Three years ago, I made the decision to apply to Harvard Kennedy School. My decision to apply was not very surprising. While I wasn't sure which school I would attend, graduate school was always on my radar. What was surprising, however, was what little I understood about my motivations.
Throughout the two years, I often wondered why I came to graduate school. I was passionate about economics and development and I wasn't looking for a career change. I was also one of the youngest in my class, which implied that I had the least "real-world" experience.
While entering, I didn't quite know what I wanted to take out of this experience - and I think many are in this situation. Through the grueling and time-consuming problem sets, I was confronted with thinking through this question. Now, nearly two years later, I can tell you what I took away from my HKS experience:
1. It's all about the people. I often wonder if I will ever again sit in a room with so many diverse perspectives, intellectual insights, and passionate voices. My classmates were by far the best part of my experience. In my case, my peers came from diverse professional backgrounds and represented over 20 different countries. Sure, I learned from class assignments and problem sets, but I learned far more from my peers. I learned from them in and out of the classroom - through both professional and personal interactions. My perspective was deepened and my perceptions were challenged. Through this time, I also created lifelong friendships and have a vast network of life advisors around the world.
2. Leaving your comfort zone can be rewarding. There are many ways to challenge yourself. For me, these were sometimes relatively simple things like raising my hand in class or attending office hours with an intimidating professor. Sometimes, they were a little less simple - like taking a computer science course with no programming background or running for "President" in Steve Jarding's Making of a Politician course. For the record, I took CS-109: Data Science and highly recommend it. The summer was the best time to take a risk and do something unconventional. I physically left my comfort zone by moving to Tirana to work with the Albanian Government and explored a foreign and beautiful part of the world. This experience pushed me to discover interests I didn't know I had.
3. Give and seek mentorship. Having good mentors will shape your journey - but being a good mentor can be even more rewarding. As I started at HKS, former younger colleagues asked for guidance and advice, and with whatever little knowledge I had acquired, I replied. I found these conversations helpful to understand my own motivations. I was also fortunate to find great mentors who have guided me over these past years (shout out to Dan Levy). It's important to cultivate and maintain these relationships. Having had the privilege to serve as one of Dan's course assistants in API-209, I hope I'll always be a part of Dan's Mafia :).
4. Understand your narrative. Exploring yourself can be somewhat challenging. My class hosted a weekly Speaker Series where two classmates presented any part of their life story for 30 minutes. In thinking through my story, I introspected to piece together my narrative and reflected on how I became the person I am. I also took coursework that forced me to dig into my past and uncover my underlying motivations. While initially I thought this was simply an academic exercise, I later realized this was powerful as it helped me connect to people and express myself. In a way, I feel liberated and more confident in who I am.
5. Take time to explore your curiosities. HKS provided me with an opportunity to explore many facets of myself. I had an amazing opportunity to get involved with the India Conference at Harvard as a Co-Chair. While I knew it would be time consuming, I did it - and in the process, I explored a whole new skillset. I learned to work on a team, exercise 'grace under pressure', manage teams, handle logistical issues, and interact with students from various schools at Harvard. During my second year, my curiosities took me in many different paths: learning to code in Python, applying to a startup venture competition, writing op-eds for the Huffington Post, choreographing a dance for the talent show, and spending a year analyzing female labor force participation in Afghanistan.
6. Life is not always linear. The most important realization for me is one that I still struggle with. Thus far, life has felt more or less linear - but this will not always be the case. I assumed that post-graduate life would be easy; after all, I had checked all the boxes and completed all the years of education to be successful. But, graduate school wasn't the solution if I was looking for a linear path - there will be setbacks, there will be bumps. Graduate school equipped me with the tools I need to be successful, but it's up to me to decide how I want to use those tools.
As I exit and transition from HKS, my motivations and goals are clearer. I have realized that it's important to reflect and understand what you want to takeaway from any experience. Our motivations will change, but it's important to acknowledge that and to always update our priors.
Disclaimer: This post is based solely on my personal reflections.