Salvador Peña looks at a file in an office

Salvador Peña, a Divinity School graduate student, works as an assistant in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences administrative office.

Photo by María F. Sánchez

Campus & Community

Student employees honored

5 min read

A new event recognizes the contributions of those working during their College years

When he arrived at Harvard, Max Vumbaca ’19 didn’t expect his work-study job to define his postgraduate plans. Then he started working at First Church Shelter in Cambridge, and things changed.

Vumbaca, who’s concentrating in philosophy, found the position at First Church in 2018 after two years volunteering at the student-run Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. He sets up and runs a weekly dinner service for 14 shelter residents and occasionally works a 12-hour overnight shift.

“I knew I wanted to do some kind of public service while at Harvard,” said Vumbaca. “Working at First Church has really influenced what kind of work I want to do after graduation and set me on the path of recognizing that housing and homelessness is a visible, pressing issue.”

Vumbaca’s job is one of the many student employment experiences celebrated at the recent Harvard Student Employee of the Year event, hosted by the Student Employment Office and the Griffin Office of Financial Aid. He and 23 other students were nominated for the award by their workplace supervisors on- and off-campus. Eleanor Lieberman ’19 was this year’s winner for her work as an assistant for the Division of Academic and Public Programming at the Harvard Art Museums. Lieberman’s supervisors highlighted her creativity and professionalism in creating colorful sticker packs based on the hues found in the Museums’ Forbes Pigment Collection and an archival research project on the Naumburg Room.

The event was held April 18 as part of National Student Employment Week.

According to the Student Employment Office, 78 percent of students work in some capacity during their time at Harvard, and 39 percent of seniors said they started working during their first year on campus. The honorees at the event included students working in research, administration, and childcare, and representing a range of experiences and academic backgrounds.

Boris Davidov gives a thumbs up
Eleanor Lieberman holds her Student Employee of the Year plaque

Tour guide Boris Davidov and Eleanor Lieberman, both ’19, celebrate at this year’s Student Employee of the Year event.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

“For many students, working is a major part of their College experience and can be a major part of their overall career trajectories,” Matthew Akre, assistant director of financial aid for student employment, told the nominees. “We look for ways to remove barriers for students while keeping in mind the demands of time that many students face day to day.”

For some, working can be a way to practice skills learned in the classroom in a nonacademic setting. Nominee Salvador Peña, a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School, is a student affairs assistant at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Student Affairs Office. For about 16 hours a week, he works with graduate students who need assistance with policies and requirements on campus and while studying abroad.

“It feels good to be of service and put other students at ease,” said Peña. “Most of the courses that I take for my own degree are psychology-related or spiritual-care-related counselling, and one of the things that I do at work is help people lower their stress levels and say, ‘It’s going to be fine.’ Because it is usually fine in the end.”

Ikeoluwa Adeyemi’s job at the Korea Institute (KI) dovetailed with her academic pursuits as a sociology concentrator with a secondary in East Asian Studies. Adeyemi ’19 has worked as a student assistant at KI for almost three years, helping staff with event planning and execution as well as with office tasks such as inventory and mail management. In the process, she has been exposed to new scholarship on Korea and has formed relationships with faculty and staff in the field.

“Everyone at the KI is kind and generous, and it’s a very flexible work environment, which is important for me as a student,” she said. “I’ve gained confidence in interacting with people in academia, and have been able to stay in touch with faculty in the East Asian Studies Department, which is valuable.”

For Vumbaca, student employment was an opportunity to gain a new set of skills and expertise. During his time at First Church, Vumbaca has learned about the housing systems in Cambridge and is able to connect shelter guests to resources they might need, but he also sees the value in forming human connections with the people he meets.

Max Vumbaca speaks

Max Vumbaca ’19 speaks about his experiences working at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and at First Church.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

“There aren’t always many people that our guests can talk to about difficult things in their lives, and I’ve become better at being a sympathetic listener and asking questions,” he said. “The more meaningful and memorable experiences are sitting down and having really intimate and difficult conversations.”

At the awards celebration held at the Smith Campus Center, student employees’ contributions to the University were recognized by senior leadership, including William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aidand a former student employee at Harvard.

“We have such a range of things that people can do here, and you have set an example for others about the power and dignity of all kinds of work,” said Fitzsimmons, who recalled his own undergraduate experience working at several jobs, from dorm crew to Harvard Libraries. “One of the things I liked right away [when I arrived on campus] was the continuity of doing hard, honest work, and the intellectual exercise that is Harvard. I would honestly say that one of the most memorable times during my undergraduate experience was the camaraderie I had with people doing tough jobs that needed to get done.”