Seventeen years ago, I loaded up a Jeep with all of my stuff and left Kirkland House to return to Kentucky to start my post-Harvard career. This past January, I loaded up a Toyota Highlander with all of my stuff and left Kentucky to return to Kirkland House to start my post-Kentucky career as director of the Institute of Politics.
I never thought I would be the director of the IOP. Maybe a fellow, but not the director. As a student I was very involved with the IOP, ultimately serving as vice chair of the Student Advisory Committee. I was honored when asked to serve on the Senior Advisory Committee upon being elected Kentucky’s Secretary of State in 2003. It was fun coming back to campus once a semester to listen to the staff and students talk about the past semester’s successes.
When I lost in the Republican U.S. Senate Primary to Rand Paul last year (yes, I’m that guy), I began to think about my future. I was term limited with only a year and a half left to serve. I thought about running for governor or attorney general but realized that the timing wasn’t good for the former and my heart wasn’t in it for the latter.
While I was pondering the future, a woman with the firm retained to perform the search for the next IOP director called to see if I had any suggestions for the type of director they should seek. During the course of the conversation, I casually, but intentionally, said that I would love to do the job some day. Crickets were chirping as she steered the conversation to the next topic. I hung up, disappointed.
A few months later she called back and asked me if I remembered mentioning that I would love to be the IOP director some day. I said yes, and my heart began to race. Then she asked, “What if that some day were now?” At that point, I knew what the future would hold.
After a bunch of interviews and countless conversations with family and friends, I accepted the director’s position and agreed to start work this semester. I have been spending the semester back on campus in an apartment, while my wife and daughters are back in Kentucky finishing up the school year. They will join me this summer when we move into a home in Belmont.
At times, this semester I have felt like Rip Van Winkle waking up after a seventeen-year slumber. Not only do I live in Kirkland House again, I am living in B-entry, the entry where I lived during my junior year. Bob is still the security guard in Kirkland, and he continues to dispense late-night wisdom mixed with a heavy dose of cynicism.
The Kirkland Dining Hall looks the same as before—the Coke Zero is nice addition, though. I was glad to hear that Kirkland continues to host the Holiday Dinner and Dance. (Yes, back in the day, we called it by that other name, too.)
The same guys are serving up tasty pizza and subs at Noch’s, and the Spare Change guy is still selling newspapers in front of Au Bon Pain. (He still calls me “Big Guy” when he sees me.)
Of course, much has changed about Harvard in the past seventeen years. Radcliffe is now a research institute, and Housing assignments are random. The student body is a lot more diverse and international than in 1994. The students also seem to be busier with more extracurricular activities than ever before.
Technology is now everywhere, from the cell phones attached to the ears of students walking to and from the Yard to the ubiquitous laptops under the arms of many students. I didn’t even get an email address or cell phone until the summer after I graduated. I have been asked more than once by students how I ever managed.
I have also had to adjust to new lingo and traditions. For example, PBH is now PBHA. The Kennedy School is now HKS, not KSG. House Committees are now called HoCo. (Why didn’t we think of that?) And Ivy League Champion was not a phrase ever associated with the Men’s basketball program.
Since this is a commencement issue, I guess I should conclude with some parting wisdom for the graduates. And as the director of the IOP, you probably aren’t surprised that I feel compelled to urge you to be involved in politics.
You don’t have to run for office like me, but you “must be a participant and not a spectator,” as President Kennedy so eloquently challenged all educated citizens. There are plenty of opportunities out there. There are countless quality candidates who are running for office at all levels of government who need your support. There are also plenty of good people who need encouragement to run. I wouldn’t have made it without that encouragement and support.
Regardless of what you do, just remember how fortunate you are to have spent four years at Harvard. I remember having that thought as I walked through the Yard the night before graduation. Seventeen years later, that is something that hasn’t changed.
Trey Grayson ’90 is the director of the Institute of Politics.