For the 565 students accepting a diploma this week, the moment comes with a mix of honor and trepidation.
Honor to be among the 46,000 Kennedy School graduates tasked with improving the communities in which they live and trepidation because they know the challenges are great.
A few weeks before graduation, a popular leadership professor from the Harvard Kennedy School, Ronald Heifetz, offered at least four pieces of advice to graduating students.
He told them to surround themselves with friends and advisors (don’t do it alone); find a sanctuary to step back and reflect; measure their interventions, but not themselves; and – finally, go back asking questions rather than giving answers.
“What you’ve learned here is a set of lenses – a set of new questions – to interrogate, explore, discover your world,” Heifetz told a lecture hall of students. “You will have discovered that there are whole worlds within your world that you do not yet know.”
“Go back with questions rather than answers,” he said. “Go back quietly rather noisy. And when you get that question, ‘What did you learn?’ Tell them that you learned how to listen better. Tell them that you learned how to ask questions better.”
“If you go back acting like you know everything, you will lose your credibility very quickly,” he said.
So on May 29, the Kennedy School will not graduate a class of 565 learned individuals full of solutions to the world’s problems. But ones that know new ways to look at a challenge; ones that have a network of resources to call on if they meet a roadblock; and ones that have learned new ways to learn.
The graduating class will be stepping into roles as diverse as the ones they had when they came to the Kennedy School. They’ve accepted positions as a schoolteacher in the Mississippi delta, as consultants with Washington D.C.-based think tanks, as the founder of a start-up in Sierra Leone: Roughly 60 percent have employment when they leave campus, a full 90 percent are employed by October.
They came from 87 countries, from Kazakhstan to Vanuatu. With forty-nine percent of the graduating class from countries outside the United States, the Kennedy School is often touted as the most international of Harvard’s 12 graduate schools.
Among the graduating class of 2014, there is an immigration lawyer from Texas, a charter school principal from Pennsylvania, a mayor of a town in Central America, a founder of a nonprofit in Uganda, the vice president of an airline company in southern California; the president of a Washington D.C.-based television station, a helicopter pilot in the navy; and a personal assistant to former first lady Laura Bush.
The curriculum at the Kennedy School is as wide-ranging as the student body, but emphasizes teaching in statistics, econometrics, leadership, policy evaluation, and analytical and quantitative frameworks.
The graduating class is divided among four degree programs: A Masters in Public Administration (86 students); a Masters in Public Administration in International Development (66 students), a Masters in Public Administration for Mid-Careers (204 students) and a Masters in Public Policy (207). In addition, many students are graduating from a dual degree program in medicine, business and law.
Named for the former United States president John F. Kennedy in 1966, the school was founded on the eve of World War II with a $2 million gift from Lucius N. Littauer – the largest single gift an individual had ever given to the university at the time.
It has since gone on to host such notable alumni as Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, president of Mongolia; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia and Nobel Peace Prize laureate; Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary General; Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister of Singapore; Daniel Mudd, former president and CEO of Fannie Mae; three former presidents of Mexico; Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic forum; Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington D.C. school system; and political commentator Bill O’Reilly, among others.