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John Harvard's Journal

The (Other) Yard

9.1.95

When I first came to Harvard, the word "Radcliffe" evoked little more than confusion and ambivalence. When friends and family spotted the name in the barrage of Harvard pamphlets and paraphernalia I received the summer before freshman year and asked its meaning, my muddled explanation—that it used to be a separate women's school, but didn't really exist anymore, at least not as a real college—usually ended with an admission that I really didn't know exactly what Radcliffe was. Compounding my ignorance was a bit of defensiveness: I was attending Harvard and I could do just fine on my own without any special programs, thank you very much. 

Ironically, many Harvard students actually begin their college experience at Radcliffe—with a visit to the admissions office in Byerly Hall. But often they are only vaguely aware that the neighboring brick buildings enclosing peaceful Radcliffe Yard contain anything but historical mementos. The Schlesinger Library, the Murray Research Center, Agassiz House, the Public Policy Institute, and the Bunting Institute a short distance away wait to be discovered by students who often admire the manicured lawns and flowers without ever exploring Radcliffe's less visible resources. 

I discovered Radcliffe quite accidentally at the beginning of my sophomore year, while searching for a job that I hoped would both pay decently and offer some intellectual stimulation. Research for a professor seemed the obvious choice, and I telephoned several faculty members working in my fields of interest. When none responded to my carefully composed answering machine messages, I wrote an application to the Research Partnership program at Radcliffe. Thus began one of my most rewarding experiences at Harvard. 

My initial confusion over Radcliffe's present-day role is shared by many undergraduates, and not without good reason. Part of the problem stems from its status as an institution that defies easy categorization. As President Linda Wilson says, "If you are reasoning by analogy, you're going to get stuck trying to understand Radcliffe. It is not a complicated place, it is not a difficult-to-understand place, but it is different." 

Undergraduates' experiences at Radcliffe today are largely defined by programs that have emerged since the Harvard-Radcliffe agreement almost two decades ago (see "The Harvard-Radcliffe Entente, Continued"). When Philippa Bovet became dean in 1980 with a mandate to re-establish ties to undergraduates that had frayed during the 1970s, she reassessed the role Radcliffe could play in the lives of women at Harvard. "What I began to hear first and foremost from students was that they had a burning desire to talk informally with professional women in various fields... to talk about issues of career and family and private life and so on," Bovet says. In the following decade, Radcliffe established the Mentor Program and the Research Partnership program, and increased the number of externships available to undergraduate women. 

Lisa Chu '97, a biochemistry concentrator, spent spring break in Philadelphia on a Radcliffe externship with a family-practice physician. "I thought it would be mostly learning what it's like to be a doctor," Chu says, "but it was more about learning what it means to be a woman, to be working and having a family that you're responsible for." Like all participants in the program, Chu lived in the home of her sponsor for a week, and accompanied her at work each day and as she drove her two children to various activities. 

The externship exceeded her expectations, Chu says, because "it exposed me to a whole other side of medicine. A lot of the pre-meds I know are very focused on science, on learning all the material perfectly and getting good scores. I have always thought that that wasn't really the point, and it was good to see that caring for people is what is really important." More than anything else, Chu says, her externship prompted her to think about how to incorporate career and family into her future life. "It's a huge balancing act that people have to do," she says. "I learned that to be successful in either sphere, you really have to devote a lot of time and energy to both." 

Beyond bringing undergraduates together with professional women, one of Wilson's primary goals since becoming Radcliffe's president in 1989 has been to integrate undergraduates' experience with the research done at the College. The Research Partnership program, established in 1991, unites undergraduate women with scholars at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute, Public Policy Institute, and Murray Research Center to work together on research projects. The purpose of the program is to provide opportunities for students to engage in meaningful research in a variety of fields as they work one-on-one with a mentor. 

"My research partner has really been more than just a role model," says Ali May '96, who helps Bunting fellow Adrian Nicole LeBlanc research an upcoming book about a Bronx family. "She has been a friend and mentor as well, taking time out of her busy life to talk about mine." May's research has taken her far beyond Harvard's libraries—this summer she traveled to New York to meet the subjects of LeBlanc's book. Apart from helping her explore potential careers, May says the partnership has also taught her unconventional methods of approaching problems. "Sometimes we look at successful women and think that you must follow one straight path in order to achieve, but my partnership has shown me that chaos can be a good thing, that often clutter is what leads to truth." 

At an institution as large and complex as Harvard, Radcliffe is a welcome refuge for many students, providing a smaller, more intimate community. "Radcliffe is much more accessible," says Shar Van Boskirk '97. "I know the dean by her first name...I don't think that would happen at Harvard. The beauty of Radcliffe is that it makes all kinds of unique resources available in such a comfortable atmosphere." Van Boskirk is a coordinator for the Lyman Common Room (LCR), an information center and meeting place in Agassiz House that Wilson established in 1991 because "there was no place for women to gather that looked like women might have ever designed it," nor was there a central location where students could find information of interest to women. Among the resources in the LCR are a dozen bulletin boards with information about community service programs, on-and off-campus events, alumnae contacts, and career services, as well as WISH, the computerized Women's Information Services Hotline. 

