Kevin Ballen didn’t plan on taking two gap years. But he did intend to live a life less constrained by society’s expectations.
“In high school, my goal was to shift civic engagement from transactional hour requirements to a meaningful, everyday opportunity to make ourselves and those around us better,” he said.
The 20-year-old first-year, who lives in Holworthy Hall, described his early years of community action — volunteering every month at a homeless shelter — as rote. “It’s just what we did, because it was the right thing to do,” he recalled.
But a single moment made him rethink his altruistic efforts. It happened outside a local supermarket at a fundraiser for a day care that served homeless children. At the last minute, student leaders were unable to attend and Ballen was put in charge.
“It was a realization of agency and what was possible for a young person like me,” he said. “I was able to lead a team, to make tangible change, to use my creativity.”
Wishing that the education system and his school cared as much about service and character as math grades, he built a new after-school service program, a leadership and identity class, and worked to change the culture of his school. “Not super-jazzed” to go straight to college, Ballen initially took a gap year to work for the chief of civic engagement and director of Neighborhood Services for the city of Boston. He ended up staying two years.
“My task was to build a plan to engage young people in civic life,” he said. “I did a listening tour, talking to 10,000 people over three to four months about what the city could be doing.”
The Engage initiative now partners with a number of nonprofits to build civic programs for 72,000 K‒12 students.
“The idea is to elevate being a community member with youth, giving them space and time to explore service, empathy, identity as they are also learning how to read and write,” he said. “In most schools, we have a block called Engage built into the day where youth learn these skills. Just as students go to math class, they go to Engage class.”
Now a full-time student, Ballen still works for Engage, but has brought his passion for civic service on campus. Last fall, he worked with the Institute of Politics on the Harvard Votes Challenge as the first-year organizing coordinator.
“It was a grassroots registration effort and there was tons and tons of energy,” he said. “We employed a snowflake model with a peer freshmen organizer in every single residential dorm. We held programing in the entryways, went door-knocking, and texted our classmates. We interacted with 1,400 of the 1,600 students, focusing on registration, political education, and turnout.”
These days, Ballen is dividing his free time, helping to shape three Harvard efforts he hopes to see to fruition: making civic engagement a core thread of College students’ experience, a special IOP project on national service focused on Harvard students completing a year of service, and a One Harvard effort to reimagine civic engagement all across the University.
“The mission of Harvard College is to educate citizens and citizen-leaders,” Ballen said. “We need to define what this means and communicate to students how they can achieve this mission. We should develop a public service must-hit list with the key experiences Harvard students should have and the key questions we want students to explore. We need to make this work exciting and sexy, while retaining its meaning and importance.”
Ballen also wants to create a service program for some of the students who take gap years before starting College so they can be mobilizers when they come to campus.
“Not every student is going into a public service career, and that’s OK,” he concedes. “But right now we use the language of the ‘public service kids’ and then there is the ‘sellouts.’ That’s not helpful. Everyone, regardless of their career path, can integrate service into their life.”
He wants to harness, rather than dampen, youthful enthusiasm. “Many students are coming to Harvard excited about service, and a much smaller number are leaving connected,” he said. “We need to frame public service as part of student’s day jobs, just like academics are.”
“He’s activated all of us,” said Sheila Thimba, interim dean of public service. “What impresses me about Kevin is how focused he is on amplifying public spiritedness. He begins by assuming that his peers care about others and are going to make time to contribute to the public good during their time at Harvard.”
Ballen said his two gaps years focused his interests and questions about the world, and taught him a lot about how to make things happen as a young person.
“I get excited to make things happen quickly” he said. “But here, we need to take the institutional route and couple it with a gritty grassroots strategy, so I’m trying to find a balance. Harvard needs this and the world needs this, so we need to figure out how to make it happen.”