As the nation stands at a crossroads on race and a resurgent pandemic, the first Black man elected student body president at Harvard College wants to build a culture that is inclusive of all students while addressing the challenges of teaching and learning online.
Noah Harris and running mate Jenny Y. Gan won this month’s Harvard Undergraduate Council election with the slogan “Building Tomorrow’s Harvard” and a platform focused on diversity, quality of student life, the virtual learning experience, mental health needs, and responsible policies on sexual assaults, he said.
“What that really meant for us was trying to create a Harvard and a campus that we all can be proud of and want to call home, regardless of our background or our identity,” Harris, 20, said in a phone interview as he traveled home to Hattiesburg, Miss., on Tuesday.
He is not the first Black student chosen for the Ivy League school’s top elected position: In 1999, Fentrice Driskell was the first Black woman elected president of the council. She now holds a seat in the Florida House of Representatives.
Harris currently serves as the Undergraduate Council’s treasurer and as cochairman of its Black Caucus.
Being the first Black man selected by his peers as student body president has a special importance after the summer’s international protests over the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police, he said.
“It’s just so significant, especially this year, when we have had this moment of racial reckoning as a country, with the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery,” Harris said. “The student body really is sending a statement that this country is changing, and it’s just amazing that they’re trusting me with such an unprecedented moment.”
Harris and Gan’s victory was certified Nov. 12, according to the council. They will be sworn in Dec. 6.
The Undergraduate Council has long shown diversity in its leadership. Its first president, elected in 1982 following the council’s formation, was Michael G. Colantuono, a gay man, the Globe reported at the time.
Its two most recent presidents, Sruthi Palaniappan and James A. Mathew, are Indian-American, and outgoing Vice President Ifeoma E. White-Thorpe, who made national headlines in 2017 when she was accepted into all eight Ivy League schools, is an African American.
Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, congratulated Harris and Gan and said the college “very much has a partnership approach” to working with the Undergraduate Council.
“I’m very much looking forward to working with our new UC leadership,” Khurana said in a statement. “I want to congratulate them on their election.”
Gan, who like Harris is a junior, said she’s still absorbing the idea of being vice president of the council after a whirlwind campaign in early November.
“We knew the campaign would be happening around the national election, and there would be a lot of anxiety of that,” she said. “As a country and as a student body, we’re all kind of at a point where the whole year has been really stressful and really uncertain for many people. We’re talking about a moment when we can make change, where we can build a future.”
Gan and Harris have worked together on the council for years, she said, and he has impressed her as someone who has not just good ideas, but also the follow-through to bring those ideas to fruition.
“He has a vision for the way he wants things to work and will go and do it,” she said, pointing to a time when Harris worked with Lyft to develop a partnership that made it easier for students using vouchers to travel off campus for medical appointments.
“That was so inspiring to me,” Gan said, “because it was like, there are things that we as students can do.”