Natasha Onken was driving the 330 miles from her home in Ithaca, New York, to the University of Massachusetts in Boston, where she was hoping to land a position as a job coach for individuals with disabilities, when she realized she was headed to the wrong job interview.
“The FedEx package with my interview materials never arrived — this was in the days before email — and so I had them send me a second one, which I picked up on my way out of town,” says Onken. “And I was driving down Interstate 90 looking at the job description in one hand and saying, ‘I didn’t apply for this job’.”
The interview — for a job in the school’s financial aid office, rather than the job coach position she’d applied for — was scheduled for first thing the next morning and, in the pre-cell phone era, there was no way to shoot someone a late-night text to clarify.
“So, I went to the interview and the first question they asked me was, ‘We just read your cover letter, and I don’t think you applied for this job.’ And I said, ‘It’s funny you mentioned that. I don’t think I applied to this job either’.”
It turned out to be a serendipitous, career-defining opportunity for the Grinnell College graduate, who was offered and accepted the position, and who has since devoted her life to helping students succeed.
Onken, who was recently appointed as Harvard Law School’s new assistant dean for student financial services, credits her passion for supporting students to her parents.
“My mother was a teacher, and my father served on school boards for more than 30 years,” says Onken, who first joined Harvard Law School in 2003. “And the importance of education and access to education has been ingrained in me since I was a kid.”
“For the past 16 years, Natasha Onken has helped countless HLS students access and afford legal education and has helped countless graduates achieve their dearest aspirations,” said John F. Manning ’85, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean of Harvard Law School. “As interim dean, she has demonstrated great compassion and flexibility while helping our students and alumni deal with the added financial hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Her deep experience, unquestionable skill, devotion to our students, and unshakable commitment to need-based financial aid make Natasha the ideal person to lead Student Financial Services at HLS.”
Despite the interview mix up, Onken was placed in charge of UMass Boston’s student employment and graduate financial aid programs. Within a few years, Harvard Law School hired her away to help lead its Low Income Protection Plan and Summer Public Interest Funding programs, first as coordinator, then as associate director. Now, nearly two decades after first setting foot on the HLS campus, what has impressed Onken most is the rapid growth in the School’s commitment to supporting students interested in public interest law.
“When I first started running LIPP and SPIF, these were relatively small programs,” Onken says. “We had around 280 students in each. But by 2009, we had gone to about 550 and 530 students. So, the public interest community started off very sort of intimate in that way, but has grown to become a huge part of the HLS experience.”
Today, LIPP serves approximately 700 graduates each year, while SPIF is utilized by nearly 500 students. In recent years, LIPP has become the School’s fastest growing program. This growth in public interest funding mirrors an increase in the amount of financial aid the school gives to students with need. Over the past decade, HLS spending on need-based grants has more than doubled.
Witnessing the accomplishments of graduates whom the office has helped over the years is, she says, “a point of pride for us.” The office even keeps a folder of appreciative notes from those they’ve assisted. “We sometimes get emails from graduates who write to say that ‘But for this assistance program, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now. You listened to me. You talked me through this. You helped explain it all to me and I felt like you cared. And you helped me realize I could do this’,” she says. “And that’s really all we’re trying to do.”
As interim assistant dean when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Onken was tasked with leading the SFS team into a remote work environment while simultaneously helping students and families respond to the economic fallout that engulfed the globe.
“To say it was a challenge is obviously the understatement of the year,” she says of last spring. “I am thankful that we have such a terrific team, all of whom really demonstrated their commitment to our students and to the School, all while dealing with the many personal and professional impacts of the pandemic.”
“Everything was moving so fast,” she says. “All these brand new things were happening, and you’re saying, ‘I don’t know the answer to this problem. There is no playbook for any of this.’ The amount we managed to get done while conditions around us were changing every day — creating and implementing new processes and programs like the shipping and travel grants – was pretty remarkable.”
But the crisis, Onken believes, will ultimately make HLS stronger and even more responsive to students’ needs. “I think that the School is going to be better for what has happened. It’s been a challenging nine months. But we are going to keep innovating and ensure that we’re responding and being timely and really thinking about the needs of our students more holistically than ever before.”
As SFS’s new permanent leader, Onken will help guide that effort, with plans to make the office even more service-oriented. “We have a really incredible program and we’re already leading the nation in the types of financial aid and loan repayment assistance and summer programs that we have available for our students and graduates,” she says. “I’m proud of the way that our team and our office have worked with students over the years. I’m proud of the way that they interact with them, of their professionalism, of their compassion.”
“I want students to see us as an ally, an advocate, and as the bridge that helps make their law school career possible, and makes it possible for them to do what they would like to do after graduation,” she says. “It’s not going to be easy — law school and achieving your goals rarely are. But we can at least facilitate students’ path in some way.”
Onken says she’ll use this transition to new leadership to review everything the office does — from communications to the deployment of existing funds — to make sure they are achieving the School’s and Dean Manning’s access and affordability objectives. “Anytime there’s a change in leadership, that’s the perfect time to take a look at whether we are actually hitting the goals that we think we should be hitting. At Harvard Law School, those goals are access and affordability.”
Jessica Soban, associate dean of student services, echoes Onken’s optimism about the future. “Student financial services is a critical piece of a strong, overall continuum of support we provide across the Law School. I think we have found ways to make that network even stronger over the past nine months so that we are able to serve students even more seamlessly today and, importantly, once we eventually return to campus.”
She also praised Onken’s many contributions to HLS over the past 16 years, and particularly amid the pandemic.
“Natasha has demonstrated effective, steadfast leadership as we all worked through extraordinarily challenging times,” Soban said. “She and the SFS team ensured that HLS would be there to meet students’ needs, expanding financial aid offers to meet new financial circumstances, and quickly adjusting budgets to meet new realities. As an admired leader, colleague, and mentor who always keeps the needs of our students front and center, I can think of no one better to lead student financial services.”
As she settles into her new, now permanent, role and eagerly anticipates a return to more normal times, Onken, her wife, and their two little children are looking forward to eventually resuming some of their favorite activities, including attending Broadway shows in Boston and playing recreational soccer when it is safe to do so. Onken played at Grinnell, though she downplays her contributions. “I practiced and I watched a lot of college soccer,” she laughs. “And I put on a uniform every weekend and then stood on the sidelines.”
Like many people, she’s also looking forward to finally being able to travel again. “We’re also spending a lot of time just dreaming about what that first trip will be,” Onken says. “It’s going be nice now to put our kids on the airplane and they can carry their own little backpack and maybe we won’t need to carry around so much stuff.”