What my grad school experience meant to me

I write this from Cambridge, MA. I took the red eye last night, flying in from SFO. There used to be a lot more flights out of OAK a decade ago when I did this trip several times a year. Now they are few and far between.

This time I have a house and a family to miss and a dog to get cared for while I’m gone. The last time I was here for a class reunion was five years ago. I was almost a dad then, but not quite.

Much of this stretch between Harvard and MIT has remained the same. And the weather in Boston right now is perfect, just barely humid, a nice cool breeze in the shade. I forgot my sweater and am happy to not miss it.

I received my acceptance email from the admissions office at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government on March 4, 2006, just over 13 years ago.

This was obviously a big deal for me and my parents. I’d be the first in my family to attend a school like Harvard and for my mom it was a dream come true. She’d encouraged me to apply to Harvard when I was in high school. I did and got waitlisted, but in my heart of hearts I wanted to go to UC Berkeley. I told Harvard College to bugger off, and I made a mental note to do everything I could to build a competitive application for a Harvard grad school program instead.

The path from August 2000, when I matriculated to Cal, to February 2006, when I submitted my Harvard Kennedy School admission application for the Master in Public Policy program, was a long one. I worked hard at UC Berkeley, both in and out of the classroom, to differentiate myself. My grades were good but not among the best. I knew I’d need something special to catch the eye of admissions officers at Harvard, so I focused on environmental activities and leadership in those circles.

The capstone of my admission packet was probably the letter of recommendation from Chancellor Berdahl. I never read it, but I’m pretty sure it was good. He and I had a lot of mutual respect and I was able to capitalize on it to move my sustainability agenda forward.

Of note, it wasn’t Chancellor Berdahl who I worked with to get that letter drafted and delivered. It was one of his staff, a guy named Sean Ireland, who probably wrote the letter and got the Chancellor to sign it. He was my man on the inside and nothing would have happened without him.

I’ve learned time and time again that you have to be nice to and appreciative of everyone.

The Chancellor of UC Berkeley giving me one of the first Berkeley Sustainability Awards.

So I was good at this campus sustainability politicking and probably the best at doing this at UC Berkeley at the time. My skills met the right opportunity and it catapulted me forward. I made sure that my Harvard grad school application emphasized that point. I got in.

I forwarded that fateful email from Harvard to my mom and went to the bar at a nice restaurant downstairs from the office tower I worked at in San Francisco to celebrate. It was five in the afternoon and I decided to splurge on a shot of Johnny Walker Blue on the rocks. My mom called while it was being prepared. She’d been crying. When the bartender overheard what I was celebrating (not too many 24-year-olds order a $60 shot at five in the afternoon, even in San Francisