Allyson Mendenhall ’90, M.L.A. ’99,.

“We aim to inclusively engage the entire alumni community across disciplines, decades, Schools, and geographies. It’s a collaborative endeavor …,” says Allyson Mendenhall ’90, M.L.A. ’99, the incoming HAA president.

Photos by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Community by design

5 min read

First Graduate School of Design alum to serve as HAA president, Allyson Mendenhall is committed to creating inclusive alumni experiences

When Allyson Mendenhall ’90, M.L.A. ’99, walked past the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Gund Hall as an undergraduate at Harvard College, she never imagined that she would one day step inside as a GSD student — or that she would become the first alum of the GSD to serve as president of the Harvard Alumni Association.

As she prepares to represent alumni from across the University when her term begins on July 1, Mendenhall reflected on her own Harvard years. “I’m extremely proud and honored to be the first GSD alum in this role,” she says, adding she is also proud to be a representative of College alumni as well as the alumni community of the Southwest.

As a landscape architect in Denver, she develops sustainable strategies for design in the built environment — all aspects of human-made structures, such as parks, plazas, streets, bridges, homes, and buildings — that are focused on providing measurable environmental, social, and economic benefits. Inspired by this experience, Mendenhall’s theme for the year ahead as HAA president is “Community by Design.” In her work, which relies on iterative problem-solving, ideas are developed by experimenting and making adjustments through feedback — an approach she connects directly to her new role with the HAA.

Mendenhall’s focus is to build on the HAA’s ongoing efforts to engage the alumni community in a purposeful way — with the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging as the lens to approach the work.

“We aim to inclusively engage the entire alumni community across disciplines, decades, Schools, and geographies,” she says. “It’s a collaborative endeavor with different contributors adding depth and diverse perspectives. As in the design process, we assemble a team of brilliant minds to engage stakeholders, listen to our communities, and work together to implement positive change.”

Harvard has remained a touchstone throughout Mendenhall’s life. After studying English literature as an undergraduate and forming lasting friendships at Dunster House, she decided to pursue her lifelong love of cities to design urban public open space — enrolling at the GSD and finding herself spending many days (and nights and weekends) inside Gund Hall.

Vanessa Liu ’96, J.D. ’03 and Allyson Mendenhall.
“Allyson’s design thinking and purposeful approach to building community will help take the HAA to new levels,” said Vanessa Liu ’96, J.D. ’03 (left), who will turn over her presidential duties on July 1 to Allyson Mendenhall.

It was in the design critique process — when students pin drafts of their work in a shared space and receive feedback from peers and faculty — that Mendenhall “really learned the power of the ongoing churn of an idea through several cycles of review,” she says. “Those themes of collaboration and iteration are very much at the core of my professional and volunteer work.”

A few years after moving to Denver, she connected with local GSD alumni and the Rocky Mountain Harvard University Club, where she began to engage with the community through shared experiences that directly connected to her work — organizing a series of hard-hat tours of buildings and public spaces designed by GSD alumni. “It connected my passion for urban environments to my love of being an alumni ambassador,” she says.

She realized that it wasn’t only designers who were interested in the changing skyline of a city or a new botanical garden. “Alumni are hungry for opportunities that combine their curiosity for educational experiences with the social aspect — a connection back to the intellectual life of the University we all hold so dear.”

After serving as chair of the GSD Alumni Council and as an appointed Graduate School director on the HAA Board of Directors, she was nominated to the HAA Executive Committee as vice president. In this role, Mendenhall worked closely with current president Vanessa Liu ’96, J.D. ’03.

“Vanessa is an amazing mentor and very generous with her time,” she says. “She is a creative leader who exudes a warmth that even shines through over Zoom, where she thought of imaginative ways for us to get to know each other. In her orbit, you feel welcomed and heard.”

As Liu reflects on her term, she is most proud of how the alumni community took action to enact positive social change — including Harvard Clubs and Shared Interest Groups (SIGs) supporting aid efforts in Ukraine, the HAA board developing antiracism training, and alumni helping Harvard students secure climate-related summer internships.

“Allyson’s design thinking and purposeful approach to building community will help take the HAA to new levels,” Liu says. “I am very excited to see our communities connect in new ways and thrive under her leadership.”

Thinking back on starting her journey as an alumni volunteer 10 years after graduate school, Mendenhall believes it’s never too late to get involved. “I think you can continue to discover the nooks and crannies of Harvard,” she says. “I gain so much from being involved. My commitment of time, ideas, and energy is nothing compared to what I’m exposed to with this incredible community of dedicated alumni who are bringing their ideas to the table.”