Letters | The View from mass hall
On Public Service
When I became president of Harvard I had the privilege of getting to know Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. We would meet for breakfast at Parkman House on Beacon Hill or at Elmwood here in Cambridge, and he would offer guidance drawn from his many years spent serving the public. When he wrote me a note of thanks after Harvard awarded him an honorary degree and signed it “Your friend, Dr. Menino,” I smiled at his evident pleasure in his new title—and filled with pride that he called me his friend. He was a great leader and a great teacher, and I will forever be one of his grateful students.
In November, I attended Mayor Menino’s funeral and listened as his colleagues, friends, and family described what he meant to them and to the countless people whose lives he touched. Mitchell Weiss ’99, M.B.A. ’04, who served as the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, delivered a moving eulogy, describing the many ways in which people came to love a man who dedicated his career and much of his life to making the lives of others better. “They loved you,” he recalled, “when you said things like ‘I am Mayor of all the people. And government is for helping people.’ And when you meant it. And when that made it okay for them to believe it was true and to make it so.”
Public service challenges us to pose fundamental questions about who we are: What is your responsibility to others? What values guide your work? What kind of society do you want to see? Students across the University are eager to explore these questions as part of their education, examining the meaning and purpose of their lives as they determine where to direct their talents. Each year, for example, some 1,600 volunteers serve Greater Boston through the Phillips Brooks House Association. Since its founding in 1904, the Association has grown to include more than 80 programs led by undergraduates, including summer camps for local children, mentoring and tutoring programs, and the nation’s first student-run homeless shelter.
In recent years, Harvard has created new opportunities for students to put theory into practice and to connect policy with on-the-ground issues. In 2011, I launched the Presidential Public Service Fellowship Program to support 10 students from across the University in a summer project or internship. I sit down with them in the fall to hear about their work and to learn more about what inspires them. Their areas of focus are diverse—advancing affordable housing and community development in Chicago, advocating for a leadership program for parents of public school children in San Francisco, increasing access to dental care throughout central and western Massachusetts, and working for a crowd-funding charity that connects donors to teachers and classrooms across the country. But they all share a deep satisfaction with their work, describing their experiences as “the most fulfilling,” “the most meaningful,” and “life-altering.”
Of the Fellows who have graduated, half are currently working in the government, education, or non-profit sectors. For many students, however, choosing a path that is less well defined than those leading to careers in the private sector is too uncertain to be appealing. This fall, in an effort to ensure that students in Harvard College have a better understanding of the opportunities available to them, the Center for Public Interest Careers, the Institute of Politics, and the Office of Career Services organized the first-ever Public Service Recruiting Day. Twenty employers came to campus for a day of one-on-one interviews with nearly 100 seniors, giving them the opportunity to see how their interests and skills can translate into careers that they may not have seriously considered otherwise.
“Enter to grow in wisdom. Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.” These imperatives, penned by my predecessor Charles William Eliot and carved into Dexter Gate, continue to inspire students no matter their field or discipline. Like my friend Dr. Menino, they believe in the power of public service. Encouraging them to transform their lives by making a difference in the lives of others ought to be among our highest aspirations.