Three HKS students kicked off the School’s annual Public Service Week on Monday by sharing their experiences in the military, government, and nonprofit realms and offering tips for soon-to-be graduates. Director of the Center for Public Leadership (CPL) and Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman set the tone for the discussion by acknowledging that public service can happen outside of a career through volunteering, mentoring, and donating. “There are all kinds of ways that we can each meet our obligation towards public service, particularly in this time of COVID,” she said.
Alexander de Avila MPP 2021, who is also a CPL Black Family Fellow, moderated the discussion among classmates Hassaan Ebrahim MPP 2021, the CEO of Hikma Health; Charlene Han MC/MPA 2021, a former policy director in the Singapore Ministry of Social and Family Development; and Bill Walker MC/MPA 2021, a former Marine Corps pilot and a CPL Black Family Fellow.
Ebrahim, who along with his brother founded a medical nonprofit to provide free healthcare to refugees, said that he was driven by a desire to build genuine relationships and connections with other people. “During the midst of Syrian revolution and the refugee crisis, almost 13 million refugees have spun out of this conflict,” Ebrahim said. “And as a Syrian American, halfway around the world, I thought, ‘What can I do?’” He realized that one way he could help was through technology: clinicians in the region did not have easy ways to collect and access their patients’ data. “My brother and I started Hikma Health to build that sort of technology that can be useful on the ground, specifically with refugees in mind,” Ebrahim explained.
“In this pandemic world in which we're living, it is just so tough to think about Public Service Week, but in many ways, it's good because it forces us to get outside of ourselves.”
Han discussed how her experiences helping families in Singapore through government service gave her a sense of purpose and impact, an opportunity for growth, and a people-focused perspective. Before coming to HKS, she took a top-down approach. “We worked as though ‘data is king,’ but it was not community focused; it did not put people in the center,” she explained. “Before HKS, I was afraid to ask, ‘What do you need?’ HKS taught me to look at things from other people’s perspectives and meet them where they are.” Han says she joined government service out of curiosity but stayed out of choice: “I see people who are filled with so much energy and they are doing their best every day. I think that really inspires.”
After joining the U.S. Marines in college, Walker didn’t plan on long-term military service. “It grows on you,” he said. “Like any meaningful impact an organization can have on someone, you want to stick around.” Walker found his service was born out of gratitude and patriotism. But it also gave him the chance to be a part of something bigger than himself. “When I came to the Kennedy School, I was blown away by how wide the aperture gets on what people are doing in the realm of public service and how meaningful that is to the country,” he noted. He argued that meaningful military service can be a “vessel for common good” and innovation.
Despite the students’ different public service experiences, all three had a simple directive for their peers: Just go for it. “Stay open to new opportunities,” said Han. “Military service offers so many opportunities; apply your field of expertise to the military world” added Walker. “Being here at HKS has reminded me of the importance of centering yourself within a community,” Ebrahim said. “And also elevating the voices that are missing from the decision-making table.”
Check out opportunities to volunteer during Public Service Week.