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Harvard Kennedy School Leadership Commits to Emotional Well-Being Training for Course Assistants, Teaching Fellows

Harvard Kennedy School leaders plan to offer emotional well-being training for teaching fellows and course assistants starting in the next academic year.
Harvard Kennedy School leaders plan to offer emotional well-being training for teaching fellows and course assistants starting in the next academic year. By Santiago A. Saldivar
By Asher J. Montgomery, Crimson Staff Writer

Leaders of the Harvard Kennedy School told students they plan to implement emotional well-being training for teaching fellows and course assistants in the next academic year.

HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf, Dean of Academic Affairs Debra E. Isaacson, and Academic Dean for Teaching and Curriculum Suzanne J. Cooper addressed these changes during a meeting Thursday morning with the Soul Keepers, a student mental health advocacy group.

The group wrote an open letter in late April calling on HKS to publicly commit to increased support for student and faculty emotional well-being. The letter was written amid heightened student focus on mental health issues at the school following the suicide of HKS student Mateo Gomez in December.

The changes also include providing orientations on mental health over the summer for students, as well as providing mental health resources on all syllabi and course pages. These changes would follow the January hiring of Jimmy Kane as senior associate director of student support services at the Kennedy School as part of a series of reforms aimed at mental and emotional health and well-being among the school’s students.

“I think it’s safe to say that all three will happen in the next school cycle,” Isaacson said of the changes.

Isaacson told the students that she is working with Canvas experts and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to make important mental health information easily accessible to students. Kane is looking at ways that those materials can be tweaked to be most effective for Kennedy School students.

Isaacson also said she has a meeting in place with leaders of student orientations in HKS’ two-year programs “to think about the coverage of students’ mental health and well-being in orientation, both in the materials that we share, before, during and after, and also in terms of a session that we could run.”

To address the third point on the list, Isaacson said Cooper is working with her team to think about how to incorporate training about how to identify struggling students and refer them to appropriate resources.

“We want to make sure that students we’ve hired to be course assistants and teaching fellows aren’t taking on the responsibility of serving in a clinical capacity for our students around their mental health,” Isaacson said. “So instead, we want to make sure that they’re trained to understand how to watch for changes in behavior or other indicators that someone might be struggling, and then how to get the students to the right resources.”

In an interview prior to the meeting, Elmendorf told The Crimson that emotional well-being is not a new priority for the Kennedy School.

“I’ve been concerned about student well-being from the day I became dean,” Elmendorf said. “My responsibility is to help our students learn and grow and thrive at the school. A lot of aspects of that, part of that is their personal well-being.”

In the fall, the school launched a search for a senior associate director of student support services after noticing a deficit in administrative mental health support.

“There were lots of people in our Student Affairs Office in particular who are spending time with students who are facing challenges to their well-being, and we didn’t have enough capacity to meet all of the questions and concerns that we wanted to be able to address,” Elmendorf said. “Spreading this just across everybody has its virtue, but then we also would benefit from having somebody who was just single-mindedly devoted to this topic.”

Nonetheless, Elmendorf said he does not see this as the only solution.

“The challenges to mental health, particularly young people, but others also in our society, have increased over time, and I think for students at the Kennedy School who are so deeply committed to making a better world, a lot of things that happen in the world that hit people here particularly hard,” Elmendorf said. “So this is an important ongoing challenge for us.”

Following the meeting, the next goal of the Soul Keepers is to keep the momentum going after many members of the group graduate from HKS this year.

“We’re really happy to know that this is something that you will be able to demand for the next school cycle,” HKS student and member of the Soul Keepers Sebastian B. Fernandez said during the meeting. “We are all gearing into graduating in the next few days and so now we’re working on how to keep the work going.”

—Staff writer Asher J. Montgomery can be reached at asher.montgomery@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @asherjmont.

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