A lifelong learner, leader, and practitioner, David Gergen has dedicated his career to helping others chart their own paths in public service. Following over 20 years of dedicated involvement, Gergen is now celebrating his retirement from Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). Prior to HKS, Gergen spent over four decades serving as an advisor to U.S. Presidents from both parties, including Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Regan, and Bill Clinton. 

Gergen joined HKS as a professor of public service in 1999, inspired by the opportunity to work closely with a rising generation of younger leaders. “I spent most of my career working with the older generation, and it was time for the torch to pass,” he explains. Gergen’s involvement in the Kennedy School deepened as he became a founding director of the Center for Public Leadership (CPL) in 2000. Since its founding, CPL has supported over 1,000 HKS student fellows with educational scholarships, experiential learning opportunities, and access to mentorship and alumni networking.  

Two decades later, Gergen’s commitment to CPL’s mission remains steadfast. 

“The need for leadership is as pressing as ever,” voices Gergen. In addition to ensuring that students make the most of their time while attending HKS, Gergen continues to prioritize cultivating a community that supports students long after graduation.  

“There’s a tendency to believe that your time at university stops when you graduate. We’re hopeful to create communities where people want to work together for a lifetime,” says Gergen, emphasizing that learning is a lifelong pursuit, and the sooner students find this path, the better. 

Paramount to leadership development, in Gergen’s view, are opportunities for young leaders to pursue experiential learning, character development, and community building. Experiential learning, notes Gergen, provides students with the chance to translate theoretical concepts into real-life experiences. In addition to providing tangible skills, experiential learning offers students a more unique opportunity: to develop character traits and to strengthen communities. By nature, leadership positions require stepping into roles with no clear guidelines and navigating unknown territory with grace, confidence, and humility. But how can students develop these qualities? 

“There’s no substitute for what you learn from experience,” says Gergen. 

Gergen’s dedication to mentoring the next generation of public leaders, belief in learning by doing, and commitment to community has inspired CPL to create the David Gergen Summer Fellowship Program. Launching in Summer 2024, the fellowship is inspired by programs which have seen tremendous success using experiential learning as their primary technique. “The program itself is modeled after the White House fellowships where students frequently get the chance to work with powerful, influential people,” explains Gergen. 

Gergen’s background with experiential learning greatly informed his own career path. In his final college years during the early 60s, Gergen had the opportunity to work for Terry Sanford, former Governor of North Carolina.  

“I worked in four White Houses, but the most fulfilling experience I’ve had was working for Terry Sanford,” recalls Gergen. Working in the field and alongside a powerful individual when he had little experience was eye-opening.  

“You could feel [the work]. It wasn’t just theoretical,” Gergen explains. Similarly, after graduating from Harvard Law School and joining the Navy, Gergen oversaw a large team for the first time. Unlike traditional school assignments, this experience pushed Gergen to develop leadership skills and create a sense of community among his team. Although challenging, these experiences prepared Gergen for his future leadership roles by exposing him to different people, situations, and decision-making processes. 

With trust in both institutions and one another at a low point and change happening at faster rates, Gergen believes that today’s leaders must be adaptable and trustworthy. 

“How rapidly can you adjust to the extraordinary changes that are taking place at a highly charged rate?” he asks. Furthermore, in addition to navigating change, Gergen sees the need for future leaders to tap into a larger community of mentors. “Individuals can make a difference, but we can’t depend on them to change everything,” says Gergen. Leaders need to restore trust in institutions, organizations, and in each other to create large-scale, widespread change. 

“This fellowship program is an opportunity to honor David Gergen and his legacy and impact through service and leadership by creating opportunities for students to have impactful roles in government and nonprofit organizations,” says CPL alum Graves Tompkins, who is a member of the CPL Leadership Council. 

Tompkins, who served as a teaching assistant for David Gergen while a George Leadership Fellow at CPL, has played an instrumental role in building momentum around the fellowship program. Tompkins echoes Gergen’s appreciation for experiential learning, explaining that these opportunities allow students to “serve in these organizations in an impactful way” and provides them a “front row seat into what these service opportunities look like.” “The idea ultimately is that the summer job turns into a full-time opportunity,” shares Tompkins. 

“In addition to a summer internship, students will be able to tap into alums who will serve as mentors and coaches for the fellows,” says Tompkins. These mentorship opportunities will provide former students the chance to give back to the HKS communities that helped them get to where they are now.  

Leadership is cyclical, and Gergen acknowledges that being a leader is “not just what you can do. It’s also about if you can spot the talent that’s coming.” The Gergen Summer Fellowship Program will work with both individuals and organizations to welcome new leaders into different sectors. Through collaboration, the newer generation will learn from the older generations, and the older generations will have the opportunity to pass the torch, just as David Gergen has done. 

“Change is on the way, and more and more organizations now are investing in leadership,” says Gergen. With momentum from David Gergen’s legacy at HKS and generous support from alumni and HKS affiliates, the David Gergen Summer Fellowship Program is riding this wave.