Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

House Committee Blueprint for Action and Research Finding

This blueprint for action will showcase the major findings from interviews with residential council/committee leaders, in particular how they identified their successes and limitations.
What success looks like:
  •  Campus-wide buy-in to House Committee events and more overall interest in joining the house committee
  • Continued administrative support, but strong autonomy for leaders.
  • Fewer instances of burnout and recognition of the limited bandwidth of the committees.
  • A sense of empowerment for leaders and all members of the House community.
  • House Committees feel empowered to solicit feedback, advocate for students, and let them know that they belong to a community of peers who care about them.
Continued question for debate: Harvard is unique in that people have a high level of affiliation with their residential houses, but house committees face many limitations. Why are house committees not viewed as prestigious among peers? What are the limitations of their work?

Areas for Internal Action (committee programming, leadership, and logistics) 


Areas for External Action (policies, partnerships, and beyond)

Overall, I applaud residential leaders and staff for consistently seeking to build a friendly and supportive home for students. In order for HoCos to thrive, there is potential for more funding, staff support, and internal analysis in the way committee leaders communicate with, structure, and inspire their members. Incentivizing and motivating committed and selfless volunteers is an ongoing concern, especially when the work lacks the interest and prestige on campus. However, student buy-in is most likely with diverse and evolving programming that is based on regular input.

A closer look at few Princeton College Councils


Taylor Mills is a Council Chair of Mathey College of Princeton University, a diverse residential living and learning environment that, according to the College website, houses approximately two hundred first-year students, two hundred sophomores, and one hundred and forty juniors and seniors. Princeton “Colleges” provide ideal case comparisons to Harvard’s residential communities because of the similar missions in creating inclusive and diverse programming for a wide range of students and making sure that a residential community feels like home. Mills describes that she did not join the overarching College-wide student council because she wanted to have a more tangible, specific role. She says that the College Council allows her to feel like she’s making a difference and she can see the day-to-day change. In particular, she feels like the moment she really knew she was impacting people was when she planned “frosh week,” answering questions that the incoming freshmen had and helping them feel less lost. Like Harvard House Committee Co-Chairs, she discusses that the role has helped her meet lots of people. At Princeton, there are “Residential Community Advisors” who are like “PAFs” at Harvard, but integrated into the residential halls and work with “Peer Academic Advisors” as well. These groups operate outside of the College Council, but have some crossover membership like Mills. Perhaps a model like this at Harvard would allow for advising and peer support to follow students beyond their freshmen year into the second year, however, the ongoing concern is that there are not enough students to fill the event planning and advising roles. In addition, Mathey College only has 10 residential graduate students compared to 20-30 in each of the Harvard houses.
            When discussing the limitations of her work as the Council Chair of Mathey College, Mills discussed the internal limitation within the council that people get so busy and often a job gets put on two or three people along with other time management and coordination concerns. At the same time, people who live in Mathey who might attend their events are very busy and have their own groups. “It’s [about] trying to get people out of their comfort zone,” Mills says, referring to reaching students who might not normally come to Mathey events. Mills gives the insight that the Mathey College Council could work to be a bit more structured and clear about the roles of each role on the council. The Mathey College Council works with an administrator in the College who picks out two people who she likes to meet with her; those two liasons tell her what’s going on. Mills voiced that at one point it was felt that the administration had too much say, but that they were able to stake out on their own. “We’re pretty hands off, which is a pretty big perk…they have less sway…this can be a good or bad thing…we tell them our ideas, but they can veto things,” Mills added, offering an example of a food vendor that she was not able to use because of administrative veto.
            Discussing some of Mathey’s largest events, she says that 200-300 people come to “study breaks,” a turnout that is possible because every single College has study breaks at the same time. But, Mills says that it would be great to make these events more interactive instead of just having people come to eat food and leave, but this is a very habitual event.

        Anna is a sophomore leader of Butler College and felt drawn to joining Butler College Council because she thought it was cool to have a group open to all students. The Council has 7 committees including “cultural, community building, publicity civic engagement, intramural sports, and academic.” Like Mathey, they have a series of events throughout the year including trips to New York and Philadelphia for concerts and a spring carnival. Anna notes that this large of an event requires collaboration with administrators because it is a lot that they could not handle on their own. That being said, Anna notes “we’re lucky to be in a residential college where the staff members are willing to cede control when it comes to college council…if we’re convincing enough we can do it.” When describing the council, Anna says, “we are flexible bunch of people who are there to support the activities of our fellow students…a lot of what we do is behind the scenes...these events will always be there if you need a break…we are successful in providing support and constant community people can always come back to.”
          Interestingly, Anna notes that they choose to be intentional with their goals, saying that ultimately college is busy and they don’t want anyone to feel pressured to being a part of the community. Instead, they are just there to offer opportunities that students can access based on their autonomy and interests. Anna notes that in order to decrease turnover they are trying to evolve mentorship within the committee, and even though she thinks an application process might make the council more cohesive, she thinks the fundamental point is to be welcoming and representative of the whole residential college by having open membership. As for inclusion, she says “if we don’t provide an example, how do we build a solid foundation for the community?”
When it comes to leadership, Anna says that leadership “is learning how to communicate your vision for something and how you enjoy what you do so others want to get involved…being vulnerable and open helps other people see and that we need to do things together as a team.” Finally, Anna offers important insight that “you have to be constantly reaching out to other leaders from the group and also have to solicit their ideas and be available when they offer you ideas…people don’t always offer their feedback in traditional ways.” This could mean that residential leaders should re-think their feedback system and make it more accessible.
         Joseph from Wilson College echoes many of the same beliefs of Anna and Taylor. In particular, Joseph describes the administrators as people who they can fall back on when their busy student schedules overwhelm them. He describes the relationship with administrators as “what we make of it,” in that the council can organize everything on their own and doesn’t need permission from them, but that they are still supportive. He finds that the weekly meetings with the treasurer, two co-chairs, and deans are productive and effective.  
         Interestingly, whereas each of the Harvard co-chairs wanted more money from the administration, none of the Princeton co-chairs voiced financial concern, but perhaps this is because of a smaller number of events put on throughout the year. Joseph says that when it comes to money priorities, Wilson chooses to prioritize more of the “community building” events like outings rather than gear giveaways. He says that he always feels like he is doing Council when he is not doing homework as its concerns are always on his mind. That being said, like each of the leaders interviewed, Joseph has valued what he has learned about being a leader from working on College Council and really valued what he is able to contribute to Wilson. 

Overall, I found that Princeton students did not voice as many complaints about running their College Councils as Harvard students do. Even those Harvard students who felt satisfied as co-chairs felt there was room for improvement whether it be the immense amount that is expected of them form their peers and the university, the internal pressure they feel, or the lack of unity and effectiveness of their committee. It is difficult to assess exactly why Harvard students are less satisfied, but some theories include the intense social expectations Harvard students have to plan more and more complex events for their extracurricular-intense peers and the less direct administrative support that Harvard students have compared to Princeton with each college housing a residential student life director. Both campuses cited the limited time that students have to commit to residential life given competing interests and the way that it is easy for college students to quickly be consumed with other responsibilities, both of which can be changed with more incentive (funding) and prestige (real, instead of menial responsibilities and recognition) in the co-chair role, or as our administration advocates, a campuswide philosophical and cultural orientation toward teaching students about the importance of building community in a diverse residential setting.  Overall, these results prove to be very context-specific in that some Houses and Colleges achieve more success from others, proving that we have a lot to learn from within our very own campus. 

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