On a recent Friday afternoon, students gathered in Dunster’s Junior Common Room for a conversation with Hollywood screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard, whose screenwriting credits include “Remember the Titans” and “Ali.” Howard, however, was not here to talk about becoming a successful screenwriter, nor was the event sponsored by Harvardwood. Rather, the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI) brought him in to speak about educational equity issues.
Former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers announced the creation of HFAI in 2004. Since then, HFAI has helped reduce economic barriers that might prevent low- and middle-income students from attending Harvard by eliminating parental contribution for Harvard families making less than $60,000 a year, in addition to decreasing contribution for families at higher income levels.
For years, HFAI has also tried to engage the campus in discussion on issues surrounding access to higher education through academic speakers. But this year, HFAI’s student coordinators are trying to bring in a fresh array of speakers—such as Howard—who hail from fields one might not normally associate with the issue of educational equity. Their efforts represent not only HFAI’s innovative involvement with students under the Initiative once they arrive to Harvard, but also HFAI’s increased outreach to the campus as a whole.
Through the speaker series, HFAI looks to broaden its influence within the larger student body. “The important thing is to engage everyone in a dialogue about educational access,” HFAI Student Coordinator Doris Le ’12 said. “That’s my goal for the speaker series. I think there is always room for more discussion.”
In fact, the speaker series is primarily student planned. “One of the great things about the speaker series is that the students who work with HFAI are the ones helping us to construct the whole program,” said Sally C. Donahue, Director of Financial Aid.
Precious E. Eboigbe ’07 agreed that student involvement is key. A student coordinator as an undergraduate, Eboigbe is now an Assistant Director of HFAI and an Admissions and Financial Aid Officer. “There was so much agency that student coordinators could take to get the word out,” Eboigbe said of her days as an HFAI student coordinator.
In the past, students have listened to prominent Harvard academics, such as Christopher N. Avery ’88, Roy E. Larson Professor of Public Policy and Management at the Kennedy School of Government, and Caroline M. Hoxby '88, Harvard’s former Allie S. Freed Professor of Economics who now teaches at Stanford. Both have focused on socioeconomic factors in American higher education in their academic work.
But now, HFAI has moved the speaker series in a new direction by seeking non-academic speakers.
“It’s a different approach that we’re taking,” said Director of HFAI Patrick R. Griffin ’05, also an Admissions and Financial Aid Officer. “We’re opening up the speaker series to anyone who has an interesting perspective [on educational access].”
THE STORY OF A FAMOUS SPEAKER
As opposed to dealing with issues of access to higher education from the abstract, these individuals can speak from personal experience.
Take Howard, the accomplished Hollywood screenwriter who most recently spoke for HFAI. After attending high school in Vallejo, California, Howard received a scholarship to attend Princeton University.
Howard talked about his transition from working class Vallejo to the Ivy League. “I felt like I had landed on a spaceship,” he said at the event. “There were these preppies [and] I didn’t even know what a prep school was.” Howard, however, found a passion freshman year: history. And today, as an historical drama writer, he benefits from his education everyday.
For Harvard students also hailing from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, Howard offered some poignant words of advice. “Don’t let any half-wits make you feel bad that you are here. Feel good about yourself. I always did.”
Howard’s appreciation of his own education led him to launch the Dr. Howard Lonsdale Scholarship, named after his mentor who encouraged him to apply to Princeton. The program supports students from Vallejo who otherwise would be unable to afford college tuition.
Recipients of Howard’s scholarship attend California state schools. However, as he views public university tuition as too high for many students, Howard hopes to encourage more students to apply to private institutions where they can receive financial aid. Howard said at the panel, “Counselors shovel kids into flagship or second tier state schools. Wouldn’t they want to go to private schools so they could get more aid?”
Le, who organized the event, can personally attest to Howard’s passion for increasing access to higher education. She met Howard while a student at his high school alma mater. The two maintained a relationship as she went through the college application process. “Greg really believed in me,” she said.
Despite low attendance, the Gregory Allen Howard event was viewed as a great success by HFAI student coordinators, HFAI officials, and attendees. “I thought he was fascinating to listen to,” said Donahue, “Here’s this hugely successful guy just sitting around as a regular person sharing his life story.”
GETTING EVERYONE INVOLVED
The speakers series represents one of the many efforts of HFAI to increase its profile on Harvard’s campus. Leaders of the Initiative are now considering increasing the Phillips Brooks House Association’s involvement in HFAI’s outreach efforts as well as creating an online guide for living on a budget that could be constantly updated.
By leaving the realm of academic speakers and including those with personal experience in the conversation, HFAI hopes to accomplish two goals. First, these speakers can serve as inspiration for working class students who may be having difficulty adjusting to life at Harvard. HFAI Student Coordinator Sean L. Po ’12 said these speakers offer a powerful message: “Look at all these success stories; they started out like you, and you can enjoy the same success.”
In addition, HFAI hopes that speakers such as Howard draw the larger Harvard community into a discussion on higher education in America.
“We are trying to say that HFAI is not only for those from modest economic backgrounds,” said Po. “HFAI is an initiative for anyone to participate in.”