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United States Secretary for Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan ’87 spoke about the impact that his volunteer experience at Harvard had on his career path in a speech in Memorial Church on Friday evening.
Donovan was the recipient of this year’s Phillips Brooks House Association Robert Coles “Call of Service” Award, which honors those who have demonstrated a lifelong commitment to public service.
According to Cindy Y. Guan ’15, PBHA alumni and history coordinator, this year’s Coles lecture was also intended to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter.
“We wanted to honor someone who was both active in public service and passionate about fighting homelessness,” Guan said. “The work that Secretary Shaun Donovan has done made him the perfect candidate.” Donovan has spent his career advocating for safe, quality, affordable housing for many of America’s at-risk communities, tackling issues of homelessness and the recent housing crisis.
A former volunteer at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter during his undergraduate years, Donovan attributed his success to the impact PBHA had on him. “PBHA has a rich history of changing lives—including my own,” he said.
Donovan recalled a stark realization he had as a student after passing a homeless man on the streets of Harvard Square that helped him realize his commitment to ending homelessness.
“The gentleman—ragged from what he had been through—wasn’t holding a sign that asked for money or for work. He was simply holding a photograph of himself decades earlier as a memory,” Donovan said. “I thought to myself, ‘What kind of world is it that we live in, that somebody has to hold a picture of themselves to be seen?’”
Through community service, Donovan said he found a way to challenge social injustice by bringing those unseen out of the shadows. “For every invisible man, there is a blind person who refuses to see them for who they really are.” he said.
In an interview with The Crimson, Donovan emphasized the growing challenge of attracting students to careers in government.
“What worries me the most is that the recent Congress shutdown will turn off young, idealistic people towards public service and working in government,” he said. “For me, the hardest thing was to find government, and that only happened by luck. To overcome that, I would encourage people to give public service a chance.”
Finally, Donovan encouraged students to formulate their own career paths through meaningful public service.
“All of us have different paths to find our way, so I can’t tell you what to do next or what your passion will be, but what I can tell you is to serve,” he said. “When you serve, you follow your passion. If you serve and you call yourself to be more than what you think you can be, this world can be more than what we think we can be.”
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