For most Harvard College students, picking up a book at the library is as routine as getting dressed in the morning or grabbing a cup of coffee.
In Durban, South Africa, where Mfundo Radebe ’20 grew up, it was a potentially deadly undertaking.
Radebe, a Quincy House resident with concentrations in African Studies and Economics, addressed a crowd of nearly 400 on Friday evening at the annual Celebration of Scholarships dinner, which every year brings together students who benefit from financial aid and donors who support it.
Describing an upbringing “forged by an oppressive apartheid regime that believed people like me did not deserve an education” Radebe, a recipient of an Edwin H. Fox ’44 Undergraduate Scholarship, recalled being confronted by thieves after one trip to the library, an hour’s walk from his home.
“I found myself standing still on the treacherous path,” he said. “I surveyed the peripheries wondering how I could escape or tame the knife ahead of me, pointed at me. In that moment, I offered my shoes, hoping that would pacify them and allow me safe passageway.”
Radebe lost his shoes, but kept hold of “The Chronicles of Narnia.” It was the beginning of a journey of learning that eventually brought him across the globe to Harvard.
Once in Cambridge, in his freshman year Radebe started an organization that provides books for primary school children in South Africa. He hopes it will give others the same sense of possibility he has.
“If I can just reach one child with a book and they hold onto that book more than anything else, more than the loss they might have experienced, more than the lack of opportunity they have been afforded, I would have succeeded,” Radebe said.
This year’s dinner, the 12th scholarship celebration, was held in the Northwest Science Building and co-hosted by Tim Barakett ’87, M.B.A. ’93, and Michele Barakett; Lloyd C. Blankfein ’75, J.D. ’78, and Laura Blankfein P ’16, ’10, ’08; Ken Griffin ’89; and Jerry Jordan ’61, M.B.A. ’67, and Darlene Jordan.
One of four co-chairs for financial aid, Tim Barakett detailed the success of the campaign, and the generosity of donors.
“As of this week, we have reached our campaign goal of $600 million,” he said. “To give you an idea of how generous this community is, just six months ago we were short of our goal. We made an appeal, you responded, and we still have until June 30 to continue to build on our success. I am so grateful for the generosity of everyone in this room.”
Co-chair Jerry Jordan said he has seen the event he helped inaugurate in 2007 come full circle.
“Today, we are already seeing graduates from that year among our donors and here with us tonight,” he said. “This event represents a truly virtuous cycle.”
Kicking off the student portion of the program, recent graduate Shuya Gong spoke about discovering entrepreneurship at Harvard and reflected on her brief experience as a recent graduate.
“My life had been pretty normal when I arrived at Harvard, but I didn’t really know what was next,” she said. “Mechanical engineering exposed me to the concept of creating something out of nothing. That really inspired me and really invigorated me to get up every morning and go to the lab.”
She credited her professors with building on the concept of creation to encourage her to pursue entrepreneurship.
“Harvard put a lot of pressure on me to grow as a person, to learn things I didn’t know previously, and to step outside my comfort zone,” Gong said. “But it never put pressure on me or my family financially, and because of that I had room to grow and thrive.”
Senior Zarin Rahman, a native of South Dakota, receives aid through the Radford D. Lovett Family Scholarship Fund and plans to apply to medical school to become a pediatrician. She thanked the many donors in the room who helped make her education possible.
“My love for children and my motivation to work with them has been one of the few constants in my life,” said the Mather House resident, who concentrated in neurobiology. “There is so much to learn from them: creativity, curiosity, positivity, kindness, and the purest forms of joy.
“Beyond being affordable for both me and my family, Harvard has opened doors to explore my interests more than I could have imagined in my wildest dreams,” she said. “I look forward to taking these experiences and the knowledge Harvard has armed me with and trying to make the world a better place.”
Cape Cod native Matthew Cappucci ’19 has always been interested in weather. So when he found there was no concentration in atmospheric sciences at Harvard, he decided to create one.
“I’m a department of one pursuing my very own special concentration,” he said. “It took months, a 30-page application, six recommendation letters, and more signatures than it would were I to run for president, but I finally got approval to pursue the first-ever atmospheric sciences concentration at Harvard.
“Being a department of one has its challenges,” said Cappucci, who received a Gerald Jordan Family Scholarship. “I anticipated the path to be a lonely one. I could not have been more wrong. Harvard has given me everything and I will never be able to repay them for the incredible doors they’ve opened and the gifts they’ve given me. Thank you all for what you have done, and the support you continue to give.”
The evening also featured comments from Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons, both of whom extolled the financial aid program as among Harvard’s most important.
“I am incredibly grateful to everyone here tonight for the powerful legacy of opportunity that you have helped to build here at Harvard,” Smith said. “As tonight so wonderfully demonstrates, financial aid empowers the next generation. Financial aid frees our students to follow their passions, and it accelerates the development of tomorrow’s leaders.”
“Tonight is one of the greatest nights of my life,” Fitzsimmons said. “I believe in equality of opportunity, and if we are any kind of world or society, we need to guarantee equality of opportunity for every generation. This mission and this event defines who we are.”
Ken Griffin, who in 2014 made the largest gift to financial aid in College history, agreed that providing opportunity for all is a core value.
“People often ask me why I am so committed to financial aid,” he said. “Financial aid speaks to a principle that all of us hold dear as Americans. You cannot be the greatest institution in America if you do not represent the belief in equality of opportunity in your actions.”
“The Harvard that we know today was made by financial aid,” said Lloyd Blankfein. “And the gratitude flows in both directions: [to and from] the donors who help worthy students realize their potential, and the worthy students [who allow] Harvard to realize its potential.”