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Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of the Harvard Kennedy School Bulletin
In a classroom on the Kennedy School campus, people are discussing the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), an organization initiated by five African heads of state to improve the socioeconomic development of the continent. Several students from Africa offer their opinions on issues close to home. Then a student from Eastern Europe adds her perspective: “I was involved in the debt initiative from the G-8 side...”
It’s an example of the interconnectedness that binds each year’s group of Mason Fellows, mid-career professionals from around the world who come to the Kennedy School to learn the skills that have propelled many to top leadership positions in their home countries. As Dean David Ellwood told the class at the end of the session: “When you look and see what Mason Fellows have done, it’s extraordinary. I believe what you learn here will make you better. Some people talk about it as a transformative experience.”
Now celebrating its 50th year, the Mason Program has evolved from the Public Service Program, which began with seven students in 1957, to its current incarnation as the Kennedy School’s flagship international program, enrolling more than 50 professionals from government, NGOs, and the private sector. Alumni include the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf MPA 1971; the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon MPA 1984; and Felipe Calderón MPA 2000, president of Mexico.
“The Mason Program looks for professionals who have demonstrated leadership and dedication to public service,” says Paulina Gonzalez-Pose, director of the program. “They are people who possess uncommon stamina, passion, and drive, who have made an important commitment to making a difference.”
The program was launched by Edward Mason, who served as dean of the Graduate School of Public Administration, the precursor to the Kennedy School. Mason, who died in 1992, developed the initiative to help train economists from emerging countries. The program has been integrated into the Kennedy School’s Mid-Career Master in Public Administration Program and each year draws students from more than 35 countries.
“We’re looking for agents of change who are already on a trajectory in their professional lives and who will share their experiences with others,” says Gonzalez-Pose. “This sharing is essential because the Mason Program offers a tripod of learning. It is a three-way process. Students learn from faculty, faculty also learn from students, and students learn from each other.
The person in the program who has been part of the teaching process the longest is John Thomas. Now a lecturer in public policy, Thomas first started as a graduate student advisor in 1966 and later served as program director. During a class, he peppers the new Mason Fellows with questions, asking a student from Africa, for instance, “Do you agree that the market economy is the way Africa ought to go?”
“I emphasize that a lot of your learning is going to go on with your interaction with one another, so you need to know who these other Mason Fellows are,” Thomas says.
He ends the class by asking about the role of leadership. How much consensus do leaders need to pursue their goals?
It’s the kind of question Thomas expects the Mason Fellows will face themselves after they return to their home countries.
“They look more broadly at the question of leadership and the roles they play,” he says. “I do think it’s a very empowering year for them.”
Alumni of the program agree. In the sidebar, several have offered testimonials to the power of their Mason Fellows experience, showing how their year at the Kennedy School has influenced their careers and lives.