Beyond Grants: Undergraduate Council Partnerships That Serve Students

When established multi-million and multi-billion dollar companies already have solutions to student life challenges, the UC partners with them at no cost to bring these technologies to campus without needing to further subsidize student projects.
By Kevin R. Chen and Laura C. Espinoza

The Undergraduate Council, shown here at their first meeting of the academic year, has formed partnerships with a host of other businesses.
The Undergraduate Council, shown here at their first meeting of the academic year, has formed partnerships with a host of other businesses. By Caleb D. Schwartz

The Undergraduate Council boasts an annual operating budget of $650,000 that is distributed each year across several categories: administering student services, putting on campus-wide events, and funding student-run clubs.

That budget, derived from the recently increased Student Activities Fee and funding from the Office of Student Life, is sufficient to finance many of the UC’s projects. Despite this significant budget, however, it cannot afford to fully fund the many initiatives students propose every semester. From providing convenient transportation to purchasing textbooks and dorm supplies, addressing needs across the College is an expensive endeavor.

When established multi-million and multi-billion dollar companies already have solutions to student life challenges, the UC partners with them at no cost to bring these technologies to campus without needing to further subsidize student projects.

Through many of these partnerships, the UC is able to exchange on-campus publicity for companies for discounted services available to the entire student body. The benefits derived from some marketing campaigns directly support internal UC programming for its representatives.

Partnering for Students

After losing his UC presidential bid in fall 2018, Daniel K. Ragheb ’20 approached UC President Sruthi Palaniappan ’20 and Vice President Julia M. Huesa ’20 about ways he could continue to support the council’s work. They invited him to begin surveying students who live in the Quad about their transportations needs and concerns.

After receiving more than 100 responses in a few days — of which roughly 93 percent of respondents said they would use a free or discounted transportation service every weekend if it existed on campus — Ragheb decided to act on this apparent need. He said the unusually high survey participation convinced him that transportation issues were salient for students who do not live in River houses.

“People are scared to walk home in the dark; people are annoyed by the fact that they have to wait 45 minutes in the cold for the next shuttle,” Ragheb said. “This is something on people's minds.”

The UC had already planned to collaborate with ride-sharing company Lyft to arrange discounts for Harvard students, and after Ragheb’s survey identified transportation concerns among Quad students, he was invited to the table. Now, UC leadership and Lyft are in discussions about a partnership to provide affordable evening transportation that is faster and more convenient for some students than evening van and shuttle services.

“Whether helping students get home late or to a nearby event, Lyft is available to provide affordable and reliable transportation to the Harvard student body,” Lyft Communications Manager Daniel Roberts wrote in an email.

This partnership is one of several projects the UC has initiated in recent years to bring discounts and convenience to students across the College. While Quad residents served as an inspiration for this initiative, Lyft programs at other universities suggest the benefits may ultimately extend to everyone on campus.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, for example, the company offers cheaper flat rates for all rides that originate on their campus and travel to other affiliated buildings, according to a Lyft blog post.

UC Representative Alexa C. Jordan ’22, on the other hand, was canvassing dorms in Ivy Yard for general feedback when a student suggested the UC look into starting an umbrella sharing program for rainy days in Cambridge. The proposal quickly transformed into conversations about a collaboration with UmbraCity, a Canada-based company.

“This is an effort to have the UC be efficient, effective, and impactful to students,” Jordan said.

In 2016, UmbraCity tested an umbrella-sharing service at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus to “solve the frustration of getting soaked in the rain due to the loss, breakage or simply forgetfulness in the possession of an umbrella,” according to UmbraCity’s website.

Partnering with Harvard would be UmbraCity’s first American venture. Based on current conversations with the UC, UmbraCity umbrellas would be available free for 24-hour rental periods for students and faculty, according to the company’s founder and CEO Amir Entezari.

But not all partnerships feature externally run companies. The UC has also sought to back Harvard students’ ventures. The council recently sponsored College X Change, an online commerce platform specifically aimed at Harvard students.

Milton K. Dorceus ’19 and Kervens Fonrose co-founded College X Change because they saw a need for a single platform students could use to buy and sell items. After launching in summer 2017, it has since expanded to 300 users.

“Seeing a lot of people selling and trying to push things on GroupMe, email lists, the Facebook free and for sale pages — there are so many avenues that no one knows where to go,” Dorceus said. “For me, I envision that there can be a cultural change in which everyone knows that there’s one place to go to buy and sell things from each other, even give things away for free, and that would just make things so much easier, so much more efficient.”

The UC has helped publicize College X Change by including the platform in email blasts and other promotional materials, according to Dorceus.

“I just really found a lot of value in the UC just given it’s a student led organization and it’s an established organization on campus that a lot of individuals respect,” Dorceus said.

'Mutually Beneficial'

While many of the UC’s partnerships serve College students at large, they also maintain a special partnership with Harvard Student Agencies. Through this, the council secures additional funds it can then use for its own activities and operating budget in exchange for publicity and support.

The UC advertises the Harvard One Ring, a college ring sold by The Harvard Shop and fulfilled by Balfour, a graduation product company. The UC’s original contract, which ran from 2015 to 2019, required the UC to send promotional emails over its lists, display the HSA logo on certain council websites, and have the UC President speak at the One Ring ceremony held annually during Junior Family Weekend.

The contract also mandated that the board meet twice a year to discuss and distribute advertising duties for the coming semester, as well as to provide the UC with its semesterly compensation capped at $1,500.

UC Treasurer Jack M. Swanson ’22 said the council partners with organizations like HSA to raise additional funds on top of what it receives from the College, helping to cover the council’s own activities and costs without diverting funds from the general student population.

“The idea is that we should not spend student term bill money on those issues because those are, like, internal UC affairs and have nothing to do with the student money,” Swanson said.

The initial contract expired at the beginning of 2019, but the UC has continued to advertise the rings as they renew their agreement with HSA. The success of the One Ring contract, Swanson said, led to discussions on further partnerships between the UC and HSA. Both organizations are now looking to partner on events during Visitas, the College’s annual weekend for accepted students hosted in April, and expand their advertising efforts to admitted students.

“In the future, we're sort of working on more partnerships with HSA for the same reason,” Swanson explained. “The mutually beneficial aspect is that UC needs money, HSA needs advertising, and it tends to work out that way.”

— Staff writer Kevin R. Chen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @kchenx.

— Staff writer Laura C. Espinoza can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @ItsEspinoza.

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