Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Shivani Aggarwal - Blueprint for Action

My Research Question

The Harvard EdPortal Mentoring Program has served the communities of Allston and Brighton for over ten years now; the Emerging Leaders Program is wrapping up its pilot year serving the community of Cambridge with visions for its continuation and expansion. By asking this question, I intended to apply the insights gained to provide concrete recommendations for each program. Examining both programs within the scope of this project then enabled me to think more broadly about concrete recommendations for an 'Engaged University'.  I believe this approach is an important contribution to the existing discourse on 'Engaged Universities' as it synthesizes from the level of individual student experiences in these roles to build up to theoretical principles rather than applying theoretical principles to develop program design. 

My Methodology

Qualitative interviews with students were most appropriate for my given research question as my aim was to focus in on the perceptions and experiences of undergraduates in these two service roles. The student mentors that I interviewed for both programs spanned three class years and reflected the diversity of academic backgrounds present in the larger undergraduate mentor cohorts. Among the EdPortal Mentoring Program mentors, one of the six was a mentor who began working with the program during the AY 2020-21 -- the remaining five had been mentors previously, when operations were in person. For the Emerging Leaders Program, all mentors had the same level of prior experience given that this was the initiative's pilot year. 

My Findings

My findings from interviews directly corresponded to the two parts of my overarching research question - 1) the impact of these roles on mentors 2) the impact that mentors perceive that they have through their roles. These are selected quotations from the interview transcription, grouped by emergent themes. 

The Harvard EdPortal Mentoring Program

On how students described being affected by their service as an EdPortal mentor...

“My favorite thing that I do that's not a class.”

[Civic Mindedness] 

“A big part of it, especially when we were on campus, was the act of getting off campus, to a different neighborhood—essentially a different city—[in this case,] Allston-Brighton in Boston. It really changed the way that I see my role as a Harvard student. It became a lot less inward and started facing a lot more outward.”

"It's a constant reminder of how privileged I am. Looking at those students I'm always reminded of where I come from."

[Skill Development]

"It became just as important to me to do my school work well as to make the work I produced for the EdPortal really good. It even got me more interested in education. You learn how to teach, how to build curriculum, how to work with kids, how to work in a professional working environment, and you're getting paid for it."

"My expectations were definitely exceeded in terms of professional development, like teaching to teach and all that very important pedagogy behind teaching. [The EdPortal] is honestly probably the only place I'm getting it at Harvard, which is kind of sad."

"There have been various times where I've been confused about how to plan a lesson or how to integrate some idea I have, and there are plenty of people I can reach out to."

"I feel like I'm like in another class each semester, where I just get to keep like touching up my teaching skills and learn from other people who are interested in education."

"Our individualized observation and feedback session were really useful to me. Abbey [one of the two HGSE interns] would see things and point them out, but it was always in a very supportive way and, and I think it helped me grow a lot."

[Community and Connection]

"I feel much more attached to Harvard. I feel like I have a role at Harvard besides being a student."

"I know, deep in my heart that if I was ever in a situation that I could rely on [the EdPortal staff], I could ask them for help."

"[My first semester as a mentor] was so enjoyable and I'm definitely gonna have to stay at the EdPortal, for the rest of my career at Harvard."

On how students perceived their impact as EdPortal mentors...

[Serving as a Bridge]

“We are there to recognize that these students come from underprivileged communities and we are there to help them. We’re there to recognize that these students are just like us—there because they want to learn.”

"I would never have a chance to learn about the Allston-Brighton community and to work directly with students and serve the community without mentoring at the EdPortal."

"We are just taking our experiences and our knowledge that Harvard gave us, or that we are able to formulate through being Harvard students and then transfer that to these communities in our work."

[Developing Relationships]

"Harvard was a big adjustment. I came from a low income underprivileged community where something like this mentoring program would have been a huge and an uplifting thing."

"Every [fellow] mentor that I've met has been amazing at the Ed Portal, even if they have different teaching styles are different styles of interacting with their students."

"I know that [in a different service organization on campus] they have a really tough time creating any sort of lasting themes when they don't see the same group of students, every day, every time."

"At the end of the last meeting [with one of my mentees], his parents actually came out and on to the screen and they said thank you to me. Just seeing them smiling like that really warmed my heart."

[Inspiring Engagement and Exploration]

"Last week, for example, there was a student who wanted to stay a couple minutes after class because she couldn't get something working on her website. And she could have just left--there was no one making sure that she completed it or anything--but it was genuine interest."

