Home > Musings > My life at and after Harvard…

My life at and after Harvard…

June 2, 2010

One year just flew by! It feels like I came to Harvard only yesterday, and it has already been nearly a year since I came here. When I announced that I would come to the Harvard Kennedy School, there were many questions – whether the program would be useful for me, whether I was seeking to give up my non-profit work and social activism, how would I fund myself through the program, on the sacrifices that my family would have to make, on my father’s health, etc.

All my life, I was used to certainty amidst uncertainty and clarity amidst confusion. I felt confident of coming here with no known source of funding and with all the questions still remaining unanswered or partially answered. I came with the idea that I would learn – learn why poverty is still an issue in most countries; learn about the experiences of extraordinary people from around the world; learn why some of the things that I did worked and why some did not; learn about myself and my own prejudices and biases. And I was not disappointed in this last one year. There was so much to learn and so little time. So many of my practitioner experiences were indeed validated and so many negated. I understood the enormous gap between practitioner experience and academic knowledge. I also learnt how difficult it is for a founder of an organization to lay down office, step aside and let others do what you had been doing all along. The last one-year was a year of reflections, study and quiet contemplation.

Harvard was also much more than just classroom learning. In fact, I learnt more outside the classroom – from my friends and colleagues from different parts of the world and different sectors with such rich experiences and wisdom. I learnt about the real issues in Serbia, the problems of the people of Zimbabwe, on why the Israel-Palestine conflict looks unsolvable, the corruption in Nigeria and the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. The list goes on…and they were all enriching and comprehensive perspectives from people who were there and had done that.

The last one-year was also such a humbling experience and helped me learn that while what I had done was important, there was still so much more that I was capable of and needed to do. It also showed me how little I knew and that there were no real answers but only different ways of asking questions. I also came to realize that Harvard for me was not just the ‘Mecca of Learning’ but was also providing me a safe sanctuary through a difficult year of transition in my life.

I experienced first hand what higher education should be and could be. I came to enjoy the depth and width of the learning experiences. I took courses in the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School and at MIT-Sloan. I also spoke at conferences and seminars across Harvard and many other universities across the US. I found such joy in ‘learning’ that I was tempted many a time to stay back and do more of it. I also had such a wonderful time discussing with professors and arguing with them on why I thought that what they taught would not work in the ‘real world’. I tried convincing the Dean of the School that the views of the school vis-à-vis public service was incomplete and had to go beyond being in the Government or being a politician or working for a multi-lateral agency. I had to spend time convincing many that civil society initiatives and the world of non-profits was as crucial and critical for development as the other traditional sectors. As a Fellow at the Hauser Center for Non-Profits, I also learnt how similar and how different the NGOs of the North were from those of the South.

The last one-year was also difficult personally. With my wife and son back home, I learnt how much I had always taken them for granted. I realized how important they were to me and the role that they played in my successes. Losing my father mid-way through the course was another major blow to me. When I decided to go and live with the tribals at 22 years of age, all that my father wanted me to do before going was to acquire more knowledge and competence. I had then laughed him off and thought that experience would be all the knowledge that I would need. I know how much my Harvard degree meant to him. I miss him so much and I’m yet to reconcile with his demise. He will always be a part of me.

At the Graduation ceremony…

As the year was coming to a close, many asked me what I would do and whether I would go back to working with the tribals and my own organization. While I am sure that I will continue to work in the development sector and be the activist that I always was, I am yet to internalize the role that I can and will play with the organization that I founded and built. The uncertainties of the future are not something new to me, but I need to now explore where and how I would be most productive. I need to learn to do my bit and fade away quietly.

This last year has been a transformative experience. It has now left me with more questions but has given me the strength and the structure to probe better and deeper and with the knowledge that all answers are finally within me.


Categories: Musings
  1. Arun Karpur
    June 6, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    Balu: I love your ability to reflect upon your experiences at Harvard. As for what you should be doing in future and what kind of role you could play, I think you are best at inspiring young people to take public service as a career. You inspired me to look at public health and research as a profession. You inspired me to work with communities and their ‘real life’ problems. I believe you are best as a teacher and you can have most impact by mentoring the young people of India to consider public service as a career. I hope to see you as an inspiring teacher that we all miss as we grow in our careers.
    Congratulations for your graduation. I know your life has changed for ever!

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