Questions 101

The countdown began on February 28. I was jogging across Tercentenary Theatre (coincidentally, the site of my impending graduation) when I was...

The countdown began on February 28. I was jogging across Tercentenary Theatre (coincidentally, the site of my impending graduation) when I was addressed by one of my classmates. At the foot of the Widener steps, standing before one of the standard-issue crimson-and-white "Class of 2001" banners, was a young man with a bullhorn. "Seniors!" he shouted. "Only 101 days left until graduation."

His somewhat crude reveille went straight to my gut. Was that really all the time I had left? At Harvard, where national holidays often pass unnoticed, this reckoning of external time was sudden and difficult to fathom. What was the 101-day celebration, if not a final campaign against the very real questions and consequential answers of adult life? Though I was ready for them, I was unsure how to give up my long-held student identity. Undergraduate issues had become predictable, even tedious: the weekly response paper, the exam, the problem set--here questions took on familiar form. But I felt I had only a halting command of what might be asked of me next. Suddenly, all of the inquiries lying fallow somewhere in my senior's psyche began to demand response. Had I used my time wisely, and well? What did I want from this new chapter of my life? Who was I to begin with, and who had I become?

Thus, Rochelle Mackey '01 immediately endeared herself to me when she said, "I think it's a really common thing at this point in your life not to know what you're doing."

Mackey is the guardian of Harvard's Grad Pledge 2001, a promise made by seniors to be socially and environmentally responsible after graduation and throughout their lives. It reads: "I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider, and will try to improve these aspects of any organizations for which I work." Participants wear a green ribbon at Commencement to symbolize their pledge. The program, founded at Humboldt State University in California in 1987, is now coordinated through Manchester College in Indiana. More than 50 schools in the United States, affiliated through the Graduation Pledge Alliance, take part in the program.

The stewards of the Grad Pledge at Harvard have devised some modifications to the national program. Sinead Walsh '00 led last year's effort to institute a more comprehensive pledge and ensure that it transcended tokenism. Participants from the class of 2000 received a wallet-size booklet, tailored by geographic region, providing information about volunteer opportunities and treating themes such as "socially responsible investing" and "international development/human rights." Updated versions of the book appear on the Harvard Grad Pledge website (www.hcs.harvard.edu/~gradpledge), and a list-serv was established so that participants could communicate long after graduation.

Walsh's other innovation was to require pledging seniors to attend a series of panels at which alumni and faculty members spoke about how social responsibility fit into their lives. One panel has been held so far this year; the speakers were Elisabeth Reynolds '88, from Initiative for a Competitive Inner City; Sheila Jasanoff, professor of science and public policy at the Kennedy School of Government; and Rebecca Onie '96, founder of Project HEALTH. Three more panels are planned for the spring. Not surprisingly, the increased obligation resulted in fewer pledges, but Mackey approves of the program she inherited. "We want to make sure that the people who sign up are committed," she says.

Grad Pledge undertakes its marketing effort in the fall, largely through poster and e-mail efforts. Although Mackey admits, "I think we already have the most support from groups involved in social awareness," she expects more seniors to commit after theses are finished in early spring. She and the rising seniors and juniors who will eventually take over the pledge have further goals. "This year we're trying to get the group more solidified on campus," says Mackey. "We also want to work with the alumni office to tag people who have signed up, so that we can monitor how it's running post-graduation." Harvard Grad Pledge representatives are also reaching out to the other members of the Ivy League, hoping to form a casual coalition.

Still, the pledge is more grassroots than Ivy: so far, the Harvard students have had little institutional assistance. Though the Office of Career Services (OCS) has allowed the group to post notices in its facility on Dunster Street, the pledge remains a self-motivated enterprise. "OCS definitely supports us in identifying resources," says Mackey. "They have been less supportive in helping us think about the career search and finding jobs that encompass social responsibility."

Searching for alternatives to corporate life can require self-reliance, since nonprofit organizations, which tend to hire on an as-needed basis, are unlikely to recruit students aggressively. Other venues for learning about service-oriented careers are becoming more commonplace, however. Phillips Brooks House recently founded an alumni association (PBHAA), so that public service has its own network for internships, fellowships, and jobs. OCS offered a day-long forum in spring of 2000 called "Careers in the Public Spirit," and hopes to follow up with a program to parallel its more traditional and business-oriented Career Week. The Grad Pledge did have its own table at the OCS-sponsored job fair in the fall, and spoke at the mandatory meeting that kicked off recruiting season.

Still, I am always shocked by the statistics on the eventual corporate matriculation of so many Harvard students. The numbers have represented for me the casualties of privilege. Seniors who sign the Grad Pledge, however, contract to admit no contradiction between their careers and their beliefs. Mackey wants to prove through personal example that the terms "corporate" and "socially responsible" need not be mutually exclusive. In September she will start working with federal agencies as an employee of Booz*Allen & Hamilton, the management and technology consulting firm, and she sees a direct parallel between her new job and the Grad Pledge. "Government, obviously, is something that touches all of us, and through consulting I can try to improve how it's run," she says. "I was definitely looking for certain qualities in a workplace: that it place priority on having some form of public service, and not be superficially committed." But before settling on Booz*Allen, Mackey says she looked at "tons of different jobs because I had no idea what I wanted to be doing. I want the Grad Pledge to be as flexible, and therefore as effective, as possible. It's meant to get people to ask themselves the question, 'What will the pledge mean to me?'"

Wells Wulsin '01, a fellow pledgee, echoes Mackey. "Anyone can do it," he says. "You don't have to be working in a soup kitchen to take the pledge. It can apply just as well if you're on Wall Street making mergers happen, or doing consulting. If you keep your conscience with you, then you can help influence important decisions in a way that reflects social and moral concerns. I think if my classmates eventually become the CEOs of these firms, they'll make decisions that are socially conscious--as long as they can hold onto their beliefs and don't succumb to a culture that tends to promote profit-driven decision making."

Other seniors consider the pledge a moral obligation after four years of opportunities at Harvard. "It's important to give something back," says Anne McLaughlin. "To whom much is given much is expected. I think it would be a shame if we didn't use that talent to make a positive difference." "The Grad Pledge is an expression of my priorities and of an awareness beyond myself, of a kind of indebtedness," says Gabrielle Dreyfus. "By coming to Harvard I'm very aware of the privileges I've had, and of the importance of passing on these opportunities to young people who might not necessarily have them. I can't imagine living without recognition of the plight of others and the devastation of the environment. Reading all the books in Widener isn't going to make you a better person. Learning something of value--of having values--is one of the most important parts of being educated."

Wulsin, a physics and philosophy concentrator, sees the pledge as a natural extension of what he has learned at Harvard. "I'm taking a class on the history of physics in the twentieth century, and we were talking about the creation of the atomic bomb. That is an extreme example, but it illustrates the kind of situation where you really have to step back and think, 'Is what I'm doing something I really believe in? What's going to come out of the work in which I participate?'"

The students who sign the Grad Pledge commit themselves to a lifelong practice of posing questions. "What does it mean to you to be socially and environmentally responsible?" Mackey asks. "Is it important to you to recycle, or vote, or do other things that have an impact? In your own life, will it interest you to do direct service, or community service on the weekends, or to interact with your family and give back in that way? I think these are very personal questions. And I think you have to ask them at various points throughout your life, because the answers change."

For my own part, I am less sure of how I will reconcile these impulses. But in the spirit of perpetual inquiry, I will take my own pledge this Commencement: never to let my questions become rhetorical. Ask, and act.

Read more articles by: Kirstin Butler

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