"This is my second semester having [one of my mentees]...when I first saw him he got so excited to see me as his mentor and he was like 'Oh my God, I can't believe that we got paired up again!'...He was showing me his paintings of climate change and how he wanted to pursue that in the future, and it really just showed that, wow, the work we did [last semester together] encouraged him to do something that he's interested in."

"On the day of the showcase, [my mentee] was really apprehensive about sharing [his work]. But I  kind of pushed him and then he eventually agreed. We set up a little room with a bunch of chairs and he was like, 'Okay I'm just going to read the first page [of my story] and that's it, I'm not going to do anything else." After, he was like, 'Oh, can we do this again in like another half an hour!' We ended up doing three or four readings of his story. I think he just really enjoyed it and I think he started to feel really proud of the story."

The Emerging Leaders Program

On how students described being affected by their service as an Emerging Leaders mentor...

[Civic Mindedness]

"[The program] was infused with social justice topics which I think were important, especially since I had never really had a chance to have conversations around those topics when I was in high school."

"I'm in such a privileged position to be at Harvard and to have all the experiences I've had so I don't see why I shouldn't give that back. [It's been] an incredibly rewarding experience, I feel like I always take something away from it, and it's always kind of an opportunity for me to to grow as much as it is for the mentees."

"It's put a lot in perspective and made me even more grateful for the opportunities that I have. Oftentimes it's easy to be living in this bubble and to not recognize the privilege you have, but I think through doing this I've become more conscious of it."

"We've been working on these projects with our mentees and it has made me reflect a lot on how I have a little more than a year left of college left.  If [my mentees] are able to take on such cool impact projects and social justice projects on top of their busy high school schedule, I was then like, what do I want to accomplish with my remaining time in Cambridge and Boston. I think the Emerging Leaders Program was the driving force behind me wanting to like reflect on what I want my lasting impact in Boston to be."

[Skill Development]

""Even little things like being more confident in terms of speaking up or things like that, it's definitely impacted me in that way."

"It's been super cool to just even learn about redlining and stuff like that, which maybe I learned about in high school, but didn't really remember."

"I've learned so much as well. When we talk about redlining and implicit biases, these are topics that I've never really thought about too much."

[Community and Connection]

"Being a mentor has made me a lot more reflective of power dynamics between mentors and mentees and being really mindful of things like encouragement. It's also been understanding that you're not trying to make a 'mini me' in the mentorship relationship -- you're really trying to help them grow."

"Talking with the other mentors during the trainings and reflections sessions has been so great -- I don't think I would have ever met half these people without this program."

"It's definitely made me more aware of how much their side of the generation is so involved in thinking about like all these political issues and the social implications of things. It's inspiring, low key."

"Being able to connect with the Cambridge community and and to meet students from multiple schools in the area has been awesome and  allowed me to kind of escape the Harvard bubble and feel like I'm part of the broader community. It's been really rewarding to feel like I'm making an impact on the community, and not just on Harvard individually."

On how students perceived their impact as Emerging Leaders mentors...

[Serving as a Bridge]

"I thought was necessary because it's not that often that I encounter programs like this at high schools that are actively teaching about political and civic engagement and trying to lead students into a whole service project with mentorship. I think it is really important and something that I personally think would have benefited from, along with many communities that I've been a part of."

"[It has been] community building between two groups that wouldn't otherwise meet through the Emerging Leaders Program."

[Developing Relationships]

"We really do trust each other and like value each other."

"I just felt very connected to the students and to what they were saying. By reading  this piece of archival material together, I felt really powerful because then I remember how important it is to have these like direct sources. Leading these discussions, [I've seen that] it doesn't always have to be about getting to a space of  agreement, but it can be an emotional, empathetic space of connection."

"I'm watching the mentees become more animated and take on the discursive burden to a greater extent over time. Watching them carry more of conversation and speak more confidently has been really cool to see. I feel like people are much more eager now to speak up."

[Inspiring Engagement and Exploration]

"We kind of got into this longer discussion on what race-based capitalism is and I just loved it. I could tell that [the mentees] really liked it and they really liked seeing this really powerful black woman [Angela Davis] who was doing all these amazing things and writing so powerfully about experiences that all of us have faced in our lives at some point."

"Talking about issues that [my mentee] was passionate about and seeing how we can. make an impact together going forward, I think, was pretty powerful."

