GSAS students study and work in nearly every corner of Harvard’s far-flung campus. The GSAS Student Center strives to be a space where they can all come together to meet, learn, and relax with one another. To make that aspiration a reality, the staff have rededicated themselves to making Lehman Hall, the Center’s home, more welcoming and easier to use.

“As a historic building, Lehman Hall requires improvements to be more accessible to all,” says Jackie Yun, the Center’s executive director. “We are trying to make some of those changes now even as we develop a long-term plan for larger improvements to the building.”

Yun says that she and her team—in consultation with Harvard University Disability Resources (HUDR), student fellows, and the new Diversity Inclusion, Accessibility, and Belonging Committee (DIABC)—spent a good deal of the pandemic year improving access to the Center’s physical and digital spaces.

“The past year presented challenges for students to find ways to engage socially, which is so important to personal well-being,” she says. “The fact that so many were separated from campus made us see how important this place is to students. As a result, we took this opportunity to really rethink every aspect of the Center and how it operates.”

Access begins with wayfinding. Accordingly, the Center team added and updated signage throughout Lehman Hall to help guests get where they’re going and find what they’re looking for.

“We want to make it easier to navigate the building,” says Senior Program Coordinator Janet Daniels. “There’s new signage on the ramp outside Lehman. We added iPads outside reservable rooms and linked them with our online reservation system so students can see what’s going on there in real-time. The restroom signage has also undergone a revamp. Now the Center has a bathroom designated ‘gender inclusive’ on the lower level.”

Returning students will also find new places to get information about all that’s going on at the Center and GSAS.

“There’s now a digital screen in the lobby where students can learn about events,” Daniels says. “And by redesigning the building’s bulletin boards, we’ve maximized space for student groups sharing news about programs throughout the year.”  

When students do get to their Lehman Hall destination, chances are they will find it configured in a way that is more flexible and accessible than it was at their last visit.

“Our revamp effort actually started with furniture in Lehman Hall,” says Senior Program Coordinator Jeff Shenette. “We did a walk-through with [former Director of Disability Resources] Michelle Clopper. She identified areas where we needed to adjust the physical layout. For instance, there were places where the furniture was configured in a way that made it more of an obstacle for students who are visually impaired. We reorganized and also replaced much of our existing stock with furnishings that are light and mobile.”

The new academic year will also bring a big change for the Center’s most beloved space. Café Gato Rojo will now be managed by Harvard University Dining Services, providing new conveniences for patrons.

“Students will now be able not only to use their credit cards but also their meal pool balance to purchase drinks and snacks at the Gato,” says Shenette. “We’ll announce the café’s reopening dates soon on the Center’s social media accounts, so students should make sure they’re following us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.”

Virtual programming and operations during the pandemic year also demonstrated the importance of the Center’s online spaces. To comply with Harvard policy and ensure student access, the members of the Center team dedicated themselves to improving the accessibility and curation of digital content.

“Both the Engage website and the Center's social media platforms now will add alternative (or “Alt” text) captions to all images shared,” says Daniels. “We’ve also created a guide for students that streamlines the posting of digital content.”

Yun says that even the Center’s branding has been refreshed with an all-new logo that foregrounds its commitment to inclusion. “The circles in the new logo (see sidebar) represent the synergy between the GSAS Student Center fellows, the GSAS Student Council (GSC), GSAS student groups, and Lehman Hall as a space for graduate student life,” she says. 

As much as the Center team has done, they’re not finished yet. The Engage platform will soon roll out two new financial tools—one to help students and student leaders apply for funding from the GSC and another to help student groups manage their budgets. The School’s online room reservation system will also be integrated into the site.

Yun encourages students to look for announcements of these and other upgrades in the student council and student group newsletters. She also invites students to visit the Center’s Engage organization to learn about programming, office locations, and rooms available for booking starting in October—and, of course, to stop by Lehman Hall in person beginning September 1.

“We loved spending time with students virtually,” Yun says, “but we are so excited to see folks at the Center come September. We’re especially looking forward to the kickoff of in-person events with the GSAS Lunch on the Lawn in front of the Harvard Museum of Natural History on Saturday, October 2. It’s for GSAS students only and we’ll have individual lunchboxes and plenty of sanitizing stations. Come join us!”

The Student Center team wants to hear GSAS students’ ideas for events, programming, and spaces—both physical and virtual.  If you have thoughts or questions, please fill out this  suggestion form (you can submit is anonymously if you prefer), visit the Center team on the third floor of Lehman Hall this September, or email stucenter@fas.harvard.edu.

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Photo by Tony Rinaldo