Here at Harvard, an education isn’t just about what we learn in class, but also about the incredible classmates and faculty we have the opportunity to learn from and get to know during our short four years here.
It is easy to get caught up in the former half: successfully completing papers, problem sets, and projects, yet failing to take the time to get to know the faculty who are not only experts in their fields, but are also mentors here to encourage us and offer advice as we embark on our academic and life journeys.
Why, then, don’t more people take advantage of the opportunity to get to know professors outside the classroom? Some say they are too busy, or think they have nothing to talk about with their professors, or haven’t done their class readings, or are too intimidated.
Throughout my time here, I have challenged myself to get to know one professor each semester, and this has led me to unexpected places and unexpected opportunities: from reporting in Rio de Janeiro, to visiting Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, to the set of Good Morning America.
While I have mainly gotten to know professors through classes I have taken, my friends Kristiana C. Laugen ’13 and Sarah E. Farrell ’13 have established relationships with professors through research assistantships.
Laugen got her research assistant position for Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Michael Luca through the Program for Research in Markets and Organizations, a 10-week program that allows undergraduates to work closely with HBS professors. “I think the reason our relationship has been so good is that I have been fearless about reaching out to him,” Laugen reflected. “In turn, he has been very receptive to meeting with me.”
Even if you don’t get offered a research position, there are other, more unconventional ways to connect with professors. “I had happened to stumble across an article examining potential business models for sustainable cities by Robert G. Eccles a few weeks after my summer internship,” Farrell explained. “It was a shot in the dark, but I looked up the email address for Professor Eccles in the HBS directory and wrote to him, explaining my interest in sustainability and desire to help out in his research.” Professor Eccles and Assistant Professor George Serafeim took Farrell on as a research assistant, where she helped write, research, and interview for a case study on Intel Corporation's decision to introduce a new platform in India that allows for monitoring and demand management along water distribution networks. She has worked on two more case studies since and is now helping with his latest book.
For Jirka Jelinek ’14, establishing a lasting connection happened by chance, thanks to his academic advisor. “He noticed that I put down 'Haiti' as one of my areas of interest and researched Haiti-related opportunities on campus before our first meeting,” Jelinek recalled. It was from him that I found out that Michele Pierre-Louis, the former Prime Minister of Haiti and director of an NGO called FOKAL, was coming to Harvard as an IOP fellow for the fall semester.” After being a student liaison for a semester for Pierre-Louis, Jelinek worked for FOKAL last summer in Haiti, and he still keeps in touch with Pierre-Louis. “This has been one of my best experiences at Harvard…I feel very honored to call Ms. Pierre-Louis my mentor.”
Something as simple as inviting a professor to a faculty dinner is enough to start a friendship. “I've had the opportunity to get to know Professor Ahmed Ragab of the history of science department and the Divinity School,” Jordan T. Haviland ’13 said. “I'm taking my second class with him and invited him to faculty dinner along with a few other students. It was a great opportunity to get to know him better—like discovering he is a big baseball fan and how he chose his academic path.” Since their initial conversation, Ragab has given Haviland constructive advice and feedback on his thesis.
If you haven’t yet, think about taking advantage of the other half of your Harvard education by reaching out to one of your professors this semester—and follow up with them afterward. Whether it be a faculty dinner, going to office hours, applying or asking to be a research assistant, or just lingering to ask a question after class, it’s easy. In the worst-case scenario, you and your professor don’t hit it off, but at least you tried. In the best-case scenario, you may just form a lasting connection and enriching relationship with someone that has the ability to take your academic journey to a place you never imagined.
Meredith C. Baker ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.