Students Discovering an Oasis in the Center of Harvard Yard

April 5, 2018
Students hunker down for study and for conversations in the Student Oasis.

By Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

For freshman Wassim Marrakchi, the Student Oasis on the ground level of the Memorial Church is a secret sanctuary for study, for quiet socializing and for making slatetblankit, a dish from his Tunisian homeland, for his Canaday housemates.

“This place has been a really great place for me to share nice moments with my friends, but also when I need some time alone, I can find it here,” said Marrakchi ’21. “I think more students are getting to know the space because every time I come here, I’m surprised to find more people.”

Freshman Wassim Marrakch is one of a growing number os students spending time in the Student Oasis.Freshman Wassim Marrakchi is one of a growing number of students spending time in the Student Oasis. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.

The Student Oasis opened a year ago following an 8-month renovation of the church, which featured a complete redesign of the ground level, carving out a much-needed space for students in the center of Harvard Yard.

With its contemporary kitchen, versatile meeting rooms, serene study lounge and award-winning design, the Oasis is not only developing into a popular refuge for students, campus groups and members of the Harvard community, but is also one of the most diverse student spaces on campus.

“I feel it has been successful because we set out to create a space that would serve as a site of human connection,” said Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. “No matter who you are, no matter where you’re from, you will find a place of comfort, and more importantly, a space of grace.”

On a normal day during the academic year, the Oasis is bustling from early in the morning following Morning Prayers, to late in the evening when the doors shut at night.

Over the course of the day, students nest at study tables writing papers and finishing homework, while others perch at the kitchen counter for a quick lunch, or recline in comfortable couches pressed in deep conversations with friends. And on a typical night, the members of Harvard’s Mellon Mays Fellows, Cru, Athletes in Action or other campus groups may be meeting in one of the conference rooms while the Harvard University Choir or The Kuumba Singers of Harvard College rehearses in the choir room or sanctuary. 

Students hunker down for study and for conversations in the Student Oasis.Students hunker down for study and for conversations in the Student Oasis. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

For Henry Brooks ’19, the Student Oasis serves as a convenient second home away from his dorm room at Currier House, more than a half-mile-walk from Harvard Yard. He said he found the space while preparing to sing with a choir group at Commencement. “I love the Quad, I really do, but it’s not a commute that you can really make more than once a day,” said Brooks. “I set out in the morning with everything I need for the day and I’m here all day. So, I come to the Oasis when I need a space to work or eat a quiet lunch.” The University is making an effort to create more common spaces across campus that foster intellectual, cultural and social experiences for students. Through the program, colorful chairs are placed on the lawn of Harvard Yard and on the south porch of Memorial Church in the fall, spring and summer. The Science Center Plaza is fitted out with comfortable benches, tables and patio umbrellas, and lawn games such as bocce, croquet, mini golf, and in the winter, a skating rink and fire pits. 

The effort also includes campus construction projects. The renovation of the Science Center atrium last year created the Cabot Science Library, which included a high-tech student study lounge, flexible meeting spaces, a coffee bar and Clover Food Lab. And when it opens later this year, the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center, is expected to be a hub for students with its collection of restaurants, common areas and flexible meeting spaces.

Creation of the Student Oasis is part of the University’s efforts to expand communal and casual settings for student interaction. In the early stages of development, church staff and a team from the Boston design firm, Payette, met with students to see what kind of spaces and activities they were seeking in the finished space.

Professor Jonathan L. Walton teaches a class in the Buttrick Room.Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, teaches his class "Martin, Malcolm and Masculinity"  in the Buttrick Room. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

Walton said the design and creation of the multi-use, flexible and comfortable Oasis was an intentional effort based on those discussions with members of the University Choir, Student Advisory Board and other groups and students affiliated with Memorial Church. And the result of those early conversations is a space today that is especially suited to meet the needs of a diverse community.

Whether it’s students or Harvard retirees taking a class in the Buttrick room, a Harvard community group hosting an infant and toddler playgroup in a conference room, or a game-watching night during the NCAA Basketball Tournament with the Harvard Varsity Club, the Oasis is an uncommon space compared to other student niches across campus, said Walton.

“One of the things we know is that there is something still distinct and set apart about our space,” he said. “For a certain type of student, I think they appreciate that, where on a Friday night they can come here to watch a basketball game and not have to worry about who is drinking or intervening on behalf of their roommate because of a drunken crowd. So, I hate to sound hokey, but we do want to promote clean and wholesome community and that is what it means to be a space of grace.”

Harvard Business School student Lumumba Seegars leads members of the Havard Black Student Ministry in prayerHarvard Business School student Lumumba Seegars leads members of Harvard Black Student Ministries in prayer. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a couple dozen students gathered in the Buttrick room for a small church service with gospel singing, sermons, scripture lessons and fellowship all in the tradition of the African-American church. Black Student Ministries at the Memorial Church is one of the new additions to the student program following the renovation.

