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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Alan Khazei and Michael Brown

A Harvard president's message of service inspired a socially-minded duo

By Peter R. Raymond, Crimson Staff Writer

What started as a random housing assignment for two incoming freshmen in 1983 has since turned into a public service organization that has helped over one million people and enlisted as many volunteers.

In the summer of 1988, nine years after they met as freshman year roommates, Alan A.A. Khazei ’83 and Michael H. Brown ’83 launched City Year, a non-profit community service organization that currently operates in 17 U.S. locations and in Johannesburg, South Africa. City Year began as a nine-week program for 50 volunteers, but by the next fall it was enlisting young people for a full year of service.

When they first entered the Yard, Khazei and Brown did not yet know they would go into the public sector, but soon after they met, a freshman class welcome speech delivered by then-University President Derek C. Bok inspired the friends to explore the world outside of the Ivory Tower. Both men took Bok’s advice to heart and found internships on Capitol Hill at different points in their Harvard careers. There, they became acutely aware of the need for public service.

These experiences played a role in what would develop into City Year’s vision: “Our biggest goal is still that the most commonly asked question of an 18 year-old will be, ‘Where will you do your service year?’” Brown explained. “It will be the thing to do, so everyone will just do it.”

Although Khazei has since moved on to found another public service organization and serve as a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics, Brown continues to lead City Year as its chief executive officer.

While City Year currently boasts an annual class of 1,400 youths between the ages of 17 and 24, it came from humble beginnings. When the program launched, Brown was still in his third year at Harvard Law School. Khazei, who had graduated the year before, relied on support from then-Currier House Masters Holly Davidson and Gregory Nagy to get the program started.

“When you finished graduate school they are supposed to kick you out,” Khazei said. But Davidson “stretched the rules” and created a new position—public service tutor—which allowed Khazei to keep his free room and board. “It was the first donation to City Year,” Khazei said.

It was such help and support from friends, including many Harvard affiliates, that helped City Year get off the ground.

Although Brown and Khazei no longer work together, the two remain close. Their continued relationship is no surprise to those who knew them as undergraduates. One of their roommates, Michael J. Alter ’83, who started City Year Chicago and served on the organization’s board, noted that they always shared an “incredible bond.”

Looking back on Harvard after graduation, Khazei said that while he values his education and extra-curricular activities, he primarily remembers Harvard for his friendships.

“The main headline for me in terms of Harvard would be the people,” he said.

Staff writer Peter R. Raymond can be reached at praymond@fas.harvard.edu.

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