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research will help the committee compile relevant data and track future trends in career interests.)
Based on a tentative list, the Public Service Committee is composed of 16 senior administrators from across the University, including career service professionals who place students in policy, government, health, law, and business fields. The committee’s membership will also include two student representatives from Harvard College.
Hammonds — who is the Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies — praised the CPIC, which in the seven years since its founding has helped place 850 Harvard students and recent graduates in public service internships, fellowships, and postgraduate careers — 100 such placements in 2008 alone.
She also praised CPIC’s partners in providing public interest resources: the Harvard Alumni Association, the Harvard College Office of Career Services, the Harvard University Student Employment Office, the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), which alone oversees 77 volunteer programs and 12 summer camps.
The Ackert gift “represents a wonderful day for the College and for students,” said PBHA Executive Director Gene Corbin, who gets inquiries from many students interested in public service. The gift, he said, will add to “the structures” that help them.
“There are many ways our students will go out into the world,” said Hammonds, and having more job-search resources will give undergraduates “every opportunity to make a full and conscious choice” of careers.
After Faust and Hammonds spoke, CPIC coordinator Amanda Sonis Glynn J.D. ’03 mingled at the reception with a few friends — all of them excited by the opportunities opened by the Ackert gift. The gift comes at the right moment, she said, when a generation of students seems “so passionate about trying to make a difference in the world around them.”
The same moment in time was noted earlier by Faust, who remarked on the energetic volunteerism of the recent presidential campaigns.
Public service options don’t have to be confined to a summer or a semester, and they don’t even have to be the sole business of a whole life, said Glynn, who is also director of the Harvard Public Service Network.
“There are ways to incorporate public interest in your life choices,” she said, “wherever you end up.”