Campus & Community

Public service is key component of Harvard experience

7 min read

Harvard University has a long-standing tradition of community engagement and public service. Students, faculty, and staff contribute to the quality of life in the University’s host cities through more than 350 programs addressing education, affordable housing, economic opportunity, civic life and culture, health, and the environment. Not only do these vital programs strengthen local communities, they also foster the next generation of social entrepreneurs.

For four notable alumni, volunteering in the community while they were students at Harvard marked the beginning of careers devoted to service. Their University experiences set the stage for their lasting dedication and involvement with the community and led to the creation of three leading service organizations.

Lindsay Hyde ’04, Strong Women, Strong Girls

An only child in a single-parent household, Lindsay Hyde learned early on about the influence of powerful role models.

“[My mom] really inspired just a real passion for the role of women and girls — how powerful women could be in taking ownership of their lives, and what amazing role models they could be for younger girls,” said the 2004 graduate who now runs the nonprofit Strong Women, Strong Girls, which is dedicated to supporting and developing self-esteem and leadership in women and girls.

Hyde, who mentored young girls while still in high school, brought her public spiritedness with her to Harvard and the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), a public service and social action organization run by students and supported by staff at Harvard College. Building on her mentoring experience, Hyde began a similar effort in her freshman year with six undergraduate volunteers working in two local schools. Soon she was fielding calls from principals, teachers, and parents asking for the students to visit their elementary schools, too.

“What we found very quickly,” said Hyde, “was that there was a huge demand.”

The demand and her desire were so great that, in 2004, the organization became a nonprofit with Hyde as its executive director. Today, Strong Women, Strong Girls works with 26 elementary schools and community centers in the Greater Boston area serving approximately 300 girls. Since its inception, the program has expanded to include undergraduates from three other area schools, and has branches in Pittsburgh and Miami.

As part of the program’s curriculum, mentors work with girls in grades three, four, and five on a variety of “Countdown to Success” activities, addressing things such as goal-setting, developing cultural sensitivity, and effective communication. In addition, participants study contemporary women role models, and mentors help the girls develop their own community service projects.

“I wanted to do something that would give other girls the chance to see all the amazing things that women were doing and to feel like they had the ability and the capacity to go on and do that themselves,” said Hyde, who noted that her time at Harvard and work with PBHA crucially shaped her career.

“[Phillips Brooks House] had this really deep belief that students have the capacity to really be ‘change agents.’”

Michael Brown ’83, J.D. ’88 and Alan Khazei ’83, J.D. ’87, City Year

Little did two college freshmen know their random assignment as roommates would turn into a 20-year community service collaboration, one that would help inspire a national movement.

That’s what happened to Michael Brown and Alan Khazei, longtime friends and co-founders of the nonprofit City Year, a corps of 17- to 24-year-olds engaged in community service as mentors, tutors, and role models for schoolchildren. The organization also leads youth leadership programs as well as revitalizes public and community spaces. City Year, which began in 1988 as a 50-person pilot program, now includes 18 sites around the United States, and one in South Africa, and has completed more than 18 million hours of service.

Though both roommates had an interest in public service before college, their friendship and shared values, they said, cemented their dedication to social action.

Brown counted as pivotal a September 1979 gathering of freshmen that Harvard’s then-President Derek Bok entreated to “please go away.” Bok was encouraging the students to take time off during their Harvard years to hone their skills in areas that were not necessarily academic. Brown obliged by spending a year in then-Congressman Leon Panetta’s office in Washington, D.C. While there, he worked with Khazei, who was in D.C. for the summer, trying to pass legislation to explore the creation of a voluntary national service.

“We became tremendously committed to this idea of voluntary national service. We came to believe that it was the missing link in American democracy,” said Brown.

Later roommates again at Harvard Law School (HLS), their classes, said Brown and Khazei, gave them the intellectual foundation for what would ultimately become City Year. Their Harvard connections continued to play a vital role for the pair after graduation, as the former classmates became City Year volunteers, the John F. Kennedy School of Government donated office space for their organization, and former Radcliffe President Matina Souretis Horner served as the first chair of their board.

The Harvard relationships, the academics, the extracurricular opportunities for service, “and the atmosphere on campus of social activism, and [both of us] engaging with the Cambridge community as well as the world at large had a great impact in both college and law school,” said Khazei, who now leads Be the Change Inc., an organization that unites service organizations and social entrepreneurs around issues of policy relating to public service and citizenship.

City Year ultimately had a big impact on a national stage. President Bill Clinton’s visit to the organization in its early days, said Brown, helped inspire him to launch AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs that focus on education, health, public safety, and the environment.

Brown summed up the rewards of a life dedicated to service with a simple message: “It’s an absolute privilege to work on something you care about that inspires you every day.”

Jessica Budnitz, J.D. ’01, Child Advocacy Program

A court-ordered desegregation plan for her Atlanta high school had a profound effect on Jessica Budnitz, lecturer on law at the Harvard Law School.

“It was a terrific school,” said Budnitz, “but I also saw a lot of unequal treatment, and disparities in the education students received. It was a really formative experience.”

Today, fighting for the rights of children is her passion. She is the managing director for the HLS Child Advocacy Program (CAP), a comprehensive curriculum and center at the School devoted to advancing children’s interests and rights. Prior to CAP, Budnitz founded Juvenile Justice Partners, a child-focused legal clinic in Cambridge, which served as one of the catalysts for the creation of CAP.

Budnitz partnered with one of the nation’s leading child welfare experts and the program’s current faculty director, Elizabeth Bartholet, Morris Wasserstein Public Interest Professor of Law, and with the support of former Law School Dean Elena Kagan, developed CAP to expand on the School’s child advocacy curriculum.

Budnitz was inspired to pursue law, in part, after reading “Law Stories,” a collection of tales about the experiences of lawyers and clients. The book’s editors happened to include Martha Minnow, Jeremiah Smith Jr. Professor of Law; and Charles Ogletree, Jesse Climenko Professor of Law and director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.

One of the chapters, Budnitz recalled, compared the representation of indigent juveniles to social work.

“I realized a law degree would provide the tools I needed to work alongside juvenile clients to effect real change in their lives.”

Her studies at Harvard Law School, she said, and her work with children through the School’s clinical programs, laid the foundation for her future.

“I knew I wanted to do juvenile work and that was further underscored by the experiences I had here.”

Today CAP has a wide-ranging impact. Each year, as part of the program’s clinical division, approximately 24 students work on children’s issues in the Cambridge and Boston communities in a variety of capacities. Students have even traveled as far as India, South Africa, and the Philippines as part of the program to help protect the rights of children.

“We have a wide reach,” said Budnitz. “We feel we are making a big impact on the landscape of children’s rights.”