Graduating HKS Students Look Back as They Go Forward

May 23, 2014
by Julie Galante

The days leading up to commencement are rife with as much anticipation as busy to-do lists. But in the quiet lulls somewhere in between, graduating students like Gulzar Natarajan MPA/ID 2014, Marissa Davis MPP 2014, and Jo Adamson MC/MPA 2014 have been reflecting on their Harvard Kennedy School experience just as they are about to slip into their caps and gowns to usher in new beginnings.

Some arrived at HKS to build concrete skills. Some came looking for clarity and answers. Some surprised themselves by finding new interests. But their reflections attest that these three share a commitment to be smarter, more effective, and more strategic in advancing the public interest.

Gulzar Natarajan arrived at HKS to further his 14-year career at the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) where he had been implementing development policies for a state government in India. He knew he needed to learn new skills and be exposed to the policies and practices necessary to make shrewder development happen on the ground.

“There are plenty of well-intentioned people working on solutions for global development challenges, including public functionaries like me,” Natarajan said. But “even when our heart is in the right place, we could be a lot smarter about our work – smarter in analyzing development issues, smarter in comprehending the multiple dimensions of governance failures, and smarter in the conceptual design and implementation of policies.”

His two years at HKS have instilled in him the belief that for any development initiative to be successful, it has to be reconciled with the competing demands of “technical correctness, political supportability, and administrative feasibility,” the MPA/ID program’s chief theme. Having this understanding, let alone the skills and framework he learned at the Kennedy School, will allow him to be more productive in his career going forward.

But above else, his personal connections – with professors and classmates – are the greatest resource he will take with him to India.

“I feel reassured that I can draw on this network to help surmount professional challenges I am likely to face ahead in my career,” Natarajan said. But “nothing is more cherished than the friendships that have been forged, which will remain forever.”

Marissa Davis was looking for clarity and answers on how she could serve disadvantaged communities more effectively. She hoped by coming to HKS that she would be exposed to knowledge that she hadn’t given herself the time or space to explore deeply.

“My thought was that upon completing HKS, I would have a whole set of new skills to add to my tool box and be better equipped to address some of the social inequities, particularly poverty and institutionalized racism, that I believed necessitated a more strategic approach,” she said.

Insight from her classes helped her to learn that to serve better required examining how to be a better leader and negotiator. Senior Lecturer in Public Policy Brian Mandell’s course on negotiation analysis fundamentally changed the way she sees the world and her place in it, and helped her to understand and use her power to create results for the people and issues she cares about.

“That is such a useful skill to have, and especially so for a woman of color who in a broader historical and political context is often perceived to be less powerful and assertive,” she said. “I learned at HKS how being an effective leader demands a profound level of self-awareness, acknowledging your shortcomings, and finding the right team to compensate for those and complement your strengths.”

But Davis said she also learned a great deal outside of the classroom about how to be a better leader. As a Cultural Bridge Fellow at the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP), Davis spent last summer in Port Elizabeth, South Africa where she developed a group support program for young teenaged girls. It was there, she said, that she was challenged to exercise leadership in a new way.

As she reflected on her past two years, Davis realized that she will certainly leave HKS with new skills in her tool box but not with all the answers she came looking for initially.

“I don’t need to have all the answers,” she said. “I can feel comfortable not being the expert in everything but that I have a special role to play in realizing a greater vision of our world by virtue of manifesting the best skills and assets that are unique to my own personal and professional experiences.”

Jo Adamson, a British diplomat since 1989, decided to take a year away from the “diplomatic trenches,” she said, to get a deeper understanding of some of the most pressing public policy challenges facing the international community.

She focused on developing her analytical skills so she could produce more evidence-based policy recommendations going forward. But for someone who admits not being an early riser, she was particularly surprised by how much she relished her 8:40 a.m. innovation and technology class taught by Professor Calestous Juma.

“I am now obsessed with how innovative technology can help to solve big policy problems like climate change and food security,” she said. “Just call me Ambassador Gadget.”

But when she thought about her year at HKS more broadly, Adamson said she now understands that to be a change-maker in the 21st century requires more than just vision and charisma.

“You need to draw on the knowledge and wisdom of people from different sectors and countries to produce sustainable change,” she said. “You have to understand people’s underlying motivations – and your own – to have any hope of persuading people to take a course of action. I will use this learning to help me navigate my future postings as a UK diplomat.”

As they close their HKS chapter this week, Natarajan, Davis, and Adamson are marching toward another – equipped with the insights, skills, and perspectives needed to change the world through public service.

Natarajan will be returning to the Government of India as an officer at the IAS, where he hopes to lead policy formation and implementation in different development sectors at the state and federal government levels.

Meanwhile, Davis said she wants to team up with her classmate Leah Shearer MPP 2014 to start a social venture that builds partnerships with local farmers and nonprofits to bring affordable produce to communities that need it the most in a fast and feasible way.

And as for Adamson, she is flying back to the United Kingdom the day after commencement to start training for her new post as UK Ambassador to Mali and Niger, which she will assume in August.
“The year at HKS has already been great preparation for the job,” Adamson said. “It’s going to be challenging but I can’t wait to get started.”

Gulzar Natarajan

Gulzar Natarajan MPA/ID 2014
Photo Credit: Martha Stewart

“I don’t need to have all the answers.  I can feel comfortable not being the expert in everything but that I have a special role to play in realizing a greater vision of our world by virtue of manifesting the best skills and assets that are unique to my own personal and professional experiences.” -- Marissa Davis MPP 2014

Jo Abramson

Jo Adamson MC/MPA 2014 speaking at the 2011 UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva
Photo Credit: Pierre Virot, United Nations


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