Volunteerism at Harvard

Courtesy OF Pbha

The brightly colored balloons bobbing in the Yard did the trick this year. The class of 2007 made its way in impressive numbers to Phillips Brooks House for the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) open house, eager to save the world, one afterschool program at a time.

“There was a lot of excitement, especially from first-years,” says Ayirini M. Fonseca-Sabune ’04, president of PBHA. After a volunteer shortage last year, things are looking up for the organization and public service in general.

“I think PBHA is in a really stable place as an organization right now financially and also in terms of safety and liability,” says Fonseca-Sabune.

PBHA has approximately 1,800 volunteers and serves 10,000 people. The ranks of Harvard volunteers swell when groups outside the scope of PBHA, like Project HEALTH and HAND, are counted. Harvard gets a lot of mileage out of its volunteer ambassadors in terms of warm and fuzzy public relations. It’s sometimes unclear how much Harvard gives back to students volunteering their time. What is clear to volunteers is what they get back themselves. Public service affects course choices and vocational choices after graduation. It can mean frantic late night phone calls from teenage mentees and finding beds for people who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets. The diversity of programming is overwhelming and sometimes confusing. For some volunteers, it is just one afternoon a week spent with grade schoolers. But for others, public service in college becomes all-consuming.

Student volunteers are the face of Harvard in underserved communities in Cambridge and the Greater Boston area. This is the face of those student volunteers.

Service With A Smile

by Matthew J. Amato

Free time is a foreign concept to Mariam F. Eskander ’05. It seems that she spends about as much time hanging out as she does frowning.

And Eskander never frowns.

By 2:40 one Saturday afternoon last spring, she has already spent the morning interviewing junior counselor candidates for the PBHA’s Boston Refugee Youth Enrichment (BRYE) Summer Program, and gone to a barbeque for the Harvard Homeless Shelter. Now Eskander is on the move once again. At 3:30, she will be down in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston running the BRYE Teen Program, a division of BRYE she helped start. On this particular day, Eskander and her fellow volunteers are taking the students in BRYE Teen to Castle Island to play volleyball. “First we need to stop and get some athletic supplies,” Eskander says with a contagious giggle as she walks through the Yard. Wearing blue wind pants and a white tee-shirt with her hair pulled back, she is ready for action. “Then we’ll go to CVS and get water. The kids are gonna’ get thirsty.”

It’s been a busy afternoon for Eskander, but not an unusual one. “I feel like her free time is spent traveling from place to place,” says blockmate Melanie D. Napier ’05. “She’s found many different niches in things that she really likes doing.”

Eskander’s “niches” include a volunteer director position at the Harvard Homeless Shelter, co-founding the BRYE Teen Program, working at the BRYE Tutoring Program and singing in and directing publicity for Kuumba. In addition, last spring Eskander, a neurobiology concentrator, took fives classes and worked in lab twice a week. “As a person, she does more stuff at Harvard than anyone I’ve ever seen,” says Christi D. Tran ’04, former executive vice president of PBHA.

At 3:40 Eskander arrives at the Vietnamese Community Center for the BRYE Teen Program. Nine Vietnamese young adults ranging in ages from 14 to 17 are waiting in the library. Most of these teenagers have been junior counselors for the BRYE Summer Program.

Some of Eskander’s fellow volunteers have already arrived and are helping the kids with their homework, others work on poetry. Eskander talks to Anhthuy Nguyen, age 15, about her junior counselor application and plans for the summer. “Don’t worry if you don’t get in this year!” Eskander assures Nguyen. “We had about 25 applications from people who speak Vietnamese, so if you don’t get in just reapply next summer.” Eskander then asks what she’ll do if she doesn’t get the job. “Probably some sort of a job where I make money,” Nguyen says frankly.

BRYE Teen is one of five services that the 15-year-old BRYE program offers to the impoverished, mainly Vietnamese immigrant community of Dorchester. Other programs include tutoring, a classroom extension program, an eight-week summer program and a one-on-one mentoring program. The Teen program came about when Eskander and fellow Harvard student Christina M. Shuman ’03 wanted to serve the community beyond the original BRYE program, which targets kids ages 6 to 14. Dorchester is high crime area and gang activity is quite prevalent.

