Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Noelle Castro - Blueprint for Action

Abstract & Research Question

The Dominican Student Association was recently refounded in Spring 2019 after almost 5 years of being defunct. The organization had existed in two previous iterations, from 1993-1999 and again from 2011-2014. Restarting the organization was difficult without having any kind of institutional memory to help guide the revival of the organization, meaning that the entire infrastructure had to be recreated. Acknowledging the fact that the Dominican Student Association is a smaller community compared to some of the larger pan-ethnic organizations that exist within the college, there is always the possibility that the organization could go defunct. Therefore, the focus of this project is finding ways to build institutional memory within the organization and create sustainable structures so that the organization is able to last as long as possible, or if it does become defunct in the future, providing students with the opportunity to relaunch it with the necessary resources and knowledge of previous organizational structures. Through conducting a series of interviews, I was able to get a general sense of the infrastructural issues that the organization faces that could be solved with a transition guide that provides some historical background on the organization. This would allow for key institutional knowledge to be documented and easily accessible for future generations of the organization or if in the future the organization were to go defunct, the organization could be refounded with the necessary knowledge to continue previous traditions and understand how the organization has functioned in the past. In creating this document, the project also sought to create an alumni database to help keep current members of the board connected to previous board members and build a stronger connection with board members and their predecessors. 

The research questions are as follows: 

  • How can I work on building institutional memory for the Dominican Student Association so that knowledge and structures pertaining to the organization get passed on from generation to generation? How can we use this institutional memory to be able to ensure the organization is able to exist for as long as possible or if it does become defunct, students who are interested in re-launching it are able to restart it using previous organizational structures?

Current Frameworks for Institutional Memory

However, keeping in mind that we are a smaller organization, something that does come to mind to us quite often is the possibility of the organization becoming defunct if there aren’t community members that are willing to take on the responsibilities of being on board. Although we are a space where all folks are welcome, we acknowledge that those that would want to hold board positions will most likely be students that identify themselves as Dominican. Therefore, there’s always the chance that the number of Dominican students admitted in a given year decreases and there aren’t many students in a given year to take on board positions. We’ve created a pipeline where we welcome first-year students to the board to allow them to be able to have a low-stakes involvement on board and encourage them to continue being involved on the executive board during their time at Harvard. This has helped with sustainability within the organization because it helps to promote first-year involvement in the organization and many of our former first-year representatives have gone on to become board members.

The Dominican Student Association, like many other student organizations stores all of the information pertaining to the organization into a Google Drive. When I re-founded the organization, I created the shared drive with all of the documents pertaining to the organization on my college account's Google Drive, and this presents an issue for institutional memory. Our college accounts will expire soon after we graduate and that poses the risk of losing all of that data if with don't transfer it.

However, as an organization, we’re hoping to rethink how we store our information and how to make access to previous documents that detail our agendas, administrative information, budgets, etc. as accessible as possible for future generations of the DSA board. This is so that in the case that the organization does become defunct. Through this project, I want to create both a transition guide and an organized drive with all of our files. Another deliverable that I plan on producing through this project is a consolidated alumni database for future DSA board members to have connections to previous board members whether for organizational support or for events. I plan on curating these deliverables through a series of different interviews with different student leaders both that have been involved with the Dominican Student Association and in other organizations at Harvard, specifically Fuerza Latina and RAZA. 


For my DSA-specific interviews I reached out to the 9 current DSA board members, 2 previous board members, 3 members of the previous iteration of the organization. I also reached out to Fuerza’s current and former president and vice presidents as well as RAZA’s current executive leadership and was able to conduct 4 interviews with members of this group. With my DSA-specific group I was able to secure 3 interviews.

Interview Findings

Some common themes that came up in the interview can be found below: 

Some key insights that were gathered from the interview could be found below:

"Change in leadership can sometimes bring a change of values or priorities to the organization [...] Setting a set a core values and core priorities that we don't want to fall under the cracks. With changes in leadership, some things get changes and old things get forgotten. The things that get forgotten hold a lot of social meaning and cultural value, and in the case of DSA are important in the reason why DSA was refounded by Noelle in the first place. An idea could be having a bigger transition window where priorities are emphasized. This can look like the old and new board members can run over old and new events. [...] Opportunities can be identified during the transition period to identify key Dominicans to invite to the organization during the year so things don't happen last minute" -Adelson Aguasvivas '21, DSA VP of Community Engagement

"I think if there were some kind of governance (alumni) body that could help support the organization that would be great [...] I would say that " -Calvin Duran '21, VP of Professional Engagement (2019-20), Professional Development Chair (2020-21)

