Curiosity about the world has led Luo to a focus on international development.
APRIL 26, 2021
Since venturing to the United States on her own as a teenager, Lucy Luo MPA/ID 2022 has nurtured an interest in exploring the world. Luo was born and raised in Hunan, China, where her parents—a professor and a university administrator—instilled in her a love of learning and a curious mindset. But at the international high school in Massachusetts that she attended, Luo says, she “got to live with friends from all over the world.” That global interest eventually led Luo to Harvard Kennedy School and to the MPA/ID program, which, she says, “reminds me of my high school experience in how international it is.”
As a young person, Luo assumed she would follow in her father’s footsteps with a career in the sciences, but her experience abroad led her to explore a range of interests as an undergraduate at Bowdoin College in Maine, where she graduated with a BA in mathematics and government. “In college I discovered political philosophy. I was interested in important questions, but I had no idea this was a field you could study,” Luo says. She was also drawn to international relations and to economic development. “I started learning about the idea of the poverty trap, economic development, and global inequality more generally,” Luo explains. She realized that, although she had been aware of poverty in rural China, she had little knowledge about the depth of global inequality.
Her undergraduate experience set her on a course to learn more about development. But first Luo wanted to get some experience with financial markets, which she believed would give her a well-rounded set of skills if, in the future, she decided to pursue work at an institution like the World Bank. So, she spent a few years doing macroeconomics and credit research at Bank of America: “It attracted me because I was surrounded by smart people and could keep on learning—I didn’t study economics in college, so it was a great learning opportunity.”
With those new skills—and her deep curiosity—Luo applied for graduate programs in international development, selecting the MPA/ID at the Kennedy School because of the sense of community that she observed during a campus visit. Before joining her Kennedy School cohort, however, Luo wanted to get some hands-on experience. So, she undertook a Princeton in Africa Fellowship that matched her with the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa—a secondary school whose mission is to develop the next generation of African leaders. Luo dove into operations and strategy work for the academy. “I thought it was exciting to contribute in an on-the-ground capacity,” she says. “I thought, 'If I care about global inequality, Africa is a continent I need to get to know better, and it would be a good learning opportunity that would give me more diverse perspectives before starting the MPA/ID.’”
Luo’s experience in South Africa coincided with the global COVID-19 pandemic. And while many international volunteers and workers left the country, Luo chose to remain. “My colleagues from South Africa weren’t going anywhere,” she says. “The students weren’t going anywhere. I felt so privileged to even have the option to leave. So, I stayed.”
With her Kennedy School experience beginning with remote teaching and learning, Luo first spent the first few months of her MPA/ID program in China, doing Zoom classes at 10 p.m. because of the time zone difference, before making her way to Cambridge last January. “It was a very, very long journey,” Luo says, “but I made it.”
Luo made full use of her time in the program—and recognizes the determination of her peers to pursue graduate school amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. “I’m very grateful to be part of this cohort,” she says. “I think everything that has happened has brought us closer. When we got here in person, we were very intentional about building community. I feel very at home.” Luo also valued the leadership skills she developed at the School, including “the importance and the power of true curiosity in difficult conversations, leading people, and creating change.”
At the Kennedy School, Luo has continued her focus on Africa. Luo says, “I am very well aware that I am not from the continent, and I do not want to be doing a job that may be better done by someone else from there or perpetuate global inequality further.” While she is excited about opportunities in Africa, she wants to be a “connection, resource, or partner who can empower my African friends rather than taking opportunities away from them.” In addition to her Kennedy School coursework, she took the opportunity to do a summer internship at the Growth Lab, housed in the Center for International Development, working with the National Bank of Ethiopia on monetary policy research and central bank communications. And for her Second Year Policy Analysis (SYPA), she focused on “upgrading” Ghana’s cocoa bean exports to capture more value from the global value chain.
Luo’s SYPA experience nurtured an interest in food and agribusiness—one that she wants to explore further. This topic appeals to her, in part, because it reminds her of home: “When I was growing up in China, we would go to my great-grandfather’s village, and I would see what they were doing on farms with chickens, pig pens, and vegetable gardens. It felt very tangible. From a macro perspective, in most developing countries there is still a lot of employment in agriculture.”
While Luo is headed to McKinsey & Company in 2023, she is continuing to define her interests in the development space through research and part-time opportunities. As she explores, Luo remains driven by her curiosity and her desire to put what she has learned at the Kennedy School into practice—and to make a difference in a dynamic environment. “I want to be part of something that is growing,” she says
Portraits by Lydia Carmichael Rosenberg