Tran, who directed the BRYE Summer Program last year, says domestic abuse, single parenthood, illiteracy and prostitution are common facts of life for the kids BRYE attempts to help. “I’m sure half of our kids get beaten, and many of our kids have older siblings dealing drugs,” says Tran. “The group of teenagers Mariam works with are extremely high risk and vulnerable to gang activity.”

Eskander hopes that BRYE Teen will work to combat these hardships. “These are really great kids, and we don’t want to see them get into trouble.” One of the unique things about BRYE is that it is greatly accepted and appreciated in the community, which makes their job easier and more fulfilling.

Shuman recalls Eskander’s friendship with a young girl from the Summer Program named Trin as emblematic of the program’s successes. Last summer, Trin and Eskander became very close; so close that Trin would even call Mariam on the phone at night just to chat. “I remember thinking ‘wow,’ every night when I’m done teaching I need to go home and relax, but Mariam would go home and then spend another hour on the phone with a student,” says Shuman.

During this past school year, Shuman and Eskander stopped by Trin’s house to say “hi.” Trin invited them both inside, where her mother made them dinner. “I think she really wanted to thank Mariam for all her work with Trin,” says Shuman.

Four years ago, Maureen R. Rodriguez’s ESL class at the John P. Holland elementary school in Dorchester did a project in which they wrote about their lives in the future. Almost every single student wrote that her or she had studied with Harvard students. “The program truly affects their future aspirations,” Rodriguez says. Phi Truong, age 17, came to Boston from Saigon in 1997. He credits the Summer Program for teaching him English. “My counselors made me speak English in class and write in a journal every week. By the end of my second summer I was able to speak, write with less grammar errors and had an enhanced vocabulary,” says Truong. “I’m now able to do more volunteer work in the community.” While attending the Boston Latin School, near the Harvard Medical School, Truong has begun to work as a youth counselor in the Dorchester area,.

Stories like Truong’s are part of the reason that PBHA programs integrate seamlessly into communities like Dorchester.“In our school community, the Harvard volunteers are very well received,” says Maureen Rodriguez.

Dorchester is not the only welcoming community, nor is BRYE the only program that has found a place in the greater Boston area. Programs such as Mission Hill and The Franklin I-O Summer Program have also integrated with great success. “We’ve had a long tradition of being a partner in the community,” said Christopher J. Vena ’05, a co-director of the Franklin program. “A big part of what we do is to try and establish relationships with community leaders. We have to be careful to not be seen as imposing our will. We don’t want to be missionaries.” One telling example Franklin’s success than the fact that students who participate in the program today have parents who also participated when they were children.

It’s not entirely smooth-sailing. Sometimes, according to student volunteers, community members express frustration with limited resources. “Harvard is perceived as a very wealthy institution. What the people don’t understand is that the only thing that the PBHA volunteers have in common with Harvard University is that they are enrolled at the college. We really don’t have much money.” says Vena. “They are definitely appreciative of us individually, but they still see the programs as not enough.”

As PBHA continues to put Harvard’s face out in the community, the need for resources persists. “The University should support it more. PBHA has to do a lot of their own fundraisers,” says Bruce Smith, a member of the PBHA Board of Trustees and the Director of Community & Government Program, Harvard School of Public Health. “Pound for pound, the PBHA is comparable to many national community service organizations. If this was Americorp, they would have their own professional fundraisers.” It’s a tough climate for fundraising now and the need for PBHA programming continues to grow. Last March, the Boston Housing Authority closed 14 youth centers due to budget cuts; at the Boys Club on the corner of Blue Hill Ave and Talbot Street in Boston, there is a waiting list is over 200 people.

At 4:50 BRYE Teen loads up into two PBHA buses and heads off to Castle Island, a large area of athletic fields and beaches on the Boston Harbor. Here Eskander and the other Harvard volunteers play volleyball with the teenagers. While BRYE’s impact, and the rest of the PBHA’s impact for that matter, is mostly measured qualitatively, there is quantitative evidence that the program is making an impact; two former BRYE students currently attend Harvard.

It is 5:30 and Eskander gets a call on her cell phone; she is needed for a meeting at the moment back at the PBHA building. Eskander apologizes for her schedule and drives back to Harvard. She isn’t upset that she has a meeting, she’s upset because she has to leave the teens.

