“Service Starts with Summer”

Harvard College’s down payment on universal student public service

Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana
Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

During his inaugural address last October, President Lawrence S. Bacow advanced one specific, programmatic initiative. Invoking history, he said, “Since Harvard’s founding in 1636, the people educated here have responded patriotically to the call to service.” In light of current, challenging circumstances—for society, and for the perception of universities’ role within it—he continued:

We need to ensure that future generations continue to serve the greater good in a variety of ways. It is my hope that every Harvard graduate, in every profession, should be an active, enlightened, and engaged citizen. So I am pleased to announce today we will work toward raising the resources so we can guarantee every undergraduate who wants one a public-service internship of some kind—an opportunity to see the world more expansively, and to discover their own powers to repair that world. 

That proposal was met with robust applause.

This morning, during a Science Center panel presentation as part of the April 27-29 Visitas recruiting weekend that welcomes applicants admitted to the class of 2023, Harvard College unveiled a down payment on such support: a pilot called the “Service Starts with Summer Program” (3SP)—complete with its own #HarvardServes hashtag.

Perhaps on the theory of getting them while they are young, the soon-to-be-undergraduates were introduced to the College’s broad array of public-service programs (or a possible service-oriented gap year before matriculating), plus the new 3SP menu of options that include:

  • encouraging all students to perform public service in their home towns this summer, with up to 100 applicants eligible for a $1,500 stipend for 100 hours of service (depending on the potential impact of the projects they propose and the mix of projects submitted from across the communities represented in the entering class);
  • having contact with and support from faculty and public-service staff members during summer webinars;
  • connecting online with peers doing similar work and student public-service fellows, to put service experiences in context and resolve any logistical challenges;
  • getting briefed on public-service resources available during their Harvard years (including possible participation in the pre-orientation First-Year Urban Program);
  • participating in a class-wide, pre-orientation day of service in Cambridge, Somerville, or Boston on August 29; and
  • celebrating student service projects during a fall-term dinner.

Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana, under whose auspices the program operates, led the panel that introduced it this morning. In an earlier conversation, he said, “We were inspired by President Bacow’s call for a public-service role for the University,” and sought ways to “infuse our mission” of educating students through transformative experiences “that will prepare them for a life of service and leadership”—in this case, “right from the start” of their undergraduate years. He credited College dean for administration and finance Sheila C. Thimba, who is also interim dean of public service, for the insight that engaging students before they matriculate increases by one-third the number of summers available to build such experiences. That made it possible to pilot a program quickly. (It also creates space in a calendar of subsequent summers which for many students may encompass choices among job internships, research fellowships, study abroad, or summer school.)

In an interview, Thimba said, “Beginnings matter. When you imprint early, you don’t have to do so much later” to persuade students to consider public service—as an opportunity today and as a component of whatever lives they make for themselves after graduating. “Service Starts with Summer,” she said, opens that avenue “with our guidance, with our support, with our permission, and under our banner.”

Public Service in Context

By their own account, not many College graduates begin their careers in public service. The Harvard Crimson’s 2018 senior survey reported that 3.5 percent of respondents planned to pursue nonprofit or public-service positions (plus 4 percent heading for government or politics, and 5.8 percent working in education). As in prior years, half the class had consulting, finance, or technology commitments (respectively, 18 percent, 18 percent, and 14 percent). Presumably students on the latter initial career paths are those about whom the Crimson reported, “Fifty-three percent of working respondents say they will earn salaries of $70,000 or more in their first year, including 11 percent of respondents who will take home more than $110,000 per year.” The financial gap separating them from service-oriented jobs has become a chasm. Even as Harvard has been favored by the philanthropy from alumni who have earned fortunes in finance and technology, University presidents have for years been counseling undergraduates to consider matters other than immediate (or prospective) compensation in determining their career trajectories, and investing in ways to broaden their access to public-service alternatives.

But huge financial rewards are not the only factor weighing on undergraduates’ choices. Finance and consulting offer well-established recruiting processes, fund generous summer placements, and, increasingly, dangle early job offers: a clear, dependable path versus less generous or nonexistent competing offerings from the nonprofit and service sectors.

More broadly, survey research indicates declining confidence in institutions—particularly those in the public sector. Traditionally, respondents who have attained a higher level of education have had more confidence in such institutions than those with less education, but that gap has narrowed and may even have been eliminated, making the pursuit of public service unattractive.

Some Harvard administrators have even speculated that at a point when almost no one outside the academy knows what a “liberal-arts” education is (or why it is valuable), contemporary students may also have a diminished sense of what the public interest, shared norms, and common purpose mean, much less how to pursue them. Thus, they may effectively lack a vocabulary for public service—even as they say they want to be “citizen leaders.” (It would not be surprising to learn that the highly individualistic, competitive preparation to gain admission to the most selective institutions, like Harvard and its peers, can discourage developing a culture of community among successful applicants; see the work on admissions of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s [HGSE] Making Caring Common Project.)

Beginning with the Class of 2023

In many respects, “Service Starts with Summer” attempts to address these larger concerns.

