My international summer session at HKS

24 Aug

As I was a bit slow getting my blog activated, my second post comes after concluding the summer session here at HKS (Harvard Kennedy School).    I will try to capture in a few posts the essence of total immersion into a unique cultural blend of academia, internationalism and straight from the heart altruism that has me smiling every time I think about the next 9 months of my life.

The summer session serves several purposes; among them are getting us mid-career MPA students, who have been out of school for quite a while, back in to academic mode.  One of the ways they accomplish this is by subjecting us to micro economics and quantitative analysis for 90 minutes each a day, every morning for 5 weeks – including reading, homework, midterms, finals (the works!).     This was surprisingly enjoyable.    I was with a small group of 12 for both classes, so we got to know each other pretty well, and the instructors bent over backwards to make the material relevant to policy and policy evaluation

The second piece of HKS’s grand plan was equally impressive.  Every possible effort is made by those running the program to ensure we brand new mid-career students are poised to make the most of our year here.  Every day after our morning classes and then lunch, HKS provided for our benefit a slew of speakers, academia, HKS alums, to speak to us, and to orient us, and most importantly to help us think very carefully about our choices and our preparations for the coming year.    For example:

  • What to consider while selecting from the hundreds of courses available(it is possible to select courses from other Harvard graduate schools, Tufts Fletcher School of Diplomacy, and MIT,
  • Urging us not to miss out on the events in the HKS forum put on by Harvard’s Institute of Politics which attracts speakers, world leaders  from around the world,
  • Engage in the many academic research centers that are an integral part of the HKS,
  • Reminding us not forget to attend social events with our classmates for we learn so much from each other,
  • To help us generally understand the daily rhythms, and ins and outs of life at HKS during the academic year,
  • And finally while doing all this, to not forget to maintain a constructive home/school balance!

These sessions were very practical for those of us who’ve been out of school for many years.  But why such attention to every possible detail?  Here is why.    All of us here have a huge stake invested in this one year and making it count.   The mid-careers are in Cambridge from all over the world.   Many have quit their jobs, uprooted their families, basically disrupted their lives and spent a small fortune for this experience.  No stone is too small to leave unturned.  Harvard, for their part feels the same way about us – they have chosen us, from among their applicants as those who they have chosen to invest in.  They want to be sure we suck every ounce of knowledge and inspiration from the vast resources they have assembled for our benefit – so we are prepared to go out and lead, make a difference, change the world.     So far – from what I’ve seen, it is a happy partnership.

This brings me to the most impressive part of the summer session, the experience of getting to know many of the individuals in this year’s class.    The first few days of the summer session are spent introducing yourself to as many of your new classmates as possible.   Introducing yourself HKS style involves swapping your ‘story’ (professional background, what motivates you, why you are here at HKS now!) with classmates – and HKS goes to great lengths to ensure we are put together in a variety of social situations where we can get to know each other.  I am not being overly humble when I tell you I often felt quite unworthy to be part of this group.

Their stories are both fascinating and inspiring.  We are 205 individual, each with our different reasons for being here, but there is more than enough common purpose to unite us.  I feel more hopeful about the world having spent time with so many impressive people.    I intend to spotlight select individuals in future posts once I ensure I have their permission, but here I want to emphasize the very international-feel  of the experience of the summer session.   For starters, 45% of the class of approximately 205 mid-career students are from outside of US/Canada, many from economically developing countries.   And it feels like more as many of those from within US, have either traveled or worked extensively overseas.   (I’m pretty sure speaking only one language puts me in the minority)

If for some awful reason it all were all to end now and I had to leave the HKS program, the most enduring impact on my life would be the realization how isolated I really am from the rest of the world.  I consider myself an avid reader as I enjoy books relating to History – fiction & non-fiction, news magazines, media, etc.   As great as it is to be internationally aware, this summer has been about the eyeball to eyeball experiences that make me really feel and understand what I cannot glean from words alone.   When I sit across from a fellow classmate, (from Chile, China, Kenya, Madagascar, Pakistan, India, on and on I could go) and see the expression in their eyes, and hear the conviction in their voice when they tell you a personal story of how they or those they care about have suffered or been impacted from injustice, corruption, or simply from bad or indifferent public policy, (many would include misguided U.S. foreign policy) the world seems to shrink, and their issues are now my issues.    It is impossible to detach from the story or the issue at hand when the setting is so intimate.

I am aware that one does not have to look outside our borders, (national, state or town for that matter) to find human suffering, noble causes, dedicated public servants, etc. but I do wonder if being separated by two oceans and a skinny little isthmus from a great deal of the world has been both a blessing and a curse for this country.   When I raised this point to an international student friend from Africa he said (paraphrasing) “your leaders, no – relative to the world, your leaders have a great international perspective”, but when asked about the average American –“yes, average American perspectives are too much only on only their immediate surroundings – a young student in asmall village in Asia is likely to have a better understanding of what is happening in the world than a young American”.   Only one opinion but an interesting perspective.

If nothing else, the summer session has me thinking about how to keep this feeling of connection going, how to deepen it during the year, and how to maintain it when the year is over; And to encourage my own children to be not only good American citizens but fully aware, participating citizens of the world – My thanks to everyone at HKS for such a summer!

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One Response to “My international summer session at HKS”

  1. Joe Tannian August 27, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

    Is there a world beyond central Virginia? Too often we are unaware. We just had a missionary from North Cyprus stay with us for two weeks. It is interesting to hear the perspectives of those who have lived abroad.

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