"Besides having like a Google drive folder with a lot, like other information, one thing that we always do is like we have transition meetings where like the past exposition meets with the new like position, just to make sure that each person talks to the person that previously held their role to get an idea of like exactly what they're going to need to do." -Santy Mendoza '23, Former Fuerza Latina Vice President 

"Alumni want to help, but I feel like as latinx orgs, we don't take advantage of that [...] but it has to I think that's key to maintaining the continuity and, like the legacy of the organization and its financial stability" -Mariana Haro '23, Current RAZA President

"As far as keeping in contact with alumni and people outside of people who used to be in the programs i've been actually a really hard thing to do, especially for the Latino community. [...] And you know it's just that that lack of communication and it's really difficult to get the alumni support we know we could have we know there's there's alumni out there that want to support, that, you know, would be happy to give back to the same clubs that were a part of so making sure to take that initial step and finding the people we can talk to is key." -Jose Avalos Berrospe '25, Current Fuerza Latina Vice President and RAZA Board Member

"Making sure one just reaching out (alumni) for advice and to making sure we sort of have those transition meetings, for example, like this past board, we met with the previous board [...] which has really made things just a lot easier just to make sure that we know exactly what we're doing but also being open so like there's going to be new ideas that are like our goal, usually for every board is like to make, like the year that we're running the organization that in the year before i'm right, while at the same time keeping up with certain traditions to help sort of solidify certain activities certain events that we want to really happen every year um yeah so and that happens just by talking to alumni." -Leo Barrera '24, Current RAZA Vice President

Recommendations & Proposed Solutions

After conducting interviews and gathering the necessary data, I am proposing below the following solutions for the organization to tackle issues of sustainability and further build institutional memory to ensure that the organization is well equipped for future generations of the DSA Executive Board. To highlight these insights gathered from the interviews, inspiring a shared vision by finding ways to remain active and emphasizing the key values of the organization is key in ensuring that the organization is one that allows folks to feel like they're part of a community and that they're contributing to something greater than themselves. Having an alumni involvement was another helpful idea that was brought up in these interviews to emphasize the rich histories of these organizations and ensure that traditions continue to be held. These recommendations were formed with great consideration and using the insight of other student leaders at Harvard.
  1. Drive Transition to DSA's Gmail Account: Finalize the process of transitioning all of the DSA's key documents to the central DSA Gmail account to ensure that no document or important organization information gets lost. 
  2. Formalized Transition Process with Larger Transition Window: Institutionalize a clear-cut transition process for incoming President and Vice President. Using the transition guide, the outgoing President and Vice president will hold a transition meeting where they run-through the transition guide and touch on key points with the incoming President and Vice President pertaining to the organization. In this meeting, they'll delineate best practices for running the organization and running through the history of the organization. In centering the conversation around the history and the mission, it'll help inspire the future leadership of the organization to continue the rich history of the organization. This is also important given that a common thing that was brought up in the interviews was the loss of institutional memory as a result of COVID-19, which resulted in a lot of traditions within the Latinx and at large within Harvard student organizations to be lost. However, in running through DSA's previous traditions would help combat this.
  3. Keep Alumni Database Updated: Before seniors graduate every year, make sure to send out a Google Form asking community members to provide their contact information and future plans so that members can stay connected even after they leave Harvard. This can help facilitate any alumni speaker events for the future or if students want to connect to someone who is in the same career that they're planning to pursue, they can reach out to them. Consider having at least one alumni-related event over the course of the academic year to keep the organization connected, assess whether or not an alumni board could be useful in helping keeping alumni involved. 
  4. Intro Meetings: Have a formal introduction meeting with the board at the beginning of the semester to discuss the role that every branch will be playing in the organization and what the role of each is in helping the organization. Having a formal meeting could be helpful in terms of ensuring that the organization's core values are maintained alongside the new, innovative ideas that board members could bring to the organization. During this transition period, a retreat could be helpful to ensure that board members are connecting with one another and being able to learn how to best work with each other in helping the organization grow.
  5. Improving Communication: Making sure that there's more clear-cut communication in the platforms used to communicate important things pertaining to the organization and making sure responsibility is being distributed accordingly. This can be facilitated if expectations are set during the transition period.
  6. Continuing the First-Year Representative Program: In continuing this program within DSA, we're able to ensure that the issue that caused the second iteration of the organization to go defunct to not happen again. The second iteration of the organization went defunct because many of them were seniors that had graduated and didn't pass on the torch to other younger members. However, creating a pipeline where there are always new community members coming into the organizations that'll more often than not, choose to continue being student leaders in the organization for years to come.

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