By Carol Kerbaugh

Each spring semester, the From Harvard Square to the Oval Office program brings together Harvard graduate students to prepare them to run for political office at the local, state, and national levels.

Led by Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program, From Harvard Square to the Oval Office is a non-partisan, co-curricular political training program that prepares HKS graduate studentsincluding women and others who are traditionally underrepresented in political officeto run for public office.   

Through mentorship and trainings, students in the program grow their networks, gain valuable campaign skills, and build a community of peers who share an interest in political life. The program’s skills-based workshops focus on topics including field operations, public speaking, fundraising, debate preparation, polling, and resilience.  

We spoke to several students about their experiences in the Oval Office program. Here’s what they shared.  

headshot of Ananya Chhaichharia wearing a red suitAnanya Chhaochharia MPP 2024

Ananya Chhaochharia worked as a political strategist in India before coming to HKS, advising political candidates on campaign strategy and field operations. Despite her extensive background in political campaigns prior to participating in the Oval Office program, she found the program enlightening. 

“Typically, when you are learning about politics or campaign management, you’re not doing it through a gendered lens,” she says. “All of the discussions we had in the Oval Office program were from a specific, gendered perspective. As aspiring women leaders, we could be vulnerable, sharing our fears and inhibitions. It helped me realize I don’t have to emulate masculine traits to be an effective leader.” 

In addition to her political campaign experience, Chhaochharia is the founder of Paint It Red, a nonprofit that provides structured menstrual education and awareness to adolescents in India. 

“While I worked in the political sphere to train candidates, I didn’t get an opportunity to work with many women candidates,” she explains. “My nonprofit became a way for me to bridge that gap until I am the person creating policies for women.” 

She is supporting the Oval Office program this year as a student ambassador after being a program participant last year. 

“I don’t believe leaders are born; I believe leaders are made,” she says. “Being a student ambassador for the Oval Office program provides an avenue for me to mentor, train, and coach women who will someday be powerful leaders. One of the most gratifying parts of my life is to see young women take on positions of power and to have played a role in making that happen.” 

After graduating in May, Chhaochharia will return to the geopolitical strategy firm where she interned last summer and will focus on U.S.-India strategy. She will also continue to play a consultative role running Paint It Red.

“All of the discussions we had in the Oval Office program were from a specific, gendered perspective. As aspiring women leaders, we could be vulnerable, sharing our fears and inhibitions.”

Ananya Chhaochharia MPP 2024

headshot of Zantana EphremZantana Ephrem MPP 2024

Zantana Ephrem has long had a passion for foreign affairs.

“From a young age, I had my eye on what was happening in the world and felt invested in how the foreign policy decisions made in the United States affect people in the Global South.”

Before enrolling at HKS, Ephrem was a foreign affairs legislative correspondent for U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV). 

“I worked closely with a lot of elected officials and witnessed how often brilliant policy ideas tend to fail if they don’t have the right people in politics pushing them forward.” 

She started exploring the possibility of entering the political realm to help these great policy ideas flourish—that’s where the Oval Office program came in. 

“Being part of a network of visionary women from around the globe has been an enriching experience,” she explains. “It has provided me with invaluable insights and inspiration from diverse perspectives.”

Ephrem participated in the 2022-2023 Oval Office program and, like Ananya Chhaochharia MPP 2024, is a student ambassador this year. She is focused on ensuring that the program’s content is applicable to participants from around the world. 

“When you have students from so many different countries, it’s difficult to make the content applicable to each country’s political situation. Ananya and I are helping to bridge that gap.”

As a Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellow, Ephrem will spend the next five years as a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of State.

Group of women posing for a picture in front of screen
The Honorable Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, former Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico (center), with WAPPP Executive Director Nicole Carter Quinn (to Mayor Cruz’s left) with the 2024 Oval Office cohort. Since 2022, when Mayor Cruz was a WAPPP Leader in Practice and CPL Hauser Fellow, she has presented to Oval Office students on ‘Resiliency on the Campaign Trail,’ a presentation inspired by her leadership in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Photo credit: Lexi Serino

 

headshot of Kathy Gutierrez AbantoKatherine Gutierrez Abanto MPA/ID 2025

Growing up in San Pablo, Cajamarca—Peru’s poorest province—Kathy Gutierrez Abanto became increasingly aware of the inequalities in Peru and throughout Latin America. She felt compelled to work in government and public policy to address these issues. 

“I had the opportunity to attend Peru’s first public boarding school, which allowed me to understand my country and its people,” she says. “After that, I was inspired to work to build a better Peru.” 

She pursued an undergraduate degree in economics and, before enrolling in the MPA/ID Program, worked for Peru’s Ministry of Education, Ministry of Economy and Finance, and the Inter-American Development Bank, among other organizations. She came to HKS to deepen her expertise in development economics and explore how she might affect change to benefit communities in Peru. 

“I was frustrated by the political instability in Peru and asked myself, ‘what is my role in the coming years in my country?’,” she reflects. “One thing that is very important to me, on a personal level, is the concept of opening doors and generating better opportunities for people.”

Gutierrez Abanto sought out the Oval Office program to practice soft skills such as leadership to complement the quantitative skills she is learning in the MPA/ID Program. 

She recalls how empowered she felt after the first session of the Oval Office program.  

“We started off, for example, by saying: ‘My name is Kathy. I am from Peru. I will run for office.’ That moment was powerful because it was the first time I vocalized what I wanted to do.” 

