As a PhD student in anthropology and the study of religion in the early 2000s, Melanie Adrian was enamored with Harvard’s libraries, but she grew frustrated that graduate students could only take out books for a semester at a time and had to renew them every three weeks. She decided to do something about it.

Melanie Adrian holding her medal from the Canadian Senate, with Speaker of the Senate George Furey to her left and Senator Vernon White to her right.

Melanie Adrian, PhD '07, poses with Speaker of the Canadian Senate, George Furey (left) and Senator Vernon White (right)

“I had myself elected to the library committee, and I advocated for longer borrowing periods,” recalls Adrian. “We were able to get that change through, and it changed the lives of graduate students.”

Bolstered by this success, Adrian became active in graduate student politics and served as president of the Graduate Student Council.

Adrian graduated from Harvard in 2007, became an instructor in Social Studies, and joined the faculty at Carleton University in Canada in 2010. Her desire to contribute to the community above and beyond her academic research motivated her to mentor students, run departmental exchanges, and chair the university’s Scholars at Risk program. She also sits on the national steering committee for the Scholars at Risk Network, which promotes academic freedom globally.

When Adrian was diagnosed with breast cancer, she struggled to obtain clear information about her treatment options from doctors. Frustrated, she quickly realized that she was again going to have to advocate for herself. Fortunately, she was accustomed to speaking up.

“Too many people in the doctor’s waiting area felt low: physically, emotionally, spiritually,” recalls Adrian. “I did, too. But I had the skill set to help myself; I had literacy.”

She founded a nonprofit, Be the Choice, which connects breast cancer patients with information designed to help them make decisions about their own treatment and care. She believes that her Harvard education gave her tremendous skill in communicating with others, and that it’s important to pass on those skills.

“At the end of the day, Harvard students and alumni are the most literate, well-read people, and we have access to all the knowledge in the world,” she says. “We have a responsibility to do good with that knowledge.”

Adrian’s dedication to helping others was recognized in November 2017 by the Canadian Senate. Adrian, along with other “unsung heroes” of Canada, received the Senate 150 Medal, which celebrates Canadians who “through generosity, dedication, volunteerism and hard work, make their hometowns, communities, regions, provinces or territories a better place to live.”

Hard work defines Melanie Adrian’s life, whether she’s running her nonprofit, or finishing up a new book about religious freedom.

“My life is wonderful and hectic,” says Adrian. “When I become involved in an activity, I think about the two things that I want to contribute to that organization, and see if I can accomplish them in two years. There’s a level of reflection and thoughtfulness that should go into any kind of activity.”

Building a Wonderful (And Hectic!) Career