The Silence that Announces the End of our Time at HKS

Jennifer A. Serafyn
Jennifer A. Serafyn is a lawyer and a current mid-career MPA student at the Harvard Kennedy School

Photo Credit: Kristina B

Amid the eerie silence that is our new normal in the time of coronavirus, there is one sound I long to hear: bagpipes.

The last day of our mid-career MPA summer program was a hot summer day in August, and our cohort had gathered in the Forum. “This is your time,” our fearless program leader Emma Heffern announced. With that, she sat down. We stared at the empty podium and its lonely microphone, unsure of what to do next. We fidgeted and looked around at each other. After a few uncomfortable minutes, a brave soul sauntered up to the podium. Then, one by one, students trickled up and shared their reflections on our summer program and their hopes for our two semesters together.

Emma had given us the floor, to do with it as we wished. But how would we know when our time together was up? It felt a bit like popping corn. For a while there was the pop pop of students springing up to the podium. After dozens of students had shared with our group – one read a poem in Spanish, another sang a song in Hebrew – the silence returned as we waited to see who would be next. Then, after a long pause, a sound came from above. We turned in our seats and craned our necks in the direction of the sound.

Bagpipes.

The bagpipes signaled the end of our time together. As the bagpiper played, slowly winding his way down three flights of stairs onto the Forum floor, many of us were awash in emotions as we thought about our summer. I’ve heard some MPPs derisively refer to the mid-career summer session as “math camp.” Yes, we are steeped in quant and econ for six-weeks, but it is much more than math camp. It’s a time for us to get to know each other very deeply, very quickly. During our six weeks together, a classmate revealed that they had been sexually molested, another spoke of their painful divorce, and another of the unfathomable loss of a child. We learned that some of our classmates had been to war and others were working to improve the lives of people living in war-ravaged countries. We opened ourselves up to total strangers from around the world and shared our deepest pain. It’s a heck of a way to make friends.

There were many happy times too. We introduced ourselves at mid-morning coffee breaks and discovered shared passions. We munched on popcorn at our first outdoor quorum calls and marveled as our kids from Cairo and Boston kicked around a soccer ball. We got together over dinner and drinks and talked about the family and friends we’d left behind. For some, romances bloomed.

As the bagpiper finished his song that summer morning, Emma took to the stage again and said, “The next time you hear these bagpipes will be at graduation.”

But there will be no graduation ceremony – and no bagpipes – this year because of the coronavirus, only an online version. For mid-career students, bagpipes at graduation were supposed to bookend the fulsome HKS experience that began with “math camp” in July. We anticipated listening to those bagpipes as our children, parents, and other family and friends proudly looked on. We had imagined being outside on a bright sunny day, with the world in our hands, as the bagpipes ceremoniously marked the end of our year-long journey together. Our time at HKS instead has ended abruptly and unceremoniously.

The coronavirus has pressed pause on many aspects of our lives. Public and personal health is paramount, but it’s hard for our mid-career cohort to not feel cheated out of our full HKS experience. Gone is the joy of running into that friend in the cafeteria you haven’t seen in weeks. There are no Forum events to wait in line for, no free food to score at just the right moment, no office hours or study groups. Gone are the robust class discussions that continue into the hallways or the opportunity to follow-up with a professor after class with that last burning question. These were the moments that made our time at HKS so special.

So much of the richness of HKS is embedded in being physically present and now that’s gone. Many mid-career students have left Cambridge. They’ve packed their bags, said or written hasty goodbyes on WhatsApp, and flown back to their countries with heavy hearts and a nagging unfulfillment. We can still see each other via Zoom, but it’s not the same. Yet we are leaning on our community to make the best of it. Now is the time to reap the seeds of friendship and support that were sown during our summer together.

In the time of coronavirus, I hope and pray that we flatten the curve, that our loved ones don’t get sick, and that the world soon returns to some semblance of normalcy. And I long to hear the sweet sound of bagpipes once again.


Here at The Citizen, we hope to serve as a platform to bring together the HKS community as we deal with these uncertain and destabilizing times. Please use it. Send us anything you’d like to share with your classmates – whether it’s a reflection or a rant, a story or a screenshot, a tip or a photograph from home. We look forward to regularly updating The Citizen throughout the rest of the semester. 

You can send us your reflections at: the_citizen@hks.harvard.edu 

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