Eskander doesn’t complain about the meeting, or the fact that she will have three meetings on Sunday, or the fact that she will start her 5 class schedule on Monday morning before returning to Dorchester to tutor. Complaining is a foreign concept to Eskander.

So is relaxing. “I haven’t felt relaxed in a while,” she says, shrugging. “But relaxed is not good, it’s idle.”

Gimme Shelter

by Lily X. Huang

For five nights a week from June to August this past summer, Erika R. Hammond ’05 was out past midnight. That’s when her shift ended at the St. James summer homeless shelter in Porter Square, where Hammond was one of two senior directors. In her second year directing the shelter, her duties covered all aspects of the running of the shelter, from recruiting volunteers, to shuttling supplies on a daily basis, to working directly with shelter residents to find jobs and permanent housing. But despite her hectic schedule and the steady needs of 37 volunteers and 15 low-income residents, the summer was what Hammond might call a break – that is, a time when she could devote her energy to a single project and not be both full-time student and full-time public servant.

In addition to directing the shelter at St. James, Hammond, a Sociology concentrator, also heads the Harvard chapter of the international Best Buddies program, a mentoring program that pairs learning disabled children with college and high school students. Hammond is also a board member for the Women Leadership Project, which conducts a week-long conference every year for undegraduate women leaders on campus.

Once last spring, she confessed that, if she could, she would abandon all other pursuits and make public service a full-time commitment.

“She’s a natural people person,” says Lindsay Jewell ’05, one of her roommates, “and public service is a natural avenue for her to express that.” By the end of her freshman year, Hammond’s heart was already set on teaching elementary school in Brooklyn, NY, where she grew up. “I knew I wanted to learn outside the classroom,” she says, which was what had first prompted her to seek out PBHA as a freshman and dive head-long into two of its longest-running programs. She’s a little more patient now as she fills up her study card with classes unrelated to sociology, content to take advantage of being an undergraduate as long as she can. She’s exploring other avenues, not because she’s had enough of a taste of public service, but because she knows that service is exactly right for her: she will get to it soon enough.

In fact, Hammond’s time at Harvard has been a steady evolution of her perspective on public service. Harvard’s first lesson, impressed perhaps too fervently upon new residents of Harvard Yard, was that much is possible. On her first foray into Phillips Brooks House (the building that houses PBHA, among other things), Hammond was wooed by a zealous representative of Best Buddies, who struck her with a unique pitch. “He approached me and was like, ‘You look like you want to learn about this.’” Ultimately, his approach led her to ask herself the right question, which, for Hammond, was never “What kind of service suited her best?” or even “How did she want to be of service?” The question she found herself able to answer was “What kind of community did she want to learn about?”

Soon enough Hammond discovered a common aspect of extracurricular involvement at Harvard:

how easy it is to overcommit without fully committing. In her first year, Hammond had a Best Buddy to mentor, a spirited 12-year-old girl from Martin Luther King Junior school, balanced shifts at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, and kept up intramurally the sports she’d done in high school—volleyball and soccer. “I had no idea what commitment at Harvard was like,” she confesses. “I realized I couldn’t do everything.” Eventually, Best Buddies made a decision for her: that spring, Hammond was invited to apply to be one of the program’s directors. Even now she is amazed at how easy it’d all seemed—arriving at Harvard, finding new interests and at every step being offered new ways to pursue those interests—and concludes that that is exactly what can be expected of Harvard’s student-run extracurriculars. The logical progression of involvement “is to take on leadership. You get handed programs to lead.”

As a high school student in Brooklyn, Hammond didn’t have many opportunities to volunteer. She ran up against all sorts of legal walls with most organizations in New York City, which were strict about accepting only adult volunteers. Her high school, Midwood High, despite being surrounded by the pressing conditions of the city, never ventured out with a strong student service program. After doing what she could from Midwood, Hammond ended up volunteering in Sao Paolo, Brazil through the Legion of Good Will.