  • It highlights service before students matriculate (or in some cases, even before they accept offers of admission)—an on-ramp, or, as Khurana put it, “pathways to service.”
  • To the extent that students highlighted public-service experiences or interests as part of their applications (Thimba said as many as 80 percent do: they are a “public-spirited” cohort), the College is, in effect, taking them at their word. Talking about service during Visitas and rolling out 3SP introduces students earlier to resources such as the Phillips Brooks House Association and the Mindich fellowships (see below), and the Office of Career Services—all of which, in turn, lead to further opportunities, many supported by stipends. As a result, the summer-service menu has the practical effect of acquainting students with Harvard’s public-service personnel and programs before they encounter the ever-earlier private-sector recruiting on campus.
  • It also expresses clearly the institution’s interest in public service and civic leadership, consistent with the College mission. (Khurana, like Bacow, spoke about the context for public-service programs and education at the University’s early-April summit on excellence in higher education, focused this year on “exploring our contributions to the public good.”)

The University’s Way Forward

The initiative unveiled today comes at an interesting time: the formal search for a College “assistant dean for civic engagement and service” began earlier this month. That position will assume some responsibilities formerly overseen by an assistant dean for public service (a position vacated last year by Gene A. Corbin, who is pursuing a higher degree elsewhere). Public-service programs and roles are also being redefined in the wake of that vacancy.

The terms of the search, and the definition of the position, emerged from a review of public service at Harvard undertaken when the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative began in early 2018. Thimba said that review revealed the real breadth and diversity of options, extending far beyond the student-led Phillips Brooks House Association’s long-established network of undergraduate volunteer programs conducted in partnership with community nonprofits. In fact, it showed that there are so many programs, students have difficulty navigating them. Nor were they necessarily well coordinated with other recent initiatives, such as the Mindich Program in Engaged Scholarship, the result of a 2015 gift. The latter supports curricular innovation through experiential, community-based courses (now ranging from several Expos sections to various social-sciences and even music classes), and undergraduate summer public-service fellowships.

The emerging links between extracurricular activities and curricular ones; faculty members’ interest in engaging students in their service-oriented research (last summer including work in the Mississippi Delta and in Oakland, California, where a professor was studying mass incarceration, Thimba said); and the potential to further develop and elevate such opportunities have all contributed to a rethinking of what the College does.

Accordingly, searches are under way for a faculty leader for a new Center for Public Service and Engaged Scholarship (academic centers being the coin of the realm for Harvard), and the new assistant dean. The faculty director will drive strategy and the resulting effort to secure resources; the assistant dean, reporting to the faculty director, will administer programs and operations, exploring underdeveloped links to service that fit with students’ burgeoning interest in engineering and social entrepreneurship, and that may complement their other interests (say, in athletics or faith-based or cultural groups and activities).

Finally, the emphasis on working in one’s own community merits comment. President Bacow made a point of visiting his home town, Pontiac, Michigan, and Detroit, last September, and forging academic partnerships with the University of Michigan focused on opioids and on inequality: a very high-profile way of symbolizing interest throughout Harvard in serving America writ large. Of the summer initiative, he said in a statement, “I am delighted that members of the class of 2023 will have the opportunity to serve their home communities before starting their Harvard education. We hope they will discover their own potential to work with others to strengthen their communities and make a difference in the world—powerful lessons that will shape their perspectives as well as their aspirations.”  

In his latest annual “priorities” message, Business School dean Nitin Nohria echoed similar interests:

We simultaneously will look for ways to better understand and respond to the issues and concerns of those who feel left behind by globalization, including those in what we call the American heartland (which has its parallel in many other countries). One idea we’re exploring is whether we focus some of our Immersive Field Courses on heartland cities like Detroit or Kansas City—places that may feel just as foreign to our M.B.A. students as Helsinki or Bangkok. We have begun discussing, as well, whether opening a research office in a heartland city might spur, as it has internationally, more case writing on companies in this region. 

And HGSE’s recently announced network focused on education in rural New York and Ohio also suggests an interest in research and improved practice beyond the challenges and opportunities in urban and coastal America.

A message to prospective College students that Harvard values their ties to their home communities seems consistent with those other efforts to point out to members of this community the many places where opportunities for fulfilling leadership and service can be found. The current default, according to that same Crimson survey, is highly skewed: nearly two-thirds of responding graduates reported that they were bound for New York, Massachusetts, California, or Washington, D.C. (respectively, 22 percent, 20 percent, 15 percent, and 5 percent), with another 9 percent headed abroad. Twenty states had no graduates reporting plans to settle there. 


It is a long way from the pilot initiative announced today to fully funded summer public-service internships for all undergraduates who want them. At present, Thimba said, about 500 summer internships are being funded, to varying degrees. Student demand for such opportunities vastly outstrips the College’s current resources, she said—and the stipends offered even for those that are awarded in many cases do not suffice to cover housing costs or summer-earnings expectations in students’ financial-aid packages. Elevating service to the status of an academic center, engaging professors, and appointing a faculty director may well help to secure resources to fill those gaps.

As Khurana noted, “We are fortunate to have both a president, in Larry Bacow, and a Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean, in Claudine Gay, who not only supported the program but were enthusiastic in providing inspiration to our community,” making for a fast start.

Both Bacow and Gay (who has a strong interest in inequality in America) are in their first year in their current offices, so the swift construction of this pilot program can be seen as a revealing first step. However the program evolves, Khurana said, “We want exposure [to public service], we want engagement, and then we want to energize students to build this into their own lives in whatever they want to do past Harvard.”

Further details on the summer-service program are available at its website, here. 


Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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