For many GSAS students experiencing a personal or academic issue, a stumbling block to seeking help is not knowing where to start.
Enter the Office of Student Services (OSS), whose focus is to assist students with concerns of any kind—from financial pressures to problems with time management to mental health—and connect them to community and University resources.
“We’re here as an advocate for students so that they can be the best versions of themselves,” says Danielle Farrell, director of student services. “Students come to Harvard to do incredible research and scholarship, but sometimes they need extra help during that journey to take care of themselves emotionally, physically, financially, and more.”
Students schedule around 500 appointments every year at OSS for a variety of reasons. Some meet with Farrell once for assistance in tackling a single issue. Others check in with her multiple times for help with a larger problem. Most frequently, they are looking for help with personal or health issues, academic issues, and navigating resources.
“I act as a liaison for the student, helping them strategize or problem-solve when they are having a difficult time,” says Farrell. “I’m here to help students find their voice.”
Farrell’s biggest advice to students seeking assistance? Ask for help early.
“You don’t have to be in crisis mode to visit Student Services,” she says. “Maybe you’ve been having writer’s block for a while, or a personal relationship is experiencing some lows. It’s important to build your resilience and web of support and reach out to resources sooner rather than later so a small problem doesn’t become a major one.”
Some of the resources Farrell draws upon regularly include Harvard’s Academic Resource Center, Accessible Education Office, financial aid officers, and Counseling and Mental Health Services, as well as a host of community resources based on what students are experiencing.
Maintaining discretion and privacy is especially important to Farrell and her team. She believes that students deserve to maintain their agency when working through an issue or concern.
One student, whom we’ll call “Lisa,” came to Student Services when her advisor abruptly told her to stop working on her current research and demanded she switch fields—a change that was, for many reasons, very wrong for her.
“This ultimatum came completely out of the blue, and I began to panic because I had just submitted a fellowship application with my advisor’s name as a reference,” Lisa says. “I was dedicated to continuing my research program, so I asked a trusted friend in the department’s administrative staff for advice. She connected me with Danielle.”
Farrell worked with Lisa throughout the process of switching advisors—enabling her to continue her research—and helped Lisa plan ahead for the possibility that her previous advisor would submit a bad reference for the fellowship.
“Just by listening to my concerns and validating them, Danielle helped me immensely,” recalls Lisa. “She also gave me concrete advice on how to communicate the necessary information to various people while avoiding a public rift with my previous advisor.”
Lisa was able to navigate through this complex issue and is now working on her original research with another advisor. In addition, her department’s director of graduate studies also reached out to her in support of her research and gave her valuable advice on how to build a career in that interdisciplinary field.
It’s important to build your resilience and web of support and reach out to resources sooner rather than later so a small problem doesn’t become a major one.
Lastly, Lisa was able to inform the fellowship committee of her advisor switch and request that they send their reference form to her new advisor instead. The committee obliged, her new advisor wrote a reference on her behalf, and Lisa got the fellowship.
“I am deeply grateful for the help Danielle provided me at a time when I desperately needed it,” says Lisa. “She really helped me reach a better place, where I am free to do the research I want to do.”
For Farrell, she is happy that Student Services plays an important role in the Advising Village at GSAS.
“Everyone needs a web of support around them—from your partner to your advisor to personal hobbies like yoga or cooking,” says Farrell. “Student Services is part of that web for many people at GSAS, and I could not be prouder of the help we are able to provide.”