Harvard University

Reflecting on Your Life - The purpose of Reflecting on Your Life is to create an opportunity for freshmen to reflect – outside the classroom – on what matters to them and why.


  • Participants: First-year students
  • Participants: ~130 (out of a total of 1667 first-years) with about 12-15 students per discussion group
  • Characteristics of Participants: Generally representative of the race and gender balance of the overall class; recently there have been more students who self-identify as non-religious
  • When: Typically takes place during February and March
  • Frequency: Three, 90 minute discussion sessions over the course of three consecutive weeks

Funding & Operations

Operating costs are minimal for all ROYL programs.

  • Operations: All regular operating expenses are funded by Harvard College. Annual budget is $1,500 for all programmatic expenses including materials for facilitators, minimal supplies, and snacks and refreshments for each discussion group. Each group has a budget of $100 to cover cost of snacks and refreshments for three meetings. The annual budget does not account for the staff time needed to start-up or administer the program.
  • External Funding: Teagle Foundation funded the most recent assessment of Reflecting on Your Life for the amount of ~$800.


The goal of Reflecting on Your Life is to give first-year students time outside the classroom to pause and think about what really matters to them and why. Students are asked ‘big questions’ intended to help them discern their values, purpose, and goals, such as:

  • What do I value, will my time in college impact my values, and, if so, in what ways?
  • What are my responsibilities to my community; should I help to make the world a better place and, if so, how?
  • What does it mean to live a good life? What does it mean to lead a successful life?

Interested students participate in a discussion group that meets for 90 minutes over three consecutive weeks. Discussion groups consist of 12-15 students and are facilitated by a volunteer faculty or senior administrator.


Eight years (since spring 2008)

Reflecting on Your Life was developed in response to a research project conducted by Richard Light, Carl H. Pforzheimer, Jr. Professor of Teaching and Learning at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Light’s research found that graduating seniors wished there had been a class at Harvard on “how to live a good life.” The seniors noted that if a course on “how to live life” could be taught at Harvard, it should be offered in the first-year so that students might apply the lessons learned to their full time in college and beyond. Recognizing the potential in these findings, Light approached Tom Dingman, the Dean of Freshmen, with the idea of creating a co-curricular program for first-year students. The program was piloted in spring 2008 and has run ever since.

Recommended Resources

The Center for Ethical Leadership was a helpful resource as was “Do Your Commitments Match Your Convictions?” by Donald Sull and Dominic Houlder (Harvard Business Review on Managing Yourself (p. 70-102. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA. 2005).  


Reflecting on Your Life is a program of the Freshman Dean’s Office at Harvard College. During the start-up phase of the program, the Dean of Freshmen and Director for Freshman Programming collaborated with Howard Gardner and Richard Light, faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a team of three undergraduates. Since the pilot year in 2008, the Dean of Freshmen and the Director for Freshman Programming have assumed responsibility for overseeing the program. The two collaborate on programmatic issues such as the curriculum and facilitators. A staff assistant manages the logistics of Reflecting on Your Life, including participant registration, room reservations, assembling materials for facilitators, and so on.


There have been several assessments of Reflecting on Your Life. An on-line survey was first administered in the spring of 2008 following the pilot offering of the program. Positive results prompted Harvard to offer the program again in future years.

A second assessment involving four-years’ worth of Reflecting on Your Life participants was conducted in spring 2011 under the leadership of Kathleen Farrell. Farrell’s study, which included both on-line surveys and in-person interviews, revealed that Reflecting on Your Life had led students to make important changes in the way they were living their lives. Participants report that the program helped them to evaluate how they choose to spend their time in college and inspired them to think deeply and sometimes differently about major college and life decisions. In fact, 41 percent of survey respondents noted that participating in Reflecting on Your Lifeprompted them to make a relatively big change or decision. These decisions included: changing their course of study, taking time off from school, ending a bad relationship, or taking a personal risk that would have seemed unthinkable in the past (Assessing Four Years of Reflecting on Your Life, Farrell. 2011: p. 19). The program was also meaningful for the students on a personal level, with nearly one-half of survey respondents noting that they learned something new about themselves during Reflecting on Your Life. Students also noted that it simply mattered that Harvard was promoting this activity, creating time and space to think about living purposefully. Reflecting on Your Life also introduces our students to new members of the community who then share their own different perspectives on values, college, family, career, and life in general. Equally encouraging is that participants tell us that they have continued these types of reflective conversations with their peers, outside of the structured discussion time.