Through the program, she developed new insight into the tactics and strategies of running for office, from managing endorsements to fundraising. She also gained confidence and a community.  

“I didn’t have many role models in Peru. Many politicians are male, and many are looking out for their own self-interest,” she says. “The Oval Office program has given me the opportunity to believe more in myself and find those role models.”

 

headshot of Vivian PhamVivian Pham MC/MPA 2024

The daughter of Vietnamese refugees and a social worker by training, Vivian Pham previously worked for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services and was the inaugural chief of staff for the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission before coming to HKS. 

Pham is attending HKS through the competitive Bradford Fellowship Program, a partnership between HKS and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that allows senior leaders in state government to complete the one-year MC/MPA Program 

Pham knew she wanted to continue her career in government and saw her year at HKS as an opportunity to reflect and recharge. She didn’t expect to discover an interest in running for office.

“The beauty of HKS is that you can come in with a goal and then be moved to do something more challenging or be called to act,” she explains. “I’ve realized I can see myself running for office. In fact, I almost feel a responsibility to do so given the opportunities I’ve had.”

She was drawn to the Oval Office program once she started thinking about running for office.

“The Oval Office program is the first time I’ve been in a room with other people with such similar aspirations—and fears,” Pham reflects. “Being able to talk openly, particularly with other women of color, about our fears and hesitancies has been transformative. I want to prove that Vietnamese-American women can exist in these spaces. There’s value in us being here.” 

In addition to the Oval Office program, Pham credits MLD-326: Principles and Politics When Running for Office, taught by former Governor of Massachusetts Professor Deval Patrick, with empowering her to run for office.

“The Oval Office program gives you a lot of tactics and strategies for running a campaign,” she explains, “but Governor Patrick’s class helps you to explore your purpose and your ‘why’.” 

Pham aspires to serve as governor of Massachusetts one day but says even if she doesn’t end up running for office, her primary goal will always be to serve communities.

“I’m invested in building and sustaining communities and working to ensure that all people live and thrive in their communities of choice.”

Vivian Pham and State Rep Tram Nguyen posing for a picture
Tram T. Nguyen MC/MPA 2024 (left) and Vivian Pham  MC/MPA 2024 pose for a picture. As part of the Oval Office luncheon series, Vivian moderated a conversation with State Representative Nguyen about her experience serving as the highest-ranking Asian American woman in the state legislature. Photo credit: Lexi Serino

headshot of Alisha ShapariaAlisha Shaparia MPP 2024

Before coming to HKS, Alisha Shaparia worked in multilateral climate advocacy for the United Nations Climate Change High-Level Champions for COP26 and COP27, and previously, in strategy consulting. She was drawn to HKS to build skills and address blind spots as she navigated a pivot into public service.

“I am a firm believer that you don’t know what you don’t know,” she says. “There are career paths I hadn’t even contemplated before I came to HKS. During my time here, I’ve pushed myself to step out of my comfort zone. The Oval Office program was one of those opportunities.”

She started the program with limited knowledge of the political lifecycle and has since learned about a wide range of topics—from campaign planning to media strategy. As an action-oriented person, she finds the practical lessons and checklists offered by the program particularly valuable.

“For a lot of people, especially women, there is an apprehension around running for office,” she explains. “What sacrifices will I have to make in my personal life? Can I run for office as an immigrant? How authentic can I be? The program addressed these questions head on and provided tangible solutions.” 

The Oval Office program—in combination with courses in leadership, negotiations, economics, and communications—has expanded the realm of possibilities for her future.

“My time at the Kennedy School has cemented a long-standing interest in policy and international relations. Meeting world leaders and learning from inspiring peers has been incredibly empowering. I trust in the process of self-evolution and no longer feel limited in what can achieve. The psychological glass ceiling has been shattered,” she reflects. 

 

headshot of Mackenzie ThomasMackenzie Thomas MC/MPA 2024

Mackenzie Thomas traces her commitment to community advocacy to her time as an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

“I quickly joined the front lines of protests and advocacy around gender-inclusive housing and the importance of public education,” she reflects.

After graduation in 2013, she began working for Google, where she focused on building the company’s product equity and inclusive storytelling efforts, most recently around responsible AI. Throughout her work at Google, she says, there has been a thread of centering and elevating marginalized and historically under-represented communities in technologies used by billions of people daily. 

Thomas is also an avid advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, volunteering with political campaigns locally and nationally and building networks that fight for the true diversity of the LGBTQ+ community. 

As an HKS student, she has explored new subjects from equitable city development to transportation policy to justice movements. She’s also working on an independent Reading and Research project on the role of LGBTQ athletes in politics and protest since Title IX, the federal civil rights law that protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal funding.

Thomas says she looked to the Oval Office program as a space to create community among a group of women and non-binary individuals who share a commitment to bringing their voices to spaces not built for them. 

“The crux of this is around representation,” she explains. “It’s about exploring what happens when we shift who is in power and recognizing the power in our own voices, especially those voices that have long been pushed aside. But it goes beyond just representation. It’s about actively challenging the status quo to make real change.” 

“It’s about exploring what happens when we shift who is in power and recognizing the power in our own voices, especially those voices that have long been pushed aside…It’s about actively challenging the status quo to make real change.”

Mackenzie Thomas MC/MPA 2024
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