Making It Big To Set Things Right

This is the last article in a three-part series.
Part 1: Learning to Live by Harvard's Rules
Part 2: Holding Old Ties, Wearing New Ones

NEW HAVEN, Conn.—It’s almost noon, and the party is starting to heat up. At the Black Campus Leaders tailgate, the music is pulsing, and Harvard and Yale students move to the same beat. Bryan C. Barnhill ’08 is dancing with his girlfriend. Eyes half-closed, he lifts his arms and pumps his elbows.

The DJ picks up his microphone. “If you know who your daddy is, make some noise!” The dancers cheer.

“Who’s going to make more money than their daddy?” the DJ asks. He pauses. “That better be everybody.”

Four years ago, Barnhill came to Harvard as a Marx-toting freshman from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Detroit. He dreamed of being part of the revolution. “I wanted to dismantle capitalism,” he says.

Now, Barnhill is planning to head to a job in finance or consulting. He wants to master the business world. He wants to make some money.

Seniors are fretting over what to do with their lives. But for students like Barnhill, who come from worlds far removed from Harvard’s ivy walls, the choice is not simply one of career.

As the first person in his neighborhood to gain access to a world of wealth and opportunity, he’s also worried about what he owes the people he left behind.


Where Barnhil grew up, on the east side of Detroit, trash accumulates on the sidewalks. Relatives live paycheck to paycheck. Young men are shot and die in the streets.

“In my neighborhood,” Barnhill says, “privilege means having a job.”

Harvard offered Barnhill a very different world.

As a member of the Spee, one of Harvard’s exclusive all-male final clubs, he’s proved his ability to mix seamlessly with the sons of America’s social and economic elite.

In his four years at Harvard, Barnhill says, many of his “romantic ideas” have evaporated. He’s decided it’s better to work within the system.

“I really feel like money is the bottom line for a lot of things,” he says.

As a senior, he’s headed toward a new arena of privilege: the world of high-powered business.

It’s strange, he says, to know he will most likely make more money during his first year out of college than his parents ever have.


Barnhill’s looking at jobs for next year with Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers, and Booz Allen Hamilton: finance, i-banking, consulting.

At Harvard, Barnhill says, students who pursue lucrative jobs in these fields are often perceived as selling out.

But when he listened to Harvard students say graduates should use their privilege to help others, rather than pursue finance, he felt “hoodwinked.” Those critics, he says, didn’t seem to have to worry too much about their wallets.

“The ability to forgo a career in finance for the pursuit of community service in the short run is a privilege in and of itself. And at the moment,” he says, “that is a privilege that I do not have.”

An impressive salary means something different to Barnhill than to many of his peers at Harvard, where the median family income for students on financial aid is about $80,000 a year—nearly twice the median income of the average American family. Half the student body receives no Harvard Scholarship aid, according to the financial aid Web site.

Choosing a lucrative career means being, at last, “in a position where worrying about money isn’t central to your every thought,” he says.

There are things Barnhill has never been able to do: “To take my family on vacation, to see the world, to help someone else without taking a blow financially.”

It’s not about the apartment in Manhattan or the Brooks Brothers suits.

“I’m going to be able to help my brother go to school,” he says, “buy my little cousins clothes, help my parents pay the bills.”


His sophomore year, Barnhill read “Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class,” a book about the black elite’s yachting clubs and the cotillions they held for their debutante daughters. Barnhill was shocked.

“I find out that there was this society underneath my nose the whole time,” he says. “Where have those people been all these years? Why haven’t they helped? Why haven’t they been there?”

Barnhill is determined to be there. He wants to help change his neighborhood—jump-start Detroit out of its economic malaise.

He doesn’t plan to live in his childhood neighborhood; it’s not a safe place to raise kids. That doesn’t mean he wants his daughters to go to cotillions.

He thinks the polish and contacts Harvard and the business world will give him will help him accomplish the revolution he’s been dreaming of most of his life.

He repeats a favorite phrase he got from Rev. Peter J. Gomes, the minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church.

“You have to be a master of yourself,” he says, “before you can be a servant of others.”


When Barnhill graduates this spring, his mother says, there are many people in the neighborhood who would like to be there. They can’t afford the trip; money is tight on the east side of Detroit. But after cheering him on for four years, they want to see him get his diploma.

With this support comes expectations. If he does not come home wealthy, she says, they will be disappointed.

“They want to see...the corporate or magnate person coming back to rescue the other children,” she says.

“They’re looking for him to be the rescuer.”

Back at the tailgate, the DJ puts on one of Barnhill’s favorite songs.

When Barnhill was in high school, everyone knew what to do when R. Kelly’s “Happy People” played.

Men and women joined hands, swayed their hips, spun under each other’s arms. They called it Detroit Ballroom.

It’s a little bit swing dance, a little bit R&B. But here in New Haven, nobody seems to know the moves.

So Barnhill grabs a Harvard friend’s hands and starts showing her the steps.

“If you wanna step,” the song warns, ”You gotta play it by the rules.”

His friend picks up the rhythm, and the two of them spin and sway. Older alumni at nearby tailgates pause to watch.

“No further questions,” R. Kelly croons. “You have passed my test.”

And Barnhill keeps spinning, turning, dancing till the song is done.

—Staff writer Lois E. Beckett can be reached at