Accessibility is not only part of Radcliffe's atmosphere, but an important goal in its interaction with Harvard. Since its inception, one of Radcliffe's primary objectives has been to make Harvard's programs more accessible to women. In earlier years, this meant securing such basic privileges as instruction from Harvard professors and access to Harvard's libraries; today the issues are more subtle, and progress is incremental. 

"The issue of access is a whole lot more than just opening the doors," says Wilson. "It concerns what people expect of women. Part of what Harvard is still doing is learning what its expectations should be for women." She asserts that while Harvard has made tremendous advances toward creating a "level playing field" for women, there is still much room for improvement, particularly in the classroom. She points to the efforts of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning to ameliorate the "chilling classroom environment" that sometimes confronts women students. "It's important to make sure that women are called on equivalently," Wilson says, "and that they are encouraged to explore the hard sciences, or economics or government, as much as they are encouraged to go into the humanities or other social sciences." 

An accessibility issue of immediate concern to many students is the lack of tenured women professors on Harvard's faculty (see below). With barely 10 percent of tenured positions held by women, it is still possible for a student to pass through the College without taking a single course taught by a female full professor. "There is a certain degree of accessibility that I feel when I have a woman professor," says Van Boskirk. "In any academic atmosphere, it's helpful to have diverse opinions—it makes sense that you'd want a woman's perspective as well as a man's perspective in the classroom." Rachel Garlin '96, co-president of the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS), says that Radcliffe can help to ameliorate the dearth of women in prominent positions at Harvard both through its own programs and through its promotion of women scholars. "Radcliffe has helped to balance my own experience in terms of the adults and role models that I've had contact with," Garlin says. "I also think that Radcliffe has an important role to play in helping to promote greater numbers of women faculty." 

Another Radcliffe hallmark is the emphasis of its undergraduate programs on experiential learning, applying knowledge learned in the classroom to real-life situations. Education for Action (E4A), a multicultural community service and social action program that sponsors events and service projects as well as awarding grants to students, stresses the importance of applying knowledge to effect social change. Director Faith Adiele '86, an E4A participant herself as an undergraduate, says one of the program's primary goals is to "allow students to take charge of their learning and take part in the community. We want to make sure that what they do in the classroom has practical application in the world." 

Established as a Peace Corps training project in 1966, E4A is unique in its emphasis on collective leadership and building cross-cultural skills. "There is a lot of talk of leadership at Harvard, but it is a certain kind of leadership that is very different from leadership in a collective," Adiele says. E4A offers symposia on topics such as children at risk and impoverished women, and has awarded grants to student projects ranging from multiracial curriculum development in South Africa, to a summer enrichment program for at-risk children in California, to investigation of environmental hazards in Boston's Asian-American community. 

Despite the wealth of opportunities it offers, students often do not discover Radcliffe until late in their undergraduate careers—and sometimes not at aJi. The task of navigating Harvard's structural and programmatic complexities alone is a significant barrier. And like me, some female undergraduates are initially resistant to programs directed specifically at women. 

Others are wary of what they perceive as a radical element at Radcliffe that leaves little room for their more conservative views. "Radcliffe has a kind of aura about it that is radical, feminist," says Kim Walberg '96, a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Alliance for Life who writes for Harvard's conservative student publication Peninsula. "It shouldn't be the sort of thing where a conservative woman like myself feels uncomfortable." She is particularly concerned about what she perceives as a strong pro-choice bias in RUS. Still, she sees Radcliffe as a potentially valuable resource for Harvard women. "We're really fortunate to have Radcliffe. I just think it could speak for more women here," she says. "It should really start with publicity—do more to get stubborn people like me interested, give us a wake-up call." 

Word-of-mouth is a common mode of communication about Radcliffe programs. "I think publicity is an area where we could do a little more," says Laurie Sheflin '97, an LCR coordinator who learned about Radcliffe from her roommate. Chu heard about the extern-ship program through a friend, and May found her research partner in the New York Times Magazine, where the byline of a cover story identified the author as a fellow at the Bunting Institute. "We're constantly trying to figure out what it is that makes it easiest for very busy students to connect sufficiently with the resources at Radcliffe, to be able to decide whether it is relevant to them or not," says Dean Bovet. "I guess the thing that always frustrates me is when people come to me later and say 'Why didn't you tell me about this?' or sometimes, 'Why didn't I pay attention?'" 

Harvard is famous for its unspoken imperative that students take the initiative to discover the university's vast resources. Despite its separateness, or perhaps because of it, Radcliffe epitomizes this aspect of the Harvard ethos. And as Harvard students, we often are in the enviable position of feeling inundated with more opportunities than we can possibly pursue. Time is a precious commodity here, but exploring what lies behind the brick facades of Radcliffe Yard brings unexpected rewards that more than compensate the effort.  

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