By Jaya Bhagat, MC-MPA’13 & Mason Fellow, Opinions Editor
The letter offering me admission to Harvard in April 2012 brought with it the promise of new beginnings.
As I was preparing to travel to the United States for a year as a mid-career in Cambridge, one of my seniors in the civil services in India, who had been a Mason Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School many years ago, said two things to me. “My time at HKS was the best year of my life.” He paused and softly continued, “Give my love to Cambridge, Mass.”
His nostalgia caught me off guard and I couldn’t comprehend it fully. A golden year draws to a close and, as I graduate, now I do understand.
A wise monk many years ago said that “the journey is the destination.” I came to Cambridge as part of a mid-career cohort full of students from many different corners of the world, bringing along with them a vibrant mix of their distinct cultures and languages. You could call the mid-careers a mini-United Nations – but unlike the UN – we got a lot done in this one year.
Mid-careers are the senior student citizens of the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). Or let me rephrase this, mid-careers are the more “experienced” students at HKS, who have seen the world and a bit more. This leads to much leg pulling from the younger students in the other programs at HKS. Until of course, mid-careers start asking questions in class or speak up about running that company that the other student is now trying to get into. My mid-career classmates have been there and done that. We’ve failed and then failed some more. As we were told by a professor in our first introductory session last year, the fact that we had taken a year out of our lives to be at HKS indicated that we needed to get away from our non-HKS environment at this point in time. We needed a “re-boot.”
I know that I for one desperately needed a change when I arrived in Cambridge. My work in administering the largest public health program in the world and in battling corruption in my country had drained me. I came to Harvard and the Mason Fellows program, ready to rest a bit, step back and take a breath … maybe even smell the roses.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I had probably got the bit about “resting” wrong. Homework, exams, talks in the Forum, study groups, papers and the sheer number of choices made every day exhilarating with immense variety and possibility. The year that followed allowed for contemplation, inquiry, curiosity, challenges and sheer hard work in equal measure. I am now, on the other side of this year, a transformed person. Renewed in many ways by the learning and friendships that came my way both within and outside the classroom.
What made this class and cohort at HKS so different from others I had participated in? For one, the sheer variety and different kinds of nations, regions and ethnicities represented by my fellow students made for a striking immediacy of impact that battered down even the most insular walls. The mid-career cohort included a Cambodian monk, a Navy seal, a real life poet who was not starving in a garret, an artificial intelligence robotics mogul and a presidential candidate, and of course the usual complement of strategists, advisers to Prime Ministers, development experts, non-profit mavens, anti-corruption fighters, IT change makers and human rights activists. But what really made my classmates most special was our “never say die” spirit. And as the year meandered on, the new found resonance and ability to stick by each other in tough times and to try and listen to each other in easier climes grew apace.
Cambridge and New England threw everything possible at us in the one year we were here. From a small earthquake to a historic hurricane – Sandy – to a bitter winter snowstorm, Neo, and the man-made tragedies at Newtown next door and the Boston Marathon bombings.
Yet, life teaches us resilience and it also teaches us that for every hard knock that one faces, the failure lies not in falling down but in not getting up again. I watched my classmates’ reaction to each of these hard knocks – it was strong, vibrant, pugnacious and courageous. This year together, in many ways, brought out the best in many of us.
This “never say die” spirit could be seen in a classmate who rowed in the regatta on the Charles after just a couple of months out on the water, in another who ran the Boston Marathon for the kids at Read Boston and in the many who contributed towards a book of poetry that spoke of our changing the world by being “better together.”
This large heart could be seen in the creation of a class fund so as to ensure that no new baby born into the mid-career family went unwelcomed, and in the heroic efforts of many fellow students to take on the bidding system at HKS (slaying the dragon would’ve been easier).
This constant grace of our common humanity was found in continued special efforts that my classmates made – the family outings, the karaoke nights, the dinners for seven, the talks organized to foster an inter-faith understanding where priests and imams came to speak to us and in the op-eds and poems that many of us contributed to The Citizen—contributions that spoke fervently of treasuring our religious pluralism and precious community.
The strength of purpose I observed in my friends and classmates perhaps found its roots in the fact that many of us had battled difficult beginnings, being poor, being alone and suffering loss, and yet so many chose with quiet courage to invest a year’s time and savings and walk away from cushy jobs to come here, start anew and seek to serve.
This year taught me to salute the courage of my friends and classmates. As a mid-career you know what the world can be like – both its stolid drudgery and its quicksilver romance. Yet for so many of my classmates there was nothing “mid” about the leadership and selflessness that they brought with them.
My time here at HKS made me understand the power of possibility that friendship and time and space together can create. I consciously learned to never, for a moment, forget that I was here thanks to the support and wishes of so many people who had been there for me when I needed them. I learned again the promise and necessity of passing this support and positivity on. This year gave me a renewed sense of gratitude and a belief in immense possibilities.
The world outside HKS may at times seem on a path to destruction. Yet, in every conflict that may bedevil our nations or in every enterprise that may require cooperation, I now realize that my friends and classmates will make a difference. Our common bond will endure and come back to inform our choices even when we return to familiar, busy home environments. It will be difficult to demonize the other side in a conflict so quickly, because you would have had lunch in the forum with some of them or held their young child in your arms. It will be difficult to turn your back on another less fortunate country, because you would remember the light of patriotism and service that burned in your classmate’s eyes as he spoke about giving back to his nation.
So, to my classmates and friends at HKS, I say—for those of us who will take the road less traveled, I laud you. For those of us who will do their duty by their nation, I admire you. You have my affection and my kinship. And I know, that this sense of recognition and friendship that we have created in this year together, gives me a call on your affection and your loyalty.
Albert Schweitzer said, “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”
I came to HKS knowing no one here. And now leave with friends, supporters, kindred spirits- tied together by our common identity as fellow travelers and by the deep recognition forged during this one year at Harvard.
The next voyage beckons. Yet, the sense of comfort and endless possibilities that accompany it are a gift from the blessed circle of friendship this year has given me.
Yes. It has been a year well lived.
For those who shall follow…..Do give my love to Cambridge, Mass.