Wei Luo MPP 2017 believes conscious citizenship is what makes good public servants.
By Calee Lucht
April 24, 2017
In Harvard Kennedy School’s Master in Public Policy Program, he models this belief and shares it as a bridge to connect others.
Luo came to the United States when he was six years old, the son of an immigrant family from China. His parents didn't have much money and their English language skills were limited, but they taught Luo that in the United States—a land of freedom and opportunity—he could do anything he set his mind to, as long as he was willing to work hard.
“Immigrants like my family love this country,” says Luo. “We came to pursue dreams. We believe in democracy. My parents voted for the first time in this [2016 U.S. presidential] election. For them, politics had always recalled the Cultural Revolution in China—not being heard or taking part. Now, they’re more engaged and more in tune. They have a voice.”
The power of voice
Luo didn’t speak English when he arrived in the U.S. as a child. He was different. He was picked on. He straddled two cultures, and didn’t feel like he fit in either one.
Then, in high school, he discovered martial arts, and his perspective underwent a profound shift. He found himself.
For Luo, martial arts integrated discipline, health, and culture. His multicultural background helped him navigate these pillars and understand that strength comes from their convergence. He learned to embrace the uniqueness of who he was—a solidity that came from the union of seemingly disparate experiences and elements.
“The core of martial arts is self-empowerment,” Luo says. “You are yourself. Embrace your identity, skills and dreams—then you can overcome obstacles that come your way.”
Policy impacts real people
Traditionally, martial arts were used in service to one’s country. And Luo had a hunger for public service.
He had experienced firsthand how public policy affects people’s lives. His parents moved frequently as they carved out a path for themselves in North America, which took them to Canada for a few years. They came back to the U.S. in 2001 through a NAFTA visa. All told, it took them 20 years to gain U.S. citizenship: in 2012, they finally attained this privilege.
“So, public policy impacts real people’s lives,” Luo says. “It can’t be formulated in a vacuum.”
Luo understands that education is also a form of self-empowerment, and he sees a need to connect individual voices and stories—like those of his family—to the larger policy agenda. He decided to enroll at HKS and dedicate his full energies to serving the community and country that he loves.
“I chose the Master in Public Policy Program at HKS because no other school comes close in terms of preparing students for public leadership. I constantly find myself deciding between various once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.” He sees that as a very good problem to have.
He acknowledges that the 2016-2017 academic year has been a turbulent one, with the U.S. presidential elections amplifying the divisiveness of political and personal ideologies. Luo, who serves as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper The Citizen, quickly grasped that it could provide a channel for students to share their perspectives; Luo actively encourages students to voice their beliefs.
“My main role as editor-in-chief is to bring people’s voices to the forefront and help facilitate the marketplace of ideas that is HKS,” says Luo. “We need to do it here, to find truth: Veritas.”
Connection in diversity
In addition to diverse beliefs, Luo also sees incredible optimism and hopefulness in the student body.
He views being here during the elections as a huge learning experience, inside and outside the classroom. After the election, he saw students rebounding and realizing that staying in their comfort zones was just not useful. More proactive efforts were made to consciously seek out opposing viewpoints and to reflect on the big questions that affect us all.
Luo has served as a catalyst for this process. As co-chair of the Electoral Politics Professional Interest Council (PIC), he acts as liaison between the HKS student body and the Institute of Politics (IOP), which was originally founded to inspire undergraduates to careers in public service. The PIC partners with both the HKS Democratic and Republican Caucuses, hosting coffee chats to foster dialogue. True to his upbringing and martial arts training, Luo is straddling worlds—and connecting them to make them stronger.
The gift of citizenship
Luo says one of his most enriching experiences at HKS was working with the IOP to moderate a breakfast with Gary Locke, former U.S. Ambassador to China, U.S. Secretary of Commerce, and Governor of Washington state.
“I'll never forget the intimate conversation between Governor Locke and a handful of students. Governor Locke encouraged us to use of the ‘gift of citizenship’ to better society for our generation and beyond. I walked out feeling even more inspired about my path of public service.”
HKS has empowered Luo to integrate multiple channels of information inside the classroom, as well.
“My professors at HKS challenge me intellectually and have helped me grow professionally. To name just a few: Richard Parker pushed me to think in an interdisciplinary manner, linking economics, politics, religion and history to analyze our most challenging public policy issues. Professor Jane Mansbridge deepened my understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of democratic institutions. Professor Frances Kamm challenged my most fundamental assumptions with difficult cases involving ethical and moral decision-making in government.”
For Luo, rigorous classes were a daily reminder that the task of pushing beyond the limits of his present knowledge would be both difficult and rewarding.
In addition, Luo is a teaching fellow for Harvard Professor Greg Mankiw’s undergraduate course “Principles of Economics,” which allows Luo to see the classroom from a different perspective.
“As the leader in the classroom, I take responsibility for every student's learning. If one student does not understand a topic, it's my responsibility to help him or her master that topic. That is leadership to me, and that relationship between leadership and responsibility holds true regardless of context.”
“Ask What You Can Do”
As he nears the completion of his two-year policy degree, how does Luo envision himself serving?
“I want to tackle real public policy challenges. HKS has equipped me with the competence and confidence to contribute to policy decisions that affect the lives of large numbers of people, not just a single company's bottom line.”
For Luo, the Kennedy School motto, "Ask what you can do," translates into "self-sacrifice."
“We live in a society where pursuing one's self-interest is the norm,” he says. “If you want to dedicate yourself to ideals and pursuits larger than yourself, you must be willing to make personal sacrifices. I believe that every person can serve in their own way. Commit yourself to making a difference, and start! If you genuinely believe in what you're doing, it'll be worth it.”
Now, he plans to consciously catalyze the vast wealth of insights he has gained as he works to become a transformative public leader.
The model citizen.