Harvard Law School (HLS) student Sydney Montgomery said her idea of a black student ministry germinated a few years ago. She eventually organized a student board and held small services at the HLS in the fall. The ministry was brought under the supportive umbrella of Memorial Church in the winter with the help of Professor Walton and Harvard Divinity School (HDS) student Aric Flemming Jr. MDiv II, a seminarian at the church.

“I couldn’t have imagined that God would bless the ministry with such a wonderful, engaged, and dedicated student board, supportive and uplifting host church through Memorial Church, and a versatile and welcoming space in the Buttrick Room,” said Montgomery J.D. ’18. Every service there are students reconnecting and strengthening their relationship with Jesus. Our service provides an inclusive, faith-centered worship service where we hope to create a family environment both through praise and our after-service fellowship. It is a space where we can proclaim that we are unapologetically black and unashamedly Christian.”

For a group of undocumented Harvard students affected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) – an Obama-era initiative that protects young immigrants from deportation – the Student Oasis has also provided a supportive meeting place.

In September, when United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the DACA program would be repealed, students gathered on the Memorial Church steps to protest the action. And in March, DACA Seminar hosted an all-day event of workshops and performances in the Oasis and sanctuary.

Bruno Villegas McCubbib ’19, who was brought to the U.S. from Peru at age 6 by his parents, spoke at Morning Prayers about his story and the support he felt from the Memorial Church.

“The Memorial Church was indeed a place that recognizes our humanity, our right to live, to love, and to laugh,” he said in his address. “It really is the small things that bring joy, and hope, such as the little sticker on the door into the church Oasis, which reads, ‘Immigrants are Welcome Here.’ That meant the world to me.”

A sticker on the entrance of the Student Oasis welcomes immigrants.A sticker on the entrance of the Student Oasis is a welcoming sign to immigrants. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

It is those kinds of meaningful interactions with students that speaks to the heart of creating a place of connection where all feel accepted and supported, Walton said.  

We talk a lot at Harvard about creating common spaces where people can just come together and be,” he said. “We know when students see themselves, see representations of themselves, particularly those who are not represented by the institution, that they feel a greater sense of belonging and a greater sense of community. And that is also one of the reasons that we have been intentional even about the artwork and photographs here, and I think it is working.”  

The successful combination of mission and design is receiving attention beyond the gates of Harvard Yard. The project was named winner of the 2017 American Institute of Architects (AIA) New England Honor Award; the 2018 International Interior Design Association (IIDA) New England Interior Design Award, Community and Culture category; and the 2018 Associated General Contractors of Massachusetts (AGC MA), Build New England Performance Award.

Lauren Hickey, marketing manager for Payette, said the Oasis is by design an attractive place for students seeking a quiet place to relax, concentrate or connect.

“The focal point of the space is the centrally located Student Oasis, envisioned as a place for students to hang out, decompress and effortlessly interact with each other and the church staff,” she said.

The Oasis has also caught the attention of the Harvard alumni community, who have helped support the building project and student programs with their financial support. Robert A. Maginn, Jr. ALM ’81, GSA ’81, MBA ’83, and his wife, Ling Chai Maginn MBA ’98, made a donation toward the construction. A meeting room in the Oasis is named in their honor. Contributions from parents of former Harvard University Choristers supported updates to the music suite.

Robert Maginn and Jonathan L. WaltonRobert A. Maginn, Jr. ALM ’81, GSA ’81, MBA ’83 poses with Prof. Jonathan L. Walton in the Chai Maginn Room in the Student Oasis. 

And Stuart Jones AB ’77, and his wife, Mignon, whose daughter Victoria, ’17, took advantage of the Oasis last year, are helping support new faith-based student programs at the church with a financial gift spanning five years.

“I think the Student Oasis will be a place of grace, comfort and hope for the exciting and difficult moments that undergraduates at Harvard experience,” he said. “Whether it is a small Bible study, inclusive study break, or weekly meeting for faith-based groups, I hope that students can feel the love of God in this space. It is in Rev. Walton’s capable hands.”

A year after the opening, the Student Oasis is still a work in progress and will continue to evolve with the needs of students and the Harvard community. Morgan McNeill, the student program assistant at Memorial Church, said more students are discovering the space as word spreads across Harvard Yard.

“I believe the Student Oasis is a success in that more underrepresented students are finding out about the space,” she said. “These are the groups that we especially focused on in the creation of the Student Oasis and we are continuing to work to engage these students.”

Students flock to the Student Oasis for pancake supperStudents flock to the Student Oasis for the pancake supper on Shrove Tuesday. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

For Marrakchi, the Student Oasis is more than a quiet place to study. It was a way to share a piece of his home with his new friends at Harvard. His favorite dish to share, Slatetblankit, is crusty bread topped with a colorful combination of spices, olives, peppers, tomatoes, cheese, a hard-boiled egg and tuna. Preparing it takes patience and a kitchen with generous counter space, and the Student Oasis offered that to the Harvard freshman and much more.

The last time I was in, we had a cultural event where everyone cooked something from their home,” he said. “I brought my American friends with me and it was fun. Now I come in when I need a new place to study or cook.”