UPDATED: April 28, 2017 at 7:50 a.m.
“Our mission here is not only to support the best artist but to support creative engagement and art making,” says Jack Megan, director for the Office of the Arts at Harvard. The day is Sept. 3, just several hours before the Student Involvement Fair, and Megan is anticipating a large turnout at the OFA’s table. For him, helping freshmen find their artistic niches is part of his job, but his contributions exist within a larger narrative of artistic outreach.
The introduction of freshmen to the on-campus arts scene begins with the First-Year Arts Program, a pre-orientation program offered by the Freshman Dean’s Office that includes five days of workshops and masterclasses with resident artists, culminating in a pageant—all in the hope that the students will receive a holistic experience and forge new connections with fellow creatives. “FAP is all about taking people who really, really care about art… and giving them an opportunity… to get to know their peers,” says Eden H. Girma ’18, a proctor for the music division (referred to in-program as the music thread). What Girma likes most about FAP are its efforts to push students to explore beyond their comfort zones.
“I really liked the program because we got to expose ourselves to many different types of arts,” says Nadine Khoury ’20, who participated in FAP. “I went in really passionate about piano and composition… but while we were there, we all got to dabble with things that we may not have dabbled with before.”
For those unable to attend FAP, and even for those who do, the OFA provides additional support. According to Megan, the OFA staffs booths at various fairs, runs an open house, and offers individual counseling. “We can tell [how many freshmen we’re reaching by] students who come sign up for our newsletter,” he says. “This year, so far, without the activities fair, we have got over 800 students signed up for the arts newsletter, which is called The Beat, so we’ve got about 50% of the class that is linked to that resource.”
In addition to formal outreach efforts by the school administration, student organizations launch campaigns to introduce freshmen to artistic opportunities through fliers and showcases such as LMAO (a performance for the comedy groups) and the Freshman A Cappella Jam. “We’re always trying to find new ways to reach out to freshmen,” says Sarah K. Murphy ’17, president of the Radcliffe Pitches. “We’re trying to build more of a social media presence… to help project more of the personal side to the group.”
Karen L. Chee ’17, the Czar (or president) of the improv troupe Immediate Gratification Players, shares Murphy’s sentiment. “This year, we’ve been making a larger social media push than we have in prior years,” she says.
The Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club introduced more significant changes. According to president Aislinn E. Brophy ’17, the HRDC moved the Common Casting process from its traditional Monday-to-Friday schedule to a Tuesday-to-Saturday system in order to give freshmen time to prepare even if they learn about auditions at the Student Involvement Fair. Furthermore, the organization implemented a mentorship program this year in an attempt to provide support to freshmen. “As a freshman, I had a different experience going to my first round of auditions, where I showed up and everyone already knew each other for some reason,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that [this would not be] an experience that was so common.”
Brophy’s comment highlights an attentiveness to diversity and inclusion that echoes throughout the conversation surrounding freshman outreach. The Harvard Art Museums, for instance, regularly partner with the FDO to organize workshops and private gallery tours for students, also planning events such “Late Night at the Harvard Art Museums” on Thursday, Sept. 8. Through such programming, the museums hope to attract students of all disciplines. “In general, we really want students, in particular first-year students, to know that the museum is a place for them,” Erin Northington, manager of student engagement programs, says. “We want students to know that no matter what you study, no matter what your background is, you don’t need prior experience to be [at the Museums].”
“There’s been a real push towards trying to make the opportunity to do art as accessible as possible to anyone,” Megan says. “How do we break down walls that would suggest a sense of exclusion?”
Responses to general outreach efforts have been mixed, however. “I would say that the majority of Opening Days, we didn’t hear about anything related to the arts,” Allison Kao ’20 says. Kao, who participated in FAP, adds that the program helped smooth her transition into the arts scene.
Singer-songwriter Avanti S. Nagral ’20 expresses similar concerns. While she is very impressed by the artistic resources and level of creative support at Harvard, she points out that she would have liked more active outreach, suggesting targeted introductory events beyond the generality of an open house, or even a survey that would inform the school how to more specifically advise freshmen on their interests. “I’m sure [such events] will happen later in the year, but perhaps if they could happen earlier in the year, people could wrap their minds around [the opportunities in the arts],” she says.
Megan, in an emailed response, expressed his concerns that some freshmen didn’t hear much about the arts, though he reemphasized that the showing at the OFA tables during orientation fairs were quite strong.
Despite the criticisms, other students have had more positive experiences. While Khoury says that FAP gave her a more comprehensive understanding of the arts scene on campus, she adds that she likely would have been able to find her place even without formal outreach efforts like the program.
And Nagral views the opportunities for the arts on campus—both academically and extracurricularly—with excitement. “I think it’s beautiful that at Harvard, you have the opportunity to… explore a different side [of campus life],” she says. “Many people [here] could have easily come to Julliard… and it’s beautiful that Harvard supports people who are so passionate about the arts… and allows them the freedom to explore their academics and interests.”