Campus & Community

Grad housing that fosters community

3 min read

Many Harvard College alumni cite their life in the Houses as one of the best aspects of their undergraduate years. Living with students from diverse backgrounds who hail from different parts of the country — and different parts of the globe — leads to broadened interests, a more capacious worldview, and lifelong friendships.

These are exactly the types of results that the House system was designed to encourage. Unlike undergrads, however, graduate students have long been overlooked when considering housing’s more subtle values — but that is now a thing of the past.

In the fall of 2008, Harvard Real Estate Services (HRES) initiated the Graduate Commons Program, a three-year pilot project in two of its properties (10 Akron St. and 5 Cowperthwaite St.). Working with Harvard graduate and professional Schools, the program aims to provide a housing experience that offers opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration and social interaction outside of the classroom, fostering a greater sense of community for the Harvard graduate student population.

The Graduate Commons Program is led by two senior faculty members — or faculty directors — who live in housing sites being tested. The faculty directors work closely with the program coordinator and student community advisers, as well as the graduate commons community, which totals more than 500 residents.

According to faculty director Jennifer Lerner, professor of public policy and management at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), the program is really more about community than just a living arrangement.

“It facilitates the many forms of learning that take place outside of the classroom,” said Lerner. “Through the program, residents have the opportunity to grow personally, intellectually, and even physically.”

Lisa Valela, the program coordinator who is responsible for organizing the programming for the residents, develops a variety of activities that will appeal to her diverse community.

“Graduate study can be lonely, so I look at our community as a support network,” said Valela. “When thinking of activities, I try to come up with things that will get a good mix of everybody; the key is across-Schools.”

Recent events have included salsa dancing, Pilates classes, wine tasting, holiday parties, and “meet the scholar” lectures, which have included such notable professors as Nicholas Christakis, who studies the nature of social networks.

For Lerner, one event that resonated as a community-builder was the Thanksgiving dinner that she and her family hosted for students who stayed in Cambridge for the holiday.

“It was the best Thanksgiving my family and I have ever had,” said Lerner. “We hosted residents from at least six different countries; we shared stories about the Pilgrims, about harvest traditions, and about cultural universals. We also included our daughter (6 years old) and my parents (in their 70s) who brought a multigenerational element to the gathering.”

On a recent afternoon, a Pilates class saw two Divinity School students stretching and toning alongside the instructor, the wife of a Harvard Business School (HBS) student. At the same time, in another common room of the 10 Akron St. residence, HBS student Andrew Wylie shot pool while waiting for the Celtics playoff game gathering to begin.

Wylie said he chose 10 Akron St. because of the new building, but was impressed with the Graduate Commons Program.

“It’s a great location,” said Wylie of the building’s proximity to the Business School. “I think it’s also a great opportunity to meet people from other Harvard graduate schools, something I might not have done otherwise.”

To learn more about the Graduate Commons Program and other Harvard University housing opportunities, visit.