The pandemic upended plans, but it also inspired innovation and involvement for members of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA).
This summer’s 151st Annual Meeting was held virtually for the first time, a gathering made possible thanks to months of collaboration between the HAA and thousands of alumni volunteers on developing new ways to connect and celebrate. A stunning 18,000 gathered to honor alumni service and impact, with alumni from more than 150 countries represented — a reflection of deepened global engagement from alumni, including a significant number who connected with fellow grads for the very first time.
Now the organization is taking stock as it continues to prepare for another year of connecting alumni and a new way for reunions and the annual meeting to take place. Earlier this year, the HAA announced that Harvard and Radcliffe College Reunions would include both virtual and in-person programming and events throughout the year, culminating in a week of on-campus celebrations the week following Commencement, with the annual meeting on June 3.
“This is an exciting moment and a grand opportunity for all of us,” said Vanessa Liu ’96, J.D. ’03. “I am thrilled that we will be welcoming alumni back to campus and to a new annual meeting, one that brings together graduates from across the University and is focused singularly on recognizing and saluting all of the important ways alumni give back to Harvard and to the world. Coming together also provides a forum for collective action — and I can’t wait to see what comes of that.” Liu, who celebrated a College reunion last year, said she’s also eager to see how alumni reimagine the reunion experience this coming year.
Philip Lovejoy, executive director of the HAA, calls this a once-in-a-century opportunity to take a fresh look at how alumni can come together. Lovejoy recently spoke to the Gazette about what inspired him over the last year and half, how alumni and the HAA have adapted, and why he’s excited for the year ahead — and beyond.
GAZETTE: Harvard’s alumni community is made of up almost 400,000 members from across the world. How does the HAA grow and evolve with that community? What have been important guide stars and adaptations for the HAA in its work with this ever-growing, rapidly changing community?
LOVEJOY: The mission of the HAA has always been and continues to be to connect alumni to each other and to the University, for the benefit of each other as well as the University, since, after all, the true strength of the University is its people. I see this every day with our alumni.
In everything we do, we try to think about how we can enhance connection and understanding, including making sure all alumni can thrive within this extraordinary network of individuals and truly feel like they belong and can be active members. This happens with the help of thousands of dedicated volunteers; the HAA is very focused on supporting and empowering those volunteers to create communities of alumni to fulfill our mission.
We are a growing, evolving community in that every year we add about 6,000 new members who are representative of society and the world at large. It is a community that is diverse, in all aspects of that word, that spans the ages of 21 to 100 and up. So, we have to be an adaptive and responsive organization, because our population is continually changing. That means listening closely to how we can meet their needs, including those of our emerging alumni populations. But it’s more than that. Our alumni help us drive change in important ways. They help us understand the ways that people want to connect. For example, not everyone wants to connect through the structures we’ve historically had in place, like Clubs. They’re looking for other options. We also have to maintain what works for our older populations. There’s so much we learn from alumni across the spectrum.
GAZETTE: Recently, President Larry Bacow praised alumni for the many ways they responded to the pandemic in communities all over the world. What did you see from your vantage point?
LOVEJOY: President Bacow often talks about the obligation of our alumni to give back, having had the privilege of attending Harvard — giving back to the University but also to society. He’s praised, and rightly so, how alumni stepped up, from helping students during the pandemic to securing personal protective equipment for first responders. Alumni have been active in their hometowns and supported critical organizations. The work they’ve done runs the gamut and has touched communities big and small, near and far: from delivering food to those who need it most, to participating in research efforts and volunteering in hospitals, to spearheading public health campaigns. They have worked on the vaccine and on vaccine awareness, not to mention serving on the front lines.
We’ve also seen alumni come together in order to give back and move things forward. We saw it in the work that we did around the climate crisis. That programming was across multiple organizations, University wide, and involved students. Our anti-racism work was begun by group of volunteers who came together and drove forward to create more awareness of this critical issue. There’s such potential implicit in this community, and we saw it start to really emerge in a new way. Now we need to keep that going in a post-pandemic world.