The Center of Student Life
Student Center staff create space for joy and connection at GSAS
In the five years that Jackie Yun was director of Student Services at GSAS, she spent a lot of time working with students, listening to their stories, and helping them make it across the academic finish line. She says she learned a lot about how isolated and lonely they can feel after days immersed in the lab, classroom, or library.
“In those narratives and in that listening, I got a deep understanding of how challenging graduate school is at Harvard,” she says. “That laid the foundation for working with others to develop the vision and mission for the GSAS Student Center.”
Today, as executive director of the GSAS Student Center in Lehman Hall, Yun leads a sprightly team known as the Center Squad (or, simply the Squad) on a mission to fight student loneliness and isolation and foster community. Together, the team of four works to bring social and learning opportunities—and maybe even a little fun—into the lives of the School’s nearly 5,000 degree candidates.
Joy and Creativity
The GSAS Student Center is a social and recreational space where those in the GSAS community can make connections and explore interests outside of their academic programs. Day or night, there is always something happening there, from tango classes to a party with decorations and costumes, a piano jam session, or a serious—but collegial—conversation about race. Yun calls the space a “lynchpin” of student life at GSAS.
“Our students contribute to the mission of the University in such substantial ways,” she says. “They study and work across its campuses. As the largest graduate school at Harvard, it’s not only necessary to have a Center for them; it’s also what’s right.”
The Squad—Yun, Jeff Shenette, Janet Daniels, and Savannah Clinton—work to make the Center a place where students can relax, grow, and engage with one another. Senior Program Coordinator Shenette was reminded of the importance of the space when he saw how excited students were to return to it after nearly two years of pandemic-related remote living and learning. “I’ve been here for a very long time, like over a decade, and I can’t remember more students packed into our dance hall. I heard everybody singing [Earth, Wind & Fire’s] ‘September’ down there, and it was just like wow, students are happy to be back,” he says.
[The GSAS Student Center] goes beyond Lehman Hall. Student leaders and staff offer programming in all Harvard campuses as well as the Boston and New England areas.
Assistant Director Daniels oversees the Center’s online presence including its social media accounts and the Engage website. One of the advisors for the GSAS Student Council (GSC), Daniels also supports over 50 student groups and says that she takes great satisfaction from working with their leaders every day. “I care about making the world better through higher education,” she says. “And I think I can make a concrete, small difference by supporting student leaders. I also fundamentally believe in fun as a healthy, happy thing to contribute to people’s lives. And I can do both, help with advocacy and improving this place as well as bringing a little bit of joy and creativity in folks’ lives as they make their way [through graduate school].”
Daniels tells the story of one student who recently told her that they would graduate in May after five years at GSAS—generally the minimum for a PhD. The student said that partnering with Daniels and Yun gave him the administrative skills he needed to get through his program quickly. “I was so not ready for that!” Daniels says. “Seeing how our work can help students on their academic or career journey is why we do what we do.”
As staff assistant, Squad member Savannah Clinton is the first face students see when they walk into Lehman Hall. Recently, one from the Longwood campus came to the Center and told Clinton they’d never been there before. So, she took them on a tour. They loved it and Clinton guided them to Engage so they could find a reason to come back. “I feel like every single day is a successful day, regardless of what happens in the building,” she says. “In my eyes, as long as we helped students and we helped staff here at GSAS, or anyone that’s affiliated within Harvard, then we’ve done exactly what we were supposed to do.”
Finding Their Center
While having a physical space that GSAS students can call their own is critical, Yun says that the Center is more a concept than a building. “It goes beyond Lehman Hall,” she says. “Student leaders and staff offer programming in all Harvard campuses as well as the Boston and New England area.”
It’s always wonderful to see something that originates from our students, that our [Student Center] fellows help bring to life.
The members of the Squad want students to feel ownership of the Center—both physical and conceptual—and see it as a place where they can create programming that matters to them. After the Russian invasion of her country in the spring of 2022, for instance, a Ukrainian student wanted to raise awareness of her culture among peers by hosting a documentary screening. “I put her in touch with our intellectual and cultural fellows,” says Shenette, who manages the Student Center fellows that develop programs for their peers in a wide range of areas. “We see them as our trained student leaders who know how to put on events. So, whenever students come to us with ideas, we put them together and watch the magic happen. It’s always wonderful to see something that originates from our students, that our fellows help bring to life.”
In 2020, students expressed a desire to do more for Pride Month than they had before. They collaborated with the Squad on ways to navigate COVID-19 restrictions and ultimately decided to light Lehman Hall in rainbow colors. The display was featured on the University’s social media accounts, becoming an iconic public statement of support for the LGBTQ+ community at Harvard. “It was one of my proudest accomplishments to be a part of the team that made that happen,” Daniels says.
Later that same year, the student LGBTQ@GSAS group approached GSAS staff with Pride Progress Flags and a request to hang them in the Center’s windows. The flags have been there ever since. Then, starting in 2021, students and Center staff chalked the front steps of Lehman Hall with the rainbow colors of the Pride Flag. A time-lapse video of the event became one of the most popular social media posts in GSAS history.
Ownership means access as well. That’s why the Committee for Diversity, Inclusion, Accessibility, and Belonging was formed in 2021. Co-chaired by Yun and then-Dean for Academic Programs and Diversity Sheila Thomas, the committee’s charge was to evaluate the Center—including its Lehman Hall space, practices, and programming—and make it more inclusive and accessible to GSAS’s diverse student population. Building on previous work by student leaders and the GSAS Office of Diversity and Minority Affairs (now the Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging), the group spent months discussing how to make Lehman Hall’s art and furnishings reflect the diversity of the GSAS student and alumni community, creating directories and signage that made the building easier to navigate, and making sure the Student Center’s fellows would be trained on racial, social, and cultural issues. More recently, the building was chosen as one of three priority spaces by the FAS Visual Culture and Signage Task Force.
“We’re just trying to make sure that all students feel like they belong here,’” says Yun. “This is their Center, and we want them to enjoy and engage.”
For the Center Squad, signs of a job well done are students who have fun while at GSAS—and reflect fondly on their time here once they leave. Daniels says that the greatest source of satisfaction for her and her colleagues is being part of the growth and flourishing of the amazing scholars who spend their formative years at Harvard. “When I see a student at the beginning of the year who’s a little unsure and then see them do a presentation or run a really organized meeting or do some really solid advocacy, to me that’s success.”
Photos by Martha Stewart and Muqing Xu
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