Campus & Community

Inspired to action, eager to serve

A community-wide effort for Harvard’s first Global Day of Service

6 min read
Zoom shot.

Volunteers worked with the Red Cross team to develop customized outreach materials for their most urgent volunteer areas. Their designs will be presented to the Red Cross outreach department and will be used in their campaigns.

Photos by Varsha Ghosh

Harvard’s virtual campus created an opportunity to make the First-Year Day of Service a first-ever Global Day of Service. On Saturday in communities all over the globe, more than 850 students, faculty, staff, and alumni worked with community partners on a variety of virtual volunteer projects. Each team of 10 volunteers paired with one of almost 40 community partners, including the City of Boston Census Outreach, the Coronavirus Visualization Team, Feeding America, the Open Environmental Data Project, and the Smithsonian Institution.

“Students organized voter registration drives across the U.S., developed and reviewed eco-justice course curriculum with our colleagues at the Chan School of Public Health, provided immigration and asylum resources through our partnership with Immigration Help, and created a resource library across all 50 states for victims of domestic violence, among many other projects,” said Travis Lovett, assistant dean of civic engagement and service. “Our College mission to educate citizens and citizen-leaders has never been more urgent. I’ve been so inspired by the resiliency of our staff, students, and community partners to stay focused on how we can help our neighbors and serve community needs.”

Some volunteers collaborated with the American Repertory Theater, Office for the Arts, and artist-activist Sara Porkalob to help build skills and connections among younger art activists. Thirty to 50 volunteers working with the American Red Cross of Massachusetts developed customized outreach materials for hurricane season shelters and blood drives, and some of these volunteers created comfort kits for veterans.

Simar Bajaj ’24 helped lead almost 20 volunteers in a partnership with the American Lung Cancer Screening Initiative, a nonprofit organization composed of physicians, students, and advocates raising awareness for lung cancer and lung cancer screening.

MBAs Fight COVID-19 is a nonprofit that provides pro bono support to small businesses by matching business owners with M.B.A. volunteers. For the Global Day of Service, volunteers are working to rehaul the organization’s website, creating and reviewing websites for small business owners, reviewing the online presence of small businesses, and researching potential partnerships.


“The Global Day of Service offered the opportunity for us at the American Lung Cancer Screening Initiative to connect with other individuals passionate about public health advocacy,” Bajaj said. “We called and emailed nearly all members of the U.S. House of Representatives in order to ask them to co-sponsor a bipartisan resolution, recognizing and supporting the goals of lung cancer awareness month. Given that only about 4 percent of individuals at high risk of developing lung cancer are screened, the most rewarding part of the Global Day of Service was the knowledge that what we were doing would genuinely save lives.”

This year’s Day of Service comes at a time of urgent need for many organizations and nonprofits hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Take Cambridge Local First. The network of locally owned businesses that works to build a strong local economy and community looked to the students to help with research on how individual Cambridge businesses have been impacted by COVID-19.

“Today, our constituency, these business owners, are facing an existential crisis. Estimates suggest that 40 percent of our local businesses will fail to reopen following this crisis and an additional 25 percent within the year,” said Theodora Skeadas ’12, M.P.P. ’16, the executive director of Cambridge Local First. “This is, and will be, particularly devastating for our vulnerable businesses. Harvard’s Global Day of Service comes at a pivotal time in Cambridge’s local business history.”

Sean Schofield is a volunteer recruiter for the American Red Cross of Massachusetts, a Day of Service partner. He said Saturday’s effort was one “of empowerment” in this pandemic. He worked with students to attract volunteers in critical positions in both virtual and in-person roles in all five areas of Red Cross services: blood, armed forces, disaster cycle, international, and training.

“The outcome [of the pandemic] is a reassessment of what is important and how our ideals and actions can be in sync. Consequently, we have become more innovative than ever and more eager to serve.”

Varsha Ghosh, director of student engagement and leadership at the Center for Public Service and Engaged Scholarship

“COVID-19 has turned all of our worlds upside-down, but both disasters and health issues continue on. We need everyday people to help our mission, but first, they need to know there is a need,” he said. “So many of the activities we once took for granted have been taken away from us during the pandemic. While the Red Cross is active all over the world, here in the U.S. we are still responding to the wildfires in the west, the derecho in Iowa, Hurricane Laura in the Gulf. Our blood products are still saving the lives of people who are facing life-threatening illnesses. The Global Day of Service will help bring attention to these ongoing challenges, with actionable steps to make a real difference. There are silver linings in every difficult situation. This event is surely one of those examples.”

Some service volunteers worked for Voters Choose, a youth-led national organization supporting election reform, with the goal of reaching 3,000 to 7,000 potential voters in Tustin, Calif.

“Every member of Voters Choose has arrived at our organization with a passion for public service and a history of contributing to events like the Day of Service. I myself had a blast at the 2016 Day of Service as a freshman, because it affirmed the value and impact of community in my life,” said Brandon Martinez ’20, president of Voters Choose. “Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) does a stellar job with this event because it roots service in empathy, an openness to listen, and teamwork. The happy irony of the Day of Service is that it teaches you to make public service a practice.”

The day’s schedule included direct service and volunteer work, three crash courses on persuasive writing, lessons on leadership frameworks and advocacy work, and a final community-wide discussion on racial equity work led by Julie Reuben, Charles Warren Professor of the History of American Education at the Graduate School of Education, and the faculty director for the Center for Public Service & Engaged Scholarship at the College.

“The pandemic has highlighted socioeconomic disparities and barriers to access and opportunity in stark ways,” said Varsha Ghosh, director of student engagement and leadership at the Center for Public Service and Engaged Scholarship. “The protests for racial justice have been a wake-up call for some and an opportunity to recommit to social change for others. The outcome is a reassessment of what is important and how our ideals and actions can be in sync. Consequently, we have become more innovative than ever and more eager to serve.”