Three people sitting at a dinner table

Jackie Ho ’19 (left) shares a laugh with Ken Griffin and Claudine Gay at the Celebration of Scholarships dinner.

Photos by Will Halsey

Campus & Community

A leg up

8 min read

The annual Celebration of Scholarships dinner brings together students and donors to share what financial aid means to them

For senior Caleb Ringkob, changing lives through medicine is more than just a career path; it’s a deeply personal commitment, and one he looks forward to pursuing thanks in large part to the generosity of donors to Harvard College’s financial aid program. The Currier House resident, who will graduate in May with a concentration in biomedical engineering, was one of five student speakers at the 13th annual Celebration of Scholarships dinner on April 5.

“Having lost my father to ALS in high school, I am extremely passionate about making a tangible impact on the lives of patients suffering from disease,” Ringkob said. “Harvard has allowed me to pursue that dream through the seemingly limitless opportunities offered, both within and outside of my STEM discipline.”

Several other students joined Ringkob in speaking to a packed house at Annenberg Hall. Another student, Sasha Yakub ’20 performed the last movement of J.S. Bach’s sonata for solo violin in A minor, “Allegro Assai.”

Yakub, who has been playing violin since age 4, is a resident of Currier House concentrating in music. In his time at Harvard, he has directed the music for the Harvard College Opera’s production of “Die Fledermaus,” scored exhibits at the Harvard Art Museums, and worked on last year’s expansive production of “Antigone” in Harvard Stadium.

Sasha Yakub gives a violin performance.

Sasha Yakub plays violin

Last week’s event brought together students who have benefited from financial aid and some of the many donors who support the program. The evening also celebrated the thousands of alumni, parents, and friends who made it possible for The Harvard Campaign to exceed all expectations. The campaign, which ended successfully last year, critically bolstered the financial aid program, which now draws about two-thirds of its financing from endowed funds and has established 1,700 new undergraduate scholarships.

In thanking the many supporters who gathered for the evening, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William Fitzsimmons acknowledged the transformative effect that financial aid has had, not only on so many students and alumni in the room and throughout the years, but on his own life.

“This is the best day of the year for me,” he said. “As a first-generation college student and someone who needed a massive amount of financial aid to come here, Harvard totally transformed my life and transformed the lives of many of you. I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you are here tonight.” He emphasized that support for financial aid “was the largest single component of the capital campaign” and was made possible only by the hard work of all those who contributed.

Speaking at her first Celebration of Scholarships dinner as Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Claudine Gay touched on a similar note after sharing a moving story about a first-generation student who came to Harvard in 2013 with the support of financial aid and who, despite having felt profoundly out of place when she first arrived on campus, went on to an impressive record of accomplishment, both academically and in service to the University. 

“This is what you make possible,” said Gay. “Through your support for financial aid, you are changing lives and you are changing Harvard, and making us even stronger for the future. I am humbled, honored, and inspired to join you tonight to celebrate that achievement.”

Jackie Ho, a Kirkland House senior concentrating in integrative biology, spoke of the importance of connecting the lessons of the classroom with people and places from across the world.

Jackie Ho delivers her speech.

Jackie Ho

“It’s important to me that students aren’t limited from opportunities and careers because of their backgrounds,” Ho said. “I am so appreciative of the financial aid program and similar funding initiatives across campus that allow so many of us to experience the world beyond Cambridge and our hometowns — to see for ourselves the issues we learn about in courses here.”

Ho emphasized that she is excited to begin a career in conservation and environmental policy after graduating in May. She said it would not have been possible without the support of so many financial aid donors.

Ken Griffin ’89, who in 2014 made the largest gift to financial aid in College history, attended the event. He has spoken of the life-changing effects that access to higher education had on his life, and of his dedication to providing the same access to students today.

“I believe the gates of Harvard should be open to our nation’s best and brightest irrespective of their financial means,” Griffin said. “And I hope every student at Harvard appreciates the incredible opportunity they have, and that they go on to make meaningful contributions to society throughout the course of their lives.”

In addition to Griffin’s unwavering support, Harvard also benefited from the significant energy, leadership, and contributions from his financial aid co-chairs in the record-breaking Campaign for Arts and Sciences that concluded last year: Tim Barakett ’87, M.B.A. ’93; Lloyd Blankfein ’75, J.D. ’78; and Jerry Jordan ’61, M.B.A ’67, a long-time champion of the program.

The Griffin Leadership Challenge Fund for Financial Aid created the opportunity for donors to use matching funds to establish up to 600 new scholarships. Responding to a groundswell of interest from alumni and parents who wanted to participate, in the last months of the campaign Griffin expanded the challenge by 10 percent, funding additional matches that propelled the campaign well beyond its goals. In all, Griffin’s gift inspired and motivated more than 300 donor households to use matching funds, establishing more than 650 new scholarships, an unprecedented achievement.

One recent alumna, Morgen Peck ’03, felt so strongly about supporting financial aid that she made her first major gift to Harvard in the closing months of the campaign, using a Griffin match to establish a scholarship.

“I feel it is critical to support the mission of financial aid in order to ensure that Harvard continues to nurture its well-established culture of respect and diverse student body, which collectively make the Harvard community so exceptional,” Peck said. “Being part of the celebration is a firsthand reminder of how impactful financial aid is on an individual basis to current students, whose accomplishments continually amaze me.”

Senior Danielle Roybal has focused her time at Harvard on her commitment to human rights and women’s rights. An active participant in Harvard Model Congress, Roybal conducted her thesis research on the role of women in Northern Ireland’s conflict resolution.

Danielle Roybal shares her experiences at Harvard.

Danielle Roybal

“I have dedicated my heart and my mind to gender equality in a variety of capacities — as an activist, a teacher, an adviser, and a policy analyst,” Roybal said. “I am grateful for the support system for personal growth and intellectual achievement at Harvard, allowing students like me to strengthen our leadership skills and engage with the community around us.”

The aid students receive at Harvard allows them to follow their interests, discover new ones, study abroad, and take advantage of activities across campus. Students have greater freedom to explore academic subjects they have never before considered, pursue community service and volunteer opportunities, and develop mentorships through research and other work with faculty.

Junior Ali Nasser exemplifies the extraordinary opportunities that financial aid can provide. Nasser brings a global lens to his concentration of neurobiology. A native of Dearborn, Mich., his parents immigrated to the U.S. from Yemen. As a member of the Global Health Forum, Nasser spent a summer with Harvard’s Biopolis program in Paris, where his team developed an innovative method to reduce food waste and provide for low-income residents, a project they presented to Paris’s deputy mayor. Nasser has also spent time in China, where he taught a neurobiology seminar to a class of high school students in Hangzhou.

In his remarks, Nasser touched on the transformative experience of his years at Harvard, which have led him to people and places he never imagined possible.

“When I started school here, I thought that I already knew what I was going to do, and I just came here to get it done and move on to the next phase of the plan,” he said. “But what ended up happening far exceeded my expectations. From the beginning, I was exposed to a new community that was comprised of people from all over the world, with many different experiences that I learned so much from. The broad-reaching scope of the courses offered and the many programs and extracurricular organizations available have given me a different outlook on life and informed me about what I am capable of doing.”

For the many alumni who support financial aid, it was an opportunity to hear directly from students who are taking full advantage of the opportunities at Harvard, and to continue the cycle of transforming lives one student at a time.