When Jon Huntsman spent a week on campus in early April as an Institute of Politics visiting fellow, he met with faculty and administration, toured facilities, and tried to take in as much of the Harvard experience as possible.
But Huntsman also took a keen interest in the students, taking the time out of his schedule to talk to them and gain a perspective on their world. At a luncheon with student leaders of political organizations and public service-oriented groups, he pointedly asked each person to explain, “How will you change the world?”
Many students initially chuckled. It was a daunting question—one of those lofty inquiries that you did not expect to be asked over a weekday lunch. But we soon realized that the former Utah governor and ambassador to China genuinely wanted to know. As we went around the room, I realized just how little time I—and some of my peers at the table—had committed to understanding this forward-thinking question.
We live on a campus where we think no further ahead than a semester or even less (see: pre-term planning). There are no pre-professional majors. The liberal arts ethos is strongly emphasized; we learn for the sake of learning, and the way in which we can apply this knowledge in a professional capacity will take care of itself later.
Stressing this sometimes myopic outlook has real-life implications. In his Bloomberg View column last year, Ezra Klein explained how “Harvard’s Liberal-Arts Failure is Wall Street’s Gain.” Students go to Wall Street or accept positions in consulting and Teach for America because they feel so inadequately trained to enter any other field.
The problem isn’t that we lack marketable skills. The issue also isn’t on-campus recruiting or the allure of getting a Wall Street paycheck. Risk aversion and an inadequate level of forward thinking are what plague Harvard students. We are high-achieving, bright individuals, but we rarely forge our own path. Since an early age, we have been conditioned to excel in certain areas, complete a set of pre-requisites, and the rest would fall into place. Checking off all the boxes on the checklist was the objective.
Now, we find ourselves in uncharted waters. As we brace ourselves for what lies ahead after college, we realize that there’s no prescribed next step. Changing the world doesn’t require test scores or a well-polished résumé. Instead, it requires us to identify our true passions and summon a certain level of courage.
In the HPR’s interview with former speechwriter to President Obama Jon Favreau, he explained how college students can embark on a career in political speechwriting. He recommended that students take a chance on not necessarily the most prestigious position, but one that offers experience, mentorship, and the opportunity to thrive.
So, let’s take a second to step back from the problem sets and essays, internships and extracurricular activities, and really think about what we want to do with our lives. It’s a difficult question to answer, but it only gets easier the more you think about it.
As students explained to our lunch guest what they wanted to do, change education policy or run for political office, I ruminated for a moment. When it came time to speak, I told the former governor and ambassador that I wanted to confront the ever-changing media landscape and devise a way to elevate our level of political discourse.
Who knows if this is actually what I will do immediately after college or years down the line, but I was thankful for at least beginning to think about this question of how I will change the world.