I remember the first time I was in awe of Harvard. I had just arrived, and I was talking to my roommates as we settled into our dorms. They were and still are much more impressive than I am. One was the son of immigrants from Belgium and Taiwan—a varsity soccer player and a budding comedian. The next was the son of two Russian Ph.D.s—he could think more precisely on his worst day than I could on my best. The third was the son of Chinese immigrants, with a mind that could solve any puzzle and no ego. Meanwhile, my greatest claim to fame was that my brother gave me the middle name “Eric” in honor of Prince Eric in the “Little Mermaid.”
I think all Harvard students have a moment when they feel “impostor syndrome”—inadequate, intimidated, and a bit lost. For me, I felt like an impostor that first day here, and that feeling has not gone away.
Despite my insecurities, I had aspirations of changing the world just like many Harvard freshmen. Personally, I wanted to revolutionize the study of American history. But I quickly realized in my first History & Literature seminar that many of classmates were simply better at history. I was lost. I did not see myself as a leader at Harvard, let alone outside of it.
Fortunately, I had a moment that gave me a sense of purpose here. My sophomore fall, my roommate encouraged me to shop a course called "The History of American Democracy”. The course changed my life because of its focus on a certain word: “citizen.” The class began an intellectual journey that would define my time at Harvard, from a summer of research for that professor to my senior thesis on citizenship education.
Through this work, I fell in love with the idea of a “citizen”: someone who contributes to a community. Someone who thinks about the needs of others as much as or even more than they think about their own. In my head, I felt was on a noble and selfless quest. But if I'm honest, I explored the idea of citizenship because it gave me meaning. Even if I could never be the leader of a field, or have the highest GPA, or land a job at the most prestigious company, I felt I could still bring value to both Harvard and the world.
Instead of noticing who achieved the most, I began to pay attention to people who contributed in less celebrated ways. I noticed the people who said please and thank you to everyone, always. I noticed the students who weren’t just willing to say, “Hi, how are you?” but those who actually stopped to listen to the answer. I noticed my peers who put their all into their chosen causes because they couldn’t imagine doing anything else. My mindset shifted: If I thought about the way my actions impacted my community, then I mattered. Then we all mattered.
Just last year I discovered the word “citizen” in the Harvard College mission. Indeed, it appears twice: to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” If my degree in History & Literature has prepared me for anything, it is recognizing that when a word appears twice in a sentence, it’s really, really important. Sadly, most of us still concern ourselves with leadership rather than citizenship.
I hope, though, that those of us who ultimately become leaders will remember to be citizens, too. I hope that we will remember those whom we serve and why we serve them. I hope we will remember to lead not for ourselves, but for something greater. Not only will our companies and communities be better for it, but we will be too.
Most importantly, I hope that those of us who do not aspire to run a company, be a senator, or create the next great innovation know how valuable and important we are as citizens. Our thoughtfulness, our curiosity, our commitment to whatever it is that we do has had a tremendous impact on everyone in our lives. As the professor of that life-changing class said, “Democracy is an organism. And engaged, committed citizens are the most important cells in that organism.” The value of that statement, however, extends far beyond democracy. We should all take pride in whatever we contribute because, without a willingness to give, we will struggle to cultivate kindness, respect, and even excellence.
At our highest moments and our lowest, when we feel most impressive and least, when we succeed and when we fail, we need to remember that being a good citizen has value in and of itself. Because without thoughtful, engaged citizens—without thoughtful, engaged people—leadership, no matter how good, is meaningless.
James Piltch ’17 is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House.
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The Word: Citizen
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Small Towns, Big Ideas: Jamie Piltch and The Citizen's Story