"I don't think we've before had to reflect on being a woman and the very influential figures that have shaped like the privileges we have now."

"The most notable part was when I was talking with my two mentees about their projects. I have quite a strong leaning towards like environmental science and related areas and one of my mentees her project is now on something to do with a climate change as well. That really just stemmed from us having a very candid was really like a light-bulb moment, her excitement [increased]."

"My mentees are trying to solve homelessness, and fix so many different issues. We know we can't fully address them within our small projects, but seeing how much difference that we can make within a year or two semesters has been really impactful."

In summary, from this research, the predominate emergent themes related to Part (1) of the guiding research question (impact of these roles on students) were a) civic mindedness, b) skill development, and c) community and connection. The predominate emergent themes related to Part (2) of the guiding research question (students' perceived impact in this role) were a) serving as a bridge b) developing relationships c) inspiring engagement and exploration.

My Recommendations

It was exciting to document the experiences of my fellow students in these roles that currently lie on the periphery of undergraduate extracurricular life at Harvard and to affirm the value-add of these positions for all stakeholders involved. Drawing upon my findings, I have developed recommendations to amplify the experiences of students, which in turn is synergistically related to their impact within these roles.

The Harvard EdPortal Mentoring Program

Takeaway: Student experiences suggest that the Harvard EdPortal Mentoring Program and the EdPortal mentor role enable consistent building of deep relationships with Allston-Brighton students and community members while also empowering Harvard undergraduates with invaluable skills related to education and communication.

The Emerging Leaders Program

Takeaway: Student experiences suggest that in its pilot year, the Emerging Leaders Program successfully adapted to a remote format in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, bringing together Harvard undergraduate mentors and Cambridge high-school mentees around a curriculum that sparked personal growth and motivated social activism.

The 'Engaged University'

Takeaway: The firsthand accounts of both EdPortal mentors and Emerging Leaders mentors confirm the importance of University initiatives that engage the surrounding community through relationship-based interventions and educational enrichment that utilizes students as a unique asset. 

Informed by mentor voices, these proposed recommendations apply to both existing and future initiatives in this space.

First, programs such as the Harvard EdPortal and the Radcliffe Institute lie at the intersection between employment, service, and student leadership. Their mentors are Harvard undergraduates only and they work to foster community. Yet they are not considered student organizations by the Dean of Students Office and are not registered on theHub, therefore lacking access to certain publicity opportunities as well as an informal degree of visibility and recognition in student life. The fact that these programs are connected to Harvard offices, have their own resources, and/or compensate students should not be a barrier -- Harvard Student Agencies, the Crimson, the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), the Cambridge Queen's Head Pub, and the Academic Resource Center are all examples of atypical student organization entities registered on theHub. This recommendation aligns with the theme that community and connection is something that undergraduates seek from these roles. 

Second, when the mentor role is a form of employment, it allows for the programs to implement structured and standardized reflection sessions and trainings. This exists already in the case of the Harvard EdPortal, the Emerging Leaders Program, and to a comparable degree with PBHA’s Priscilla Chan Stride Service Program. For student organizations, filling out a feedback form or completing an end-of-semester reflection does not have the same weight of accountability associated with it. These activities, which go beyond the direct mentoring sessions, are frequently cited as one of the reasons why mentors derive value from their participation, helping them to be more effective bridges that have greater impact on their mentees. This recommendation aligns with the theme that skill development is something that undergraduates seek from these roles and with the theme that inspiring a love of learning is a perceived and desired outcome of mentors' work.

Finally, mentors expressed that they perceived impact most in the form of developing authentic relationships with their mentees. Given this, the creation of more touchpoints at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester (for both existing programs as well as in the design of new programs) would allow for family members and community members to talk with mentors and understand what their children are doing in the program as well as for mentors to put faces to the communities of Allston, Brighton, and Cambridge, thus strengthening the diffusion of impact. This recommendation aligns with the theme that serving as a bridge and developing authentic relationships are desired outcomes of mentors' work.

Looking to the future, as the city of Cambridge continues to recover from the novel coronavirus pandemic and as the new SEAS campus prepares to open in Allston-Brighton, it will be essential that Harvard University continues to support, expand, and innovate means of engagement with its surrounding communities...

...and that the voices of students part of programs such as the Harvard EdPortal Mentoring Program and the Emerging Leaders Program are valued, uplifted, and used to inform this continued engagement. 

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