Community with Purpose

New Harvard Alumni Association president Allyson Mendenhall

Photo of Allyson Mendenhall outside
Allyson MendenhallPhotograph by Jim Harrison

After graduating with an English literature degree, Allyson Mendenhall ’90, M.L.A. ’99, moved to Manhattan and joined Random House. Analytical and articulate, she enjoyed working with writers and promoting books. But it was the urban world outside the office—the pocket parks and plazas where she spent her lunch hours—that began to capture her imagination. “I took notice of which were vibrant and thronging with people and activity, and which were uncomfortable and uninviting,” she says. “I wondered, ‘Who designs these places? What are the ingredients for successful environments where people can gather?’”

To explore these questions, she took art classes at night and joined a landscape architecture firm where, at age 25, she was quickly promoted to office manager. She learned the back-end operations of running the business as an entrée into the “three-year adrenalin rush” of returning to student life at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “The approach to design education was completely foreign,” says Mendenhall. “I was used to solitary endeavors as an English major, writing a paper on my own, after a ‘one-draft wonder,’ and sprinting across campus to deliver it in time, receiving a grade and sparse comments. At the GSD, the learning and making and iterating was much more exposed, with the work pinned up on the wall and discussed by peers and design critics in real time.”

As the new president of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA), Mendenhall plans to amplify those “collaborative and iterative” processes to help “tackle the pressing social and environmental issues of our time and to bring about positive change” vis-à-vis the HAA’s continuing goals of strengthening the University’s alumni community. Thus, the theme of her year-long tenure is “Community by Design.” “We bring together a diverse mix of volunteer leaders so that they can share alumni engagement ideas and boost their leadership skills,” she explains. “Their charge is to serve as ambassadors of Harvard beyond Cambridge, channeling the DNA and vitality of the University to the global community, and also conveying the voices of perspectives of alumni back to Harvard.” She plans to further the HAA’s “allyship” work by supporting faculty and students’ “incredible scholarship and action related to climate change,” while also working on the HAA Executive Committee’s other priorities, such as inclusiveness, leadership pipelines, data metrics for effectiveness, and planning for the 2023 Alumni Day. Mendenhall has followed those practices during a 19-year career at Design Workshop in Denver, Colorado (where she lives with her husband Eliot Hoyt ’90, managing principal at BrightView Design Group).

In July, she took a new job at Sasaki as the director of strategic initiatives in the landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology practice. In her College Class Day speech to 2022 graduating seniors, Mendenhall emphasized that “the ground you are sitting on, crisscrossed by paths, connects the buildings around the frame.” What if Tercentenary Theatre lacked trees? she asked, “their green canopies filtering the sunlight and towering above…In winter, their gray-brown branches form a tangled layer of texture that is equally beautiful. This landscape,” she added, “isn’t just the leftover space in between the more important buildings. The landscape is the connective tissue holding everything together, adding nuance and enhancing our memories of Harvard.”

As graduates move to new places, the recollections of spaces inhabited at Harvard will endure, and serve as foundational experiences for a new landscape of engagement: “the network of Harvard alumni around the world,” she says. “Like a well-designed space, we are building community with purpose.”  

Read more articles by Nell Porter-Brown

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