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I will never forget the final lecture of United States in the World 35 (“Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education”) at the end of last semester. That day, guest lecturer and Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston left us with a piece of advice that I wish more people could have heard.
Senator Johnston said that when we go home and someone asks us, “What are you going to be?” tell them that they are asking the wrong question. Instead, tell them that they should be asking, “What problem are you going to solve?”
With the prospect of entering the working world as a Harvard alum just around the corner, I’ve recently found myself reflecting deeply upon the senator’s words and what the purpose of my Harvard education is.
Senator Johnston helped me realize that my purpose at Harvard is something greater than myself. The world-class degree I will soon bear in my hands is valuable not just because of the opportunities it may open for me but also because of its potential to put me in a position to help others.
I am confident that I am not alone in saying that I could not have made it to Harvard by myself. Many of us can think of at least one person in our lives who helped build and hold the ladder that we then climbed. Whether it is the family member who showed you unconditional love from the day you were born, the teacher who inspired your love for learning, or the mentor that believed in you, incredible achievements such as getting to Harvard are rarely if ever the result of unilateral efforts.
Each of us carries an important responsibility to pay forward whatever help we received from those who supported us in our journeys that led us here.
I appreciate that Dean Rakesh Khurana begins each of his remarks by quoting the mission of Harvard College—“to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society”—for it is an appropriate reminder of the broader purpose of our education. Fundamental to the word ‘citizen’ is the idea that each one of us will leave this campus with certain responsibilities as members of a larger civic community. The mission concludes by stating that our purpose at this college is to begin to gain a sense of what we want to do with our gifts and talents, to assess our values and interests, and to learn how we can best serve the world.
This hope that each of us learns how we can best serve the world should be understood in the broadest sense. While many of us will graduate from Harvard to pursue careers that involve direct public service, the responsibility to help others lies with all of us, not just those select few. No matter what path we choose, from business to law, from health to technology, from academia to journalism, or one of the many other impressive fields that Harvard graduates enter each year, we should each carry deeply in us the attitude that we must use our talents and gifts to help solve problems and better the lives of others.
This means being the type of engineer that identifies first with the problem you want to solve rather than the money to be made. This means being the type of doctor that is motivated by patients, not profits. This means being the type of business executive that cares less about the job title and more about how to use that position to make the world a better place.
In short, I believe that we all have the capacity and responsibility to serve. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best, speaking from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta 48 years ago: “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve… You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
With this mindset—one that has us thinking more about the problems we want to solve and less about the positions we hope to attain or the money we hope to make, that has us looking to serve no matter what we end up doing in life—I am confident that each and every one of us will not only go on to live out our dreams as professionals, academics, entrepreneurs, and artists but that we will also go on to make the most of our amazing talents and opportunities to make this world a better place for mankind.
Dennis O. Ojogho ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Winthrop House.
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