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Milestone for Allston outreach: first student to attend Harvard

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Kevin Yang, walking along Brattle Street on his way to a Harvard University library, benefited from the Harvard Ed Portal mentorship program for students in Allston and Brighton.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

After high school most days, Kevin Yang would cross town to spend his afternoons at the Harvard Ed Portal in Allston. The one-story building, in the shadow of Harvard Stadium, housed the university's collaboration with the Allston-Brighton community.

Meeting with a mentor, a volunteer Harvard student, Yang got help with school projects, and together they explored career options available to an aspiring med student.

It was time well-spent. This month, Yang is settling into a dormitory just a mile or so from the old Ed Portal building — in Harvard Yard.

Eight years since the university opened the Ed Portal as a conduit to its Allston neighbors, Yang has become the first student to be accepted into Harvard after going through its program.


"It was definitely an important support mechanism for me," said Yang, toting his skateboard on a recent day as he walked around the old Ed Portal building, which now houses offices for the Silk Road Project and Harvard's golf and ski teams. "It was a place where I could decompress and figure things out."

Yang, a high achiever who had lived in Allston and is considering a major in either biomedical engineering or neurobiology, might have had the opportunity to choose between Harvard and "the engineering school down the street" in Cambridge whether or not he was mentored at the Ed Portal. But the experience added to the 18-year-old's emerging skill set.

"We got some homework help, but we also worked on public speaking and writing," he recalled.

In its first academic year, the Ed Portal served 164 public school students from Allston-Brighton. By last year, when the program unveiled its innovative new building across Western Avenue, enrollment had grown to nearly 300. More than 100 Harvard undergraduates have served as mentors since the program began.

For Rob Lue, the Ed Portal's faculty director, Yang represents a prime example of the type of student the program hopes to nurture. Even more than improving study habits, they want to help young men and women from the neighborhood embrace their own self-awareness.


"He's articulate and passionate," Lue, a biology professor who teaches Life Sciences 1a, the university's introductory biology-chemistry course, said of Yang. "He speaks to exactly what we are trying to achieve – the process of self-discovery."

The new Ed Portal building was designed to welcome all members of the Allston-Brighton community, the university says. In addition to the after-school program, it offers continuing education classes for residents, wellness and professional development resources, and art events and exhibits.

In recent years, the university and a community task force have negotiated changes in Harvard's long-planned expansion across the Charles River into Allston, where it owns more land than it does in Cambridge.

Harvard's 10-year master plan, submitted to the Boston Redevelopment Authority in 2013, includes nearly 1.5 million square feet of new development and renovation in Allston.

One of Yang's mentors, Tri Huynh, who earned his master's degree from Harvard's teacher education program in 2014, inspired Yang to consider teaching as a career. Yang's parents – a nurse and a researcher, both born in China – would like him to go to medical school.

Reached on the phone from San Francisco, where he is now a middle school teacher, Huynh recalled conversations with Yang about the joys of passing along his passion for science.


"I might not be the person who finds the cure for cancer," said Huynh, "but I hope maybe someone I teach will."

Some students at the Ed Portal needed help with basic study habits, he recalled, such as organizing their backpacks and binders. Others needed homework tutoring. With Yang, who graduated from Boston Latin School, their work together was more high-minded.

Yang figures he may be ready to volunteer as a mentor himself by the second semester of his freshman year. For now, however, he's mostly busy learning his new classmates' names. At the Ed Portal, the woman at the front desk made a point to remember the names of everyone who came through the door, he remembers.

"It was very personalized," he said. "That's a good skill in general."

Standing outside his dormitory, he picked out various new acquaintances in the endless cross-streams of students and tourists traversing Harvard Yard. Some of them he met during this summer's traditional outdoor pre-orientation program, a camping trip in the woods of New Hampshire, where incoming freshmen bonded over a vexing rainstorm and a moose sighting.

Once arriving on campus, he quickly made more friends in the dorms and classrooms. As some of them passed, he called out their names, making sure they spotted him.

His suite mates hail from all over, Yang said – Atlanta, Toronto, Ohio, California. (Like Yang, the roommate from California gets around on a longboard.) As the resident Bostonian, he already has assumed the role of concierge, organizing a trip to Boda Borg, a real-life gaming experience in Malden, and helping his roommates find the best places to buy clothes or get a haircut.


"For me, the transition may be a little bit easier," Yang said.

Lue, the Ed Portal director, agreed.

"More than most incoming freshmen, he knows that Harvard is family for him," he said.

In a way, this kid from Allston-Brighton is already home.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com.