Embodying Access

An alumni leader’s long-term engagement to Harvard

Cynthia A. Torres

After spending more than two decades in the financial-services industry, Cynthia A. Torres ’80, M.B.A. ’84, founded College Decisions, LLC. The Santa Monica-based company emphasizes improving access to college through educating a clientele of mostly middle-class families about admissions and financial aid. Torres saw a need for these services six years ago, partly because California’s education-budget crisis had led to cutbacks in public-school guidance counselors. But her mission is also personal. “I came from a lower-class background and grew up in urban Los Angeles,” says the new president of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA). “My Harvard experience was very exciting and stimulating. It made me much more aspirational than I might have been, and set me on a life course trajectory I could not have imagined. So I feel very strongly about access.”

Torres, who takes office during the University’s $6.5-billion capital campaign, is a longtime alumni leader. An admissions interviewer for more than 30 years, she has also led numerous HAA committees and task forces and is a past president of the Harvard Club of Southern California and a former secretary of the Harvard Club of Hong Kong. Most recently, she led the HAA’s review of Shared Interest Groups (SIGs), and also established ways for alumni to teach and mentor students during Harvard’s Wintersession. 

In May, during the traditional HAA presidential Class Day speech to graduating seniors—a group including her older son, Spencer Gisser ’14 (see Commencement Confetti, July-August, page 17)—Torres noted that she has “volunteered for Harvard every year in every city I have lived in—and I have moved a lot. Whenever I moved someplace new, I would contact the local Harvard club and ask how I could help.” (A global couple, Torres and her husband, Michael V. Gisser ’77, a senior mergers and acquisitions partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, now split their time among Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and New York City.) As a freshman, however, Torres was much less sure she’d find any niche at Harvard, and not only because she had never lived with snow. “My father grew up in poverty as a Mexican-American migrant farm worker, and my mother was a homemaker raising four children on a tight budget,” Torres told the crowd gathered in Tercentenary Theatre. Her years at Harvard were “transformational,” the government concentrator added, and her continuing involvement with the University has continued to teach her about the world.

As first vice president of the HAA last year, Torres traveled to Bulgaria, Chile, and Australia to meet with alumni; she expects to spread the word about Harvard as “an open and welcoming place” this year across the country and abroad. “I’ve been able to see the power of the Harvard network,” she said during a recent interview, “and it’s truly extraordinary to see people turn out because the University means so much to them.” As president this year, she plans to sustain the HAA’s mission to help alumni “engage and connect” with the University, and is working with the HAA to develop alumni leaders among Harvard clubs, SIGs, reunion classes, and younger graduates, especially those using social media. Her years in finance, including investment banking at Goldman, Sachs & Co., institutional business development at Fidelity Investments, and marketing and client services at Diamond Portfolio Advisors, provide valuable skills toward these ends.

And she has never lost sight of a larger goal in her work: to make “the American way of life truly open to our students.” In addition to her counseling business, Torres and the HAA have collaborated with the University’s Office of Career Services, the Office for the Arts, and the dean of public service to better connect alumni with students for career guidance. Torres also organized alumni participation in the Wintersession, which offers elective programs on a range of topics, including the arts, politics, and entrepreneurship, and now routinely draws about 250 alumni to campus each January to connect with about 750 students. One highlight is the annual public-interest careers conference; other events spotlight postgraduate life in the arts. “This is an opportunity for alumni to come back and share their wisdom, careers, and experience,” says Torres. “It turns out that this is an area a lot of alumni care a lot about—and they have really stepped forward to help.”

Read more articles by Nell Porter-Brown

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