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By Simone C. Chu, Crimson Staff Writer

This summer, Keturah J. Gadson ’21 traded Cambridge brick for the open skies of Sunflower, Mississippi — a town with a population of just over 1,000 which she described as "hallowed ground... frozen in time” — to help teach local students as part of the Sunflower County Freedom Project.

Gadson is one of 121 Harvard students who participated in paid public service internships this summer funded by the Mindich Summer Fellowship Program, Liman Public Interest Law Fellowship program, the Harvard Clubs Summer Community Service Fellowship program, and the federal work-study program. Harvard’s Center for Public Interest Careers helps coordinate these summer fellowships.

On Friday, roughly 50 students and Harvard affiliates gathered on campus for CPIC’s first End-of-Summer Symposium to share their experiences and offer feedback for future programming.

Student leaders from nine different “sites” of service spoke at the symposium about their time away from Harvard, which involved teaching, campaigning for the opening of a mental health clinic, and providing financial counseling and emergency grants to parents in need.

Though speakers mentioned high points, multiple students said they felt ineffectual at times.

Savannah J. Miles ’19, who worked in Los Angeles with the community service organization LIFT, said she felt “a little down” about not always being able to help members achieve their goals.

She said that, while progress was not something she could easily measure, the “collection of moments and stories and relationships” she gained this summer had their own value.

For Gadson, her internship presented an opportunity to give back to a community that reminded her of home.

“It really felt like things had come full circle,” said Gadson, whose family moved from Mississippi during the Great Migration. “To be able to go back and help the families that either could not leave or have had to go back to Mississippi was very inspiring.”

Trevor W. Ladner ’20, who worked in Meridian, Miss. with the Meridian Freedom Project, said he hopes more students will invest their time in rural communities, where change is ongoing.

“Working with my students this summer, especially the girls that I worked with in my journalism class, they were very adamant that people in power — particularly adults — don’t trust young people to have good ideas or to make positive change,” Ladner said.

“I think it’s important for intellectuals and Harvard students to support that work, and to go back to these places,” he added.

While CPIC programs are well-established in eight urban centers across the country, organizations in the Mississippi Delta form a new opportunity for undergraduates.

“There’s just not a lot of focus on rural communities or course options on rural communities at Harvard,” Gadson said. “As part of that, we want to recruit with intentionality.”

When she interviewed with the Sunflower County Freedom Project, she said, interviewers emphasized “what it means for the students to see a black girl that goes to Harvard.”

“That was something that came alive every single day in the classroom,” Gadson said.

Gadson, who said she wants to work in education policy in the future, said her experiences this summer made a career in public service seem more viable.

“Getting to see adults who have actually made careers of public service, and the community that you can have in a pursuit like that, was very inspiring and encouraging,” she said.

CPIC Director Travis A. Lovett and CPIC Community Relations Fellow Alysha L. Johnson Williams ’14 said they enjoyed hearing about students’ summer service.

“Travis and I know these internships inside and out. We know the partners, we know the job descriptions. But the students add such a different dimension,” Johnson said. “To see the students pick up these internships and transform them is something incredible.”

Correction: Sept. 5, 2018

A previous version of this story misquoted Keturah J. Gadson '21. It has been updated.

—Staff writer Simone C. Chu can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @simonechu_.

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