The walls are bright pastels: green, periwinkle, red, and orange. In the center of the large room, two young children, joined by two Harvard undergraduates, laugh in unison, shaking a bag full of ice, cream, and vanilla extract and dancing to “Walk Like an Egyptian.”
This is the Harvard Allston Education Portal, a space that serves as a gateway for teaching and learning between the University and the community. The Portal, which is the brainchild of Director of Life Sciences Education Robert A. Lue, offers free mentoring and enrichment opportunities in science, math, writing, and public speaking for the neighborhood’s children, in addition to computer classes and a speaker series geared towards adults.
The Portal sits less than three blocks from a piece of land slated for the construction of the Allston Science Complex—a now desolate pit of concrete surrounded by scaffolding that has come to represent the tensions between Harvard and the community. But those involved with the Portal say that hostility between the neighborhood and the University seems to disappear at the Ed Portal’s glass doors.
The people interviewed for this article—Harvard administrators, the undergraduates who mentor children at the Portal, and parents who bring their children to learn in the one-story building—all echoed the same sentiment: The Education Portal is free from the tensions between the University and the community.
This is all the more surprising given the organization’s origins. Harvard created the Ed Portal in 2008 as a component of the legally-binding cooperation agreement that the City of Boston required the University to sign before it could break ground on the Allston Science Complex. As part of the agreement, Harvard pledged to distribute $25 million dollars over the next decade for community benefits.
But Lue, who created the Portal and now serves as its faculty director, says that the Portal is not intended to be a gesture of obligation. Instead, he says, it has served as a way for the community and the University to truly interact.
“I pitched the idea of the Education Portal as a really exciting opportunity to rethink how the community and the University come together,” Lue says. “It’s a bi-directional doorway, like a sandbox where the community and the University can collaborate and develop ongoing projects.”
In creating programming for the Ed Portal, Lue is advised by a committee that includes Allston residents so as to ensure that the space fulfills community needs.
And while disputes between the University and the community are largely absent from the project, Lue says December’s halt in construction on the Science Complex has had some negative effects on the Education Portal.
“I did have high hopes that when the building opened we would have access to facilities that would further support programming at the Portal,” Lue says.
MENTORING, NOT TUTORING
All the Harvard undergraduates who mentor children at the Ed Portal interviewed for this article say they have had positive experiences with the parents and children who they work with. Still, some mentioned the need to be mindful of tensions between the University and the community.
“As mentors, we all have to be aware of what’s going on,” says Sophie Rengarajan ’10, who has been mentoring at the Education Portal since it opened. “But once we’re inside the Portal we focus on science and nothing else.”
Qi Yu ’11, who has been mentoring for four semesters, echoes these sentiments.