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Over lunch in Mather Dining Hall, Alison E. Cohen ’07 repeatedly greets friends with a warm smile, raising her eyebrows in acknowledgement. It is a gesture that perhaps best captures Cohen’s personality. Even a simple salutation goes a long way, she later explains, recounting a formative freshman-year experience when a friend thanked her for asking how he was doing. “Someone would send me an e-mail for doing something as basic as stopping when someone looks sad?” she remembers, reenacting her surprise.
Cohen, who describes herself as a “white Jewish girl,” is known for her involvement in primarily black organizations including the Harvard African Students Association (HASA).
When Cohen assesses her experiences, whether as an undergraduate or as a high schooler, she speaks frequently of “balance.” Having spent almost three months in Ghana after high school doing service work, Cohen returned to the West African country fall semester of junior year to broaden her view since she’d only experienced a tiny portion of the sub-Saharan country. Where she had previously lived in a poor rural village, Cohen found herself in an area where Passats lined the street across from the university where she studied.
The sociology concentrator, who grew up in Washington, DC, also chose to go to “a predominantly black high school in a predominantly white area” and learned first-hand about racial and class segregation. Cohen says she thought staying in the public school system was crucial for her own development.
“I had everything I needed, and much of what I wanted,” Cohen says of her upper-middle class upbringing and of her subsequent decision to stay within the public school system. “I really got to know people on an intimate, individual level, which doesn’t happen in a city that’s so divided by race and class.”
“I’m definitely a humanist. A lot could be improved if we took the time to understand ourselves and each other,” she says. It is this kind of philosophy that has guided her efforts to build community. Sandra L. Di Capua ’07, who has had Shabbat dinner with Cohen almost every Friday night during their time at Harvard, recalls a particular meal when her friend introduced herself to 50 or 60 people at dinner and evoked laughs.
“Here was this Friday night Jewish dinner and she was comparing it to a Ghanaian feast, bringing the world together in a sense.”
Cohen’s involvement in HASA, including a stint as social chair this past year, facilitated friendships that fostered a better understanding of the continent.
“I really got to know such a wide range of people from a continent that’s known monolithically,” says Cohen. When Cohen speaks of her role in Spoken Word Society and the Vagina Monologues, she stresses the community that each offered.
Cohen, who became involved with spoken word in high school, jokingly refers to the extracurricular as “free therapy” since members start each meeting by first checking in with one another. As for the Eve Ensler episodic play, Cohen says the series of monologues conveyed the “importance of supporting each other in the burdens that we carry. We were really trying to ensure that it was as inclusive as possible.”
Next year, Cohen will move to Ghana where she will either intern with a lawyers’ group focused on advocacy for women and children or teach at a secondary school or university.
—Staff writer Margaret W. Ho can be reached at email@example.com.
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