Millennial Must-Reads are student-contributed posts by members of the "Millennial" generation - America's 18-29 year-olds - on current events and politics and public service. Viewpoints expressed are exclusively attributed to undergraduate authors and not endorsed by Harvard's Institute of Politics.
Authored by Institute of Politics Fellows & Study Groups Student Co-Chair Matt Shuham
One of my favorite semester events at school takes place in the Junior Common Room of Kirkland House. Granted, I live in Leverett and am therefore expected – nay, encouraged – to disparage and discredit all Harvard houses other than my own, but I can’t help but be drawn in by the event we call “Fellows Farewell.” In it, constituents lampoon their former governors or congresspeople and students sing songs to Washington Post reporters; memories are shared from the concluding semester and contact information is exchanged one last time to ensure that the relationships formed over the past weeks and months continue for years to come. It’s a good time.
Fellows Farewell is the last hoorah of one of the Institute of Politics’ most prominent programs, Fellows and Study Groups (FSG). Every semester, six political professionals (“Fellows”) with a wide variety of backgrounds in elected office, policy, journalism, non-profit work, activism, and a whole host of other fields, decide to drop everything and live in Cambridge, Massachusetts for three months. Each resident fellow is assigned six undergraduate assistants, or “liaisons,” for the semester, with whom they plan, advertise, and execute a weekly “Study Group.” These study groups are off-the-record, informal discussions on a topic of the fellow’s expertise.
This past semester, for example, journalist John King presented a study group on demographic change in American politics, and former governor of North Carolina Bev Perdue presented a study group on social policy entrepreneurship. We’ve had similarly prominent fellows in the past, from the former Prime Minister of Greece to the president of the Walmart Foundation, and tons of people in between.
Over the course of a semester, student liaisons build meaningful relationships with their Fellows, and the Harvard community has the unique opportunity to hear from some of the most well-informed and prominent voices in the political and public service world in an intimate weekly setting. Over and over again, I’ve heard from students whose lives have changed during the course of a semester, due to the influence and guidance of a mentor in the Fellows program. Often, they choose to pursue careers in activism, teaching, journalism, or elected office, instead of more lucrative or stable professions in traditional “Ivy League” fields like finance or consulting.
Ultimately, this is why I believe so strongly in the good that the Fellows and Study Groups program can achieve. More than providing engaging study groups to the Harvard Community every semester, or giving political professionals the gift of three months in a dynamic educational institution, FSG is a place where students are given the hard sell on public service. In our program, students are exposed to people who have devoted their lives to changing the world.
The hope is that they, too, with their fancy degrees and a whole lot of youthful energy, will choose to follow in that journey. When my program co-chair Daniel Ki and I took the helm of Fellows and Study Groups earlier this year, this was the idea that guided many of our decisions, and continues to guide them today: how can we expose Harvard students to a future in public service? When I graduate in two years, I will determine the success of my time at Harvard in part by how well I was able to answer this question.
As this past semester unfolded, I cherished the opportunity to follow the progress of our student liaisons as they got to know their Fellows and began to learn more about their careers, causes, and life stories. I watched as students identified obstacles and victories in the Fellows’ careers that they knew were waiting for them down the line, whether it was being a female elected official in a male-dominated profession, or trying to report a crucial story under pressure of censorship from a foreign government.
When the end of the semester finally came and it was time for "Fellows Farewell", I recognized a group of students that had been changed by the relationships they had built over the previous year. Many told me that their ideas about public service had changed for the better, and still others had already committed to summer jobs and internships dedicated not to career development or making connections, but to fighting injustice around the world, arguing for meaningful new ideas in policy-making, and acting as a megaphone for those who had little political agency. In them, I see the success of the IOP’s mission statement, “to inspire them to consider careers in politics and public service.” If this is the impact I can make at Harvard, then it will be four years well spent.