As the student president of the Institute of Politics, people ask lots of questions when they hear I’m working for Google in D.C. this summer. Why, they ask, am I not working in a Congressional office, policy think tank, or nonprofit? President Kennedy’s famous call to service takes on a different meaning fifty years later in a world where we have a computer in our pocket, our music in the “cloud”, and hundreds of Facebook “friends” online. Technology is making it easier than ever to collaborate and work with each other to solve problems and is creating new ways for us to serve.
For what may be the first time in American history, our generation has the capacity to teach our parents something new. When I was in high school, I developed a PowerPoint lesson and taught teachers how to better implement the tool in classrooms. Similarly, I am sure almost everyone receiving a diploma this year helped a professor, parent, or grandparent learn something about their computer, phone, or iPad. On a larger scale, young people are tackling the toughest problems around the globe with technology. Google, a company whose CEO is only 38 years old, has invested over $100 million towards Google.org, a nonprofit that uses Google’s brainpower to help build tools that have (among other things) helped speed disaster relief efforts in Japan and helped the Center for Disease Control track outbreaks of the flu. Just two hours after the earthquake in Haiti, a small team at the U.S. State Department built a text message-based donation tool that raised over $27 million. This project is one of many led by Alec Ross who became the Secretary of State’s “Advisor on Innovation” at the relatively young age of 37. Other projects he leads include a text messaging systems that warn women and children in Congo of attacking rebels and coordinating “Tech Camps” around the world that use American talent to help international communities build vibrant social networks, websites, and blogs. I am sure that if you could peer into the offices directing these projects, you will probably find a team of young recent college graduates.
Our better understanding of technology combined with a practical skill set gives us more ways to solve problems for our communities. Each Fall semester, an increasing number of undergraduates take CS50, the Introduction to Computer Science course, designed to give novice programmers the skills to build a final project. Of the 400 students enrolled this year, many choose to develop final projects designed to correct some problem on campus, whether it is designing a website for a student organization or creating a new room reservation system for students. Students find something wrong in our community, and they fix it.
Not everyone who comes to Harvard is destined to impact the world in the same way. We have diverse talents and interests; not all of us can connect with people like John F. Kennedy ‘40 or have the entrepreneurial spirit and creativity to develop an entirely new organization like Alan Khazei ‘83. Additionally, finding an entry level position in a traditional “public service” job isn’t easy. When was the last time someone from the Department of Agriculture invited you to Starbucks to discuss “joining the team?” How easy is it to find a public service job when the Office of Career Services categorizes only 60 jobs as public service-related among the 4000 in their database?
Although finding a job that fits the traditional description of “public service” may be hard, the fact is that service is more than a career: It’s a way of life. Politicians may be better dressed, but like computer scientists, they are problem solvers. The CS50 students who made a text-messaging tool to educate school districts on under-served classrooms deserve the same level of respect as your elected school board member working to balance the budget and find better salaries for teachers.
Since 1890, Harvard students, professors, and visitors will have read the advice of President Charles Eliot over Dexter Gate: “Enter to grow in wisdom; Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.” Most of us would not be at Harvard were it not for our commitment to service and regardless of our careers, our experiences here should make us better at it! I came to Harvard interested in both technology and politics and now I couldn’t be more excited to spend the summer working to engineer products that will help Americans learn about and vote during the 2012 elections. As we leave Harvard, our capacity to learn doesn’t end; the debates over tax policy from dining halls continue on Google-Chat and our friendships with professors and teaching fellows will be maintained over Facebook and email. Thanks to the times, the spirit of our education here, the culture of solving problems no matter how intellectual or realistic or trivial or global in scale, has the capacity to make an impact like never before.
Jeffrey Solnet ’12 is a government concentrator in Mather House. He is the student president of the Institute of Politics.
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