Student Profile: Linda Ellison

Linda Ellison, who in 2002 was a third-year master of divinity student, has never forgotten the first meeting of the Harvard Graduate Council (HGC) she attended two years ago after she was elected the representative-at-large from the Divinity School.

Right away, other members of the council told Ellison in no uncertain terms, "We don't need you to preach at us. This is not the place for proselytism."

Ellison soon learned that some past representatives to the council from the Divinity School had earned themselves a reputation for being outspoken about their religious beliefs while at the same time tending to have bad records of attendance at HGC meetings, meaning that Ellison was starting on the council at a distinct disadvantage, among highly skeptical colleagues. "I worked really hard at first just trying to build up a reputation as being dependable, reliable, and interested," she said in a recent interview. "As the face of HDS, I needed to change their mind about us."

It is a testament to just how hard Ellison worked to change perceptions of the Divinity School, and of herself, that at the end of her second year on the council, she was elected president of the 30-member body for the 2001-02 academic year. She is the first Divinity School student ever to hold that position. Meanwhile, after years of the Divinity School's being systematically skipped as a site in the meeting rotation, Ellison got the HGC to meet on the HDS campus. "We ended up having our meeting in the Andover Hall Chapel, which made for a different, more somber atmosphere than the other schools," but the other students appreciated it, Ellison said.

Ellison's skills at changing preconceived ideas have been honed by some unfortunate personal experiences. When Ellison came to Boston from Utah, she quickly became accustomed to having to counter other's ideas of her. As one of the few students at Harvard Divinity School from a Mormon background, Ellison was shocked by the derogatory comments about Mormons that other students felt completely free to share with her, not only before but also after they learned about her background. "There is so much talk about different religions and being tolerant and diversified, but this didn't always seem to apply to my tradition," Ellison said.

Yet Ellison had come to HDS for the faculty, including Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and she says with their support she has been "more than pleased" with her academic experience. Her academic and field-work experience have led her to concentrate in "religion, gender, and health," and she intends to pursue a PhD in related studies. And all the while, inside and outside of class, she has taken the opportunity to educate others about her religious tradition.

No doubt this ability to get beyond her own feelings and respond actively to counteract myths was one of the traits that an anonymous person recognized when they nominated Ellison to be a runner of the Olympic torch (she did her stint on December 28 in Everett, Massachusetts). Ellison was touched and honored by the nomination letter, which called her "inspirational."

"Inspirational" is not too strong a term for the work Ellison has done in student government at Harvard. The affairs of graduate students and their lives, often perceived as humdrum, take on a vibrancy and urgency when Ellison talks about them. In her two years as a representative at large and as the council's vice president of community affairs, Ellison earned respect among her council colleagues through her efforts to move the council from being a social body to becoming a body with some political clout.

"In years past, the council would primarily hold social events; it was also pretty insular," Ellison explained. "I felt the Harvard Graduate Council was not doing enough politically or enough in terms of providing student access to council members." After all, as Ellison likes to point out: "Graduate students make up two-thirds of the student population at Harvard. There are 12,000 grad students and 6,000 undergrads."

To leverage that population, Ellison has spent her two-plus years of service on the HGC "working to make the council more inclusive of the graduate student population and more accountable to them while also trying to give it some power in the school to speak on behalf of graduate students, essentially to act as a liaison with the faculty and administration."

Never before was this kind of political, student-advocacy role more needed than last spring when student protests over living-wage issues turned into a lengthy sit-in in Massachusetts Hall. "The council became involved first as a mediating force between graduate students inside Mass Hall, supportive graduate students outside, and the administration," Ellison explained. "Then we took the position of listening to both sides, the protestors and the administration, and trying to relay information in a way that would be listened to on both sides. We wanted to make clear that this wasn't just a fringe thing but a serious, substantive issue."

When the undergraduate council passed a resolution not supporting the living wage, the HGC also thought they should have a vote in order to show where they fell. Members of a subcommittee working on the issue drafted different resolutions, one against the living wage campaign, another more moderate one not clearly on either side, and one in support of the issue. Ellison was enlisted to write the resolution in definite support of a living wage.

"I was taking Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's feminist theory and theology course at the time, which talked about how to put a theory into practice," Ellison said. So Ellison decided to email her classmates and ask them for their visions in relation to the living wage. "It was really helpful. It enabled me to use an academic space to talk about this issue and get ideas down on paper."

This became the resolution that the council eventually passed in support of a living wage. "All along, it seemed like the vote would go either for the moderate or conservative position," Ellison said, but then Ellison invited students to come to the meeting at which the HGC was due to vote. This was not the most popular move, she said, but "the by-laws say that all meetings are public and open to students, although they are rarely advertised."

"We had a really good turnout, and people on the council were actually able to be educated and even swayed a bit," Ellison said. "When we passed a resolution that supported the living wage, this told the administration that we were serious." It also helped convince the administration that the new committee to take up the living wage issue "needed to include students." The HGC was given the task of nominating two graduate students (the undergraduate council also got to nominate two).

Ellison was responsible for soliciting applications and holding a marathon meeting that lasted from 6 pm to 3 am to choose those students. Because of all the time and energy that Ellison and her colleagues had put into seeing that the council represented graduate students and asking for student input, they actually received hundreds of email messages on the living wage issue and the nominations.

Aside from addressing this splashy issue, Ellison has pushed the HGC to begin "using their time wisely to address more student concerns across the university." Among the common concerns of graduate students, she says, are "financial aid, especially the issue of high debt loads for students going into public interest fields; faculty diversity, since students like to be taught by people from diverse backgrounds so that they can have mentors; student housing; and student health-care plans.

For instance, Ellison says, "A lot of students aren't aware of the services provided by the drug rider this year. I see it as our role to help disseminate information like that, to make it understandable to students."

Although she has mostly concentrated on more substantive issues, Ellison says that the social events the HGC has been known for are also alive and well. "Don't worry, we're still going to have the Valentine's Day party." In 2001, that well-known event drew 3,000 people.

But even at those social events, Ellison has worked toward better equity and openness. "In the past, bigger schools would hold parties and not invite the smaller schools," she said. Now, partly because the perception of the smaller schools has changed over time, thanks to Ellison and other council members from the School of Public Health, the "big schools" have been more open to inviting all grad students to their shindigs. "It is great for the schools who are coming with more resources and funding to open up their events to other schools."

The ability to build bridges and forge relationships comes from a genuine place of affection for Ellison. She respects and enjoys the graduate students from other schools and finds them to be an intriguing group. "I've always thought that the council would make a great consulting company," she said. "We can take any issue, look at it from so many different perspectives and come up with creative solutions. I'm proud of the council. They get a lot of things accomplished that the students don't even know about."

The same can be said of Ellison herself, who unbeknownst to most HDS students, has helped to change the place and the perception of the Divinity School at Harvard, while simultaneously helping to enlarge the role of the HGC for years to come.