With the world confronting the devastating effects of COVID-19 on everything from health to the economy, it has never been clearer that public policy and principled leadership matter. Today’s Kennedy School students are learning what they need to know to become these future leaders—and these students will have an impact on the policies and programs that assist some of our globe’s most vulnerable people.
“The world really needs the kind of public leaders that we are training at the Kennedy School, and we are working to ensure that the excellent education they receive on campus will continue virtually,” says Debbie Isaacson MPP 2000, senior associate dean for degree programs and student affairs at HKS. A graduate of the Kennedy School herself, Isaacson has devoted her career to nurturing the next generation of public leaders. “Education can be transformative,” she says, “and that’s why it’s so important that we continue to offer the best education in public policy and an overall experience that is both personally and professionally fulfilling to the most talented students from around the world.”
Isaacson fondly remembers her time as an HKS student, especially the feeling of community and possibility she felt when she arrived on campus. “I know what it’s like to be a first-year student at HKS, and it was important to me that we create a strong sense of community and excitement about our collective passion to make a difference in the world, even though we welcomed students to a virtual campus this fall.”
As the School pivoted quickly to remote learning last spring and prepared to offer a fully remote option for the fall of 2020, Isaacson says the support of alumni via their time and financial resources has been crucial. “The price of an HKS education is a significant barrier for a lot of potential students,” she says. “We are hearing from returning students and those scheduled to start in the fall that the pandemic has created an even more daunting financial burden as personal savings have eroded and outside funders are themselves struggling to provide support. So the opportunity to reduce this burden for students—people we’ve selected because they’re smart individuals—to come HKS to address so many of the problems we are confronting today—racism, the pandemic, failures of leadership, and the climate crisis, just to name a few—is so critically important.”
The class of 2020 graduated in the most uncertain of circumstances: a global lockdown, myriad travel rules, and economic difficulties across sectors, all caused by COVID-19. The formidable Kennedy School alumni network sprang into action to help them by offering everything from career mentoring to summer internships. They also opened their wallets for current students, donating funds to help those experiencing economic hardships as a result of the pandemic.
Faculty and administrators at the School also assisted: Some administrators took pay cuts and some donated additional funds. “It’s been wonderful to see how many people have stepped up, from alumni to friends of the School to faculty and staff,” says Isaacson, who is a member of the HKS Fund’s Littauer and Loyalty Societies.
The challenges last spring were real. “Our primary concern was the health and safety of our students,” says Isaacson. There was also the question of how to finish the spring semester remotely. “It required collective effort,” says Isaacson. “Faculty really rose to the occasion, pivoting their classes to be entirely online with little advance notice and even conducting a series of pop-up seminars on a range of topics, some to do with COVID and others not, for students whose spring break plans were interrupted. Staff worked overtime to provide additional support, and students came up with lots of creative ways to keep spirits high and stay connected despite their physical distance from one another.
The year may have concluded remotely, but Isaacson says the passion and energy that the Kennedy School community is known for are stronger than ever. “Remote teaching and learning certainly have challenges, but our students, faculty, and staff have continued to exhibit extraordinary dedication to ensuring that our year unfolds in true Kennedy School fashion: with an inspiring sense of community and unwavering commitment to excellence.”