The summer Hammond spent in San Paolo was divided among the city’s orphanages, where, as official volunteer ambassadors, she and her friends arrived with toys and school supplies. She found a natural rapport with the children of the slums, despite her limited ability to communicate. Conventional language was never the problem, as she realizes now, because the gesture-driven language of children is rarely conventional to begin with. “Their type of communication is incredible,” she says. Words, however, can’t be completely discredited; Hammond’s friendship with her Best Buddy, Season (pronounced Say-ZAHN), is a stream of endless chatter.

The St. James summer shelter calls itself a “transitional shelter,” which means that it’s more than a place to spend the night; it’s a 12-week program that screens its applicants and aims to help its residents settle into long-term housing and sustainable employment. The four student directors, in addition to overseeing the daily operation of the shelter, each handle three “cases,” putting their clients in touch with professional non-profits like Boston Home Start and the Piano Dave Project. The directors meet with each of their clients on a weekly basis, but Hammond insists that these meetings are strictly for administrative purposes. “I don’t think you build a trust within that meeting. I think it’s how you carry yourself in the shelter and the way you interact with the guests at all the other times [that builds the relationship].” Among Hammond’s clients this summer was a woman in her thirties from Haiti who worked in the laundry room at a nursing home and commuted every day between work and St. James. What impressed Hammond more than her relentless routine was that she spent weekends taking classes to become a nursing assistant herself. She did become one, by the end of the program, and Hammond had the satisfaction of seeing her make $5 more per hour than she had at the start of the summer. “She was very dedicated,” says Hammond. “That’s what the whole summer was full of—people who were so dedicated to really improving their situations.”

The shelter’s leadership has a training component built in; two of the directors are returning for a second summer, and two are spending their first summer as junior directors. Jonathan Y. Lai ’06, a junior director this year who is also a Crimson editor, calls Hammond’s brand of leadership “leadership by example. She would never ask anyone else to do something that she herself wouldn’t be willing to do. So if she asked you to do something, it was for good reason.” He adds with a laugh: “You jumped to it.”

Hammond’s work in Cambridge this summer also kept her close to Season, who, when Hammond was a freshman, used to come to the Yard for sleepovers. In August, Hammond did what she’d always talked about doing: she took Season home to Brooklyn for a weekend. It was a trip Season had been begging to take, but Hammond too had come to expect that, sooner or later, she would show Season the place where she grew up. “She had a Brooklyn jersey dress,” recalls Hammond, laughing. “’Cause that’s cool, you know. She wore it every day while we were there.” Of course, having Season around at home meant fewer late-night hours spent at parties with friends, but as usual, Hammond didn’t dwell on it. “There’ll be so many more parties in my life,” she says.

Then What?

PBHA and public service after college

by Lily X. Huang

At Harvard, there is no specific “service concentration,” but there doesn’t need to be; the training and resources for undergraduates interested in pursuing public service careers can still be found in the Yard. The Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) is the flagship of dozens of expansive service programs, all entirely student-run, and also has connections to key funding for other student-initiated service projects that give students their first foothold in the professional service world, beyond Harvard’s gates.

Gail King ’01 was a recipient of a yearly grant from the Stride Rite Foundation, a sum of $25,000 that allowed her to work as a community outreach worker for the Youth Advocacy Project in Roxbury. In her first year after graduating from Harvard, she worked toward building a better-connected community for young people. The network of support depended on “partnering up”: schools with families, families with social workers and psychologists, Youth Advocacy counselors with delinquency lawyers—in short, every support institution with every other institution, all undertaking a “teen-based approach.” With this well-connected community, King and advocacy attorneys could appear before the court and present a convincing case to keep a teen on trial from being placed in a harsh detention facility. “You don’t have to worry about locking this kid up,” she says. “This kid’s got somewhere to be.”

King also ran workshops to inform teens of the law: “If you are walking down the street with your friend and your friend pulled out a knife and robbed somebody, you could be charged and found guilty,” she explains. “Young people don’t know these kinds of things.”

Stride Rite recipient Michael J. Schultz ’02 became the founding director of a student service program at Stern Hebrew High School in Philadelphia. In a year he has created a network of volunteer programs for his students at nursing homes, schools, parks and local relief agencies. His aim is to teach high school students to adopt their own sense of public service, especially as they begin to negotiate their religious identities. “I was aware that the Jewish community and Jewish day schools were often insular,” he says. He recalls that, at his own Hebrew high school, he didn’t have the chance to work as a volunteer until senior year. What he needed, of course, was a four-year lesson in public service at Harvard and $25,000.

Like for many of his Stride Rite colleagues, Schultz’s fellowship ended up being his first year’s salary. “They [the Hebrew school] never would have been able to pay me to create the program last year,” he says. “The fellowship made all of it possible.”

Then there is what Schultz calls “the most formative part of my college experience.” Initiated into public service at Harvard on the pre-orientation Freshman Urban Program (FUP), he eventually directed two large-scale PBHA programs, one of the thirteen Summer Urban Programs in 2001 and the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. Above all, his public service work at Harvard was essential to giving him an “understanding first of all that was what the public service community was like. It enabled me to enter that community intelligently in Philadelphia.” His directorships taught him how to run a public service organization itself, from fundraising to directing volunteers. Ultimately, though, what distinguished Schultz’s undergraduate career in public service wasn’t just the fact that, at age 20, he ran a full-fledge homeless shelter or a summer camp; it was the service community that he was a part of that gave him leadership and taught him the real-world nature of public service.

Schultz is thankful for this rigorous introduction to the public service world. He talks frankly about the “thoughtfulness” and “professionalism” of Harvard’s public service network. “It’s not shooting in the dark,” he says. “It’s well-led, addressing real community needs. It does have a real sense of community.” He pauses. “It’s also the best in the country.”

Two years after entering the professional world of non-profits, Gail King is still impressed with Harvard’s singular approach to public service. “What program is going to say to an undergraduate, ‘Hey, direct my afterschool program?’” King was also able to make a seamless transition into professional work in Roxbury because she had already been part of the service community there for four years—as a volunteer and then director of the Mission Hill After School program.

After the hands-on tutorial in public service, PBHA provides access to the second component in pre-professional preparation: money. “The Stride Rite does an amazing job of connecting people and passion and dreams and allowing people to really explore that,” says Katya Fels ’93, board member at the Stride Rite Foundation and herself a Stride Rite recipient. $25,000 may appear to be a hefty sum, but it’s given by people who have experienced public service first-hand. “The Stride Rite people are realistic,” says Maria Dominguez, deputy director of PBHA. “They say, ‘Take the $25,000. This work’s hard. You can go to the movies.”

Fels’s fellowship ten years ago enabled her to found On the Rise, a transitional women’s shelter in Boston, of which she is now the executive director. “For me the Stride Rite was as much an investment in me as it was in the project. It’s as much about someone’s history of public service at Harvard.”

Credit Where Credit is Due

Service in the classroom

by Meghan M. Dolan

It is a common and somewhat satiric adage among the alums of PBHA that “PBHA is the best course at Harvard.” Public Service at this College is not a course and rarely is credit given for such service. Judith H. Kidd, an acting associate dean of the College and director of Phillips Brooks House, writes in an e-mail that“academics linked with field experiences provide more full education...Any curriculum that has requirements, like our core, is failing as higher education without some sort of civic education requirement.” Harvard is perhaps unprepared for what Maria Dominguez, deputy director of PBHA calls the “perceived touchy-feely aspect” of public service and fears that such service is not academic enough for the College.

The challenge now facing PBHA and other advocates of “field” or “experimental” learning is bridging the gap between academic work and equally vital field work. That challenge is one the Standing Committee on Public Service, chaired for the past three years by Sociology Professor Christopher Winship, will tackle as part of the ongoing review of the undergraduate curriculum.

Winship says that his committee’s charge is “to consider the role of these programs in the educational life of students.” “This committee is looking for a ‘both-and’ strategy beyond strictly academic,” Winship says. Education, though, should be able to come from both the classroom and the community—but are these two mutually exclusive at Harvard?

In the College now, there are only four courses in which public service “field work” is integrated into the content and credit is given for such work: Sociology 96, Spanish 38, Chinese Literature 132 and Social Analysis 54. In the Social Analysis course, on American Society and Public Policy, Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology Theda Skocpol and Professor of Sociology Mary C. Waters give their students the option to replace one of the courses’ required four papers with one written on an experience in public service.

Ayirini M. Fonseca-Sabune ’04, the president of PBHA, has found a way to integrate her devotion to the community with her academic pursuits through her Social Studies concentration. “We have a dual mission: community and student, and as one is strengthened the other becomes stronger,” Fonseca-Sabune says. “PBHA challeneges you in new ways always.” She is adamant that PBHA is just as valuable to her intellectual enrichment as her classes. “PBHA changes the way you think about, well, everything, not only community service, but academics also,” she says.

Executive Director of PBHA Gene A. Corbin is supportive of efforts to more fully integrate service and academics. “I think the curricular review is very exciting,” he says. “I’ve always believed that you learn best when there is an experiential component.”

Blending service with academics, however, is an imposing challenge. “My biggest fear,” says Dominguez, “is should credit be given for this service, it would begin to be looked at through a theoretical lens… as in, how can I write a paper on this?” That fear is perhaps a legitimate one, but as of now there is no middle ground between credit and no credit.

Dominguez is adamant that, “these students are doing incredible work and they deserve as much support in that public service work as in any other activities.”

Fonseca-Sabune also feels that students should be able to get credit for their service work if only to prove and highlight the significance of service. “You should be able to make service a part of your experience and still do well,” she says.

As a first-year, she directed of one of the Summer Urban Programs (SUP) summer camps called Key Latch, in Boston’s South End. In preparation for her camp she worked approximately 40 hours a week at PBHA that spring planning curriculum for the camp, hiring, budgeting and licensing. Grace C. Hou ’06 directed a SUP camp this summer as Fonseca-Sabune did herself three years ago.

“In terms of planning these camps, it is what full time people do, but students are doing it,” Hou says. Looking back on this summer, Hou says that, “It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done…preparing for the camp was very stressful and extremely intense, but I don’t regret anything.” Many other student volunteers echo this sentiment. “My work at PBHA has impacted my life here more than anything else,” Fonseca-Sabune says.

The Deciding Factor

by Meghan M. Dolan

Mika C. Morse ’05 wasn’t supposed to be in Cambridge this fall. Her public service experience changed her mind. “This is my whole life,” Morse says of her involvement in the Project HEALTH, a service organization separate from PBHA but still under the aegis of the Harvard Public Service Network. Morse directs the Women’s Resource Center (WRC), a project she first became involved as a first-year after her FUP leader recommended it. Morse thought that this program and specifically her work at the Women’s Resource Center would give her hands-on experience and further her aspirations to become a doctor. Morse also planned on studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country.

After only one year Morse become Program Coordinator of the Women’s Resource Center. She made some major life decisions too. She no longer wants to become a doctor and she decided against studying abroad. “Why go abroad after you appreciate what goes on right around the corner?” she says. Her co-program coordinator, Charmi Wijeseva, a student at BU, was also interested in medicine but now is pursuing a career in public health. Morse also says that her work at Project Health has definitely shaped her post-graduation goals. “I can see myself going to law school and pursuing the advocacy aspect of social issues,” she says.

“Nothing is too big of a commitment when you’re PC [program coordinator],” Morse says. Her roommate, Miranda E. Dugi ’05, agrees. “Just watching her do what she does exhausts me,” she says. After approximately an hour bus ride, Morse arrives on Mondays at the Boston Medical Center for her shift from 2:30 to 5:30. There are a few nurses and doctors in the Women’s Clinic upstairs who Morse says know the WRC volunteers. Most of the WRC cases are nurse deferrals. The WRC desk is located in a small hallway of this bustling upstairs Women’s Clinic and is situated directly across the hall from the room in which abortions are performed. The girls work at this desk, which is a foldable plastic table with files full of brochures, a telephone, and a hand-me-down computer with a struggling internet connection. The volunteers sit making phone calls to their ongoing cases checking up and helping the women with everything from housing vouchers to preschools while nurses and pregnant women fly by in the hallway. “We’re not there to take up hall space,” Morse says, “and it is a great environment to work in.”

This weekly service, though, is only a fraction of her duties as program coordinator. Project Health has a three-fold mission of “Service Mentorship and Reflection,” so in addition to her shift, Morse attends two reflection sessions per week—one for all of Project Health’s coordinators, and one specifically for the Women’s Resource Center’s volunteers. Morse admits that it is sometimes hard to stay in touch with her cases. “There is a lot in your hands,” she says. “Their hopes, their disappointments.”

Multimedia