Many Harvard graduates are moved to give back to the School that gave them so much. But few can claim they have done so for half a century.
Ruth Gove, 92, and Marion Cameron, 83, are original members of the Harvard Extension Alumni Association (HEAA). With the association celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the two of them met at the Harvard Division of Continuing Education. There, in front of stacks of immaculately preserved photos, magazines, bulletins, letters, and documents, they remembered the people, places, and events that shaped the School and their own lives, and inspired them to dedicate decades to the association.
“It’s [about] giving back, because I had received so much as a student,” Cameron said.
Cameron and Gove attended Harvard Extension during a period when many women didn’t pursue a career, let alone a degree. But Gove had aspirations of becoming a special education teacher, and Cameron wanted to complement her health care background with classes in computer programming, and the School was — as it is to this day — a place where students of almost any age or education level could take affordable courses on their own schedule.
“It was a time when my dentist would say to me, ‘How does it feel to be an oddball?’” Gove recounted. “Someone else would say, ‘How can you sit there and listen to those boring talks?’ And I kept thinking, if they only knew!”
Many students who cannot pursue a traditional degree program find their academic community at the Extension School, which was founded on the idea that a College education should be accessible to anyone with the will to pursue it. The formation of the HEAA bolstered that mission.
In 1968, Dean Reginald H. Phelps and two Extension School alumni, Ella Smith ’66 and Edgar Grossman ’66, established the HEAA to give graduates a network to support their personal and professional enrichment. Today, HEAA is under the umbrella of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA), and members share many of the same benefits as other University graduates.
The association keeps graduates connected and engaged, in part thanks to Cameron’s long involvement. At Smith’s urging, Cameron was on board from the beginning, serving as the HEAA’s president from 1980‒1982 and representing it on the HAA’s board of directors from 1983‒1985.
“I took [Smith] at her word, and I never regretted a moment,” Cameron said.
HEAA events introduced her to such notable figures as Mother Teresa, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Tennessee Williams, and violinist Itzhak Perlman. At $15 a class, the School took her from a job as a medical secretary to a career in medical informatics — making her a pioneer not only for women, but for the industry in general. At Massachusetts General Hospital, she worked with Dr. G. Octo Barnett in his Laboratory of Computer Science, where they helped initiate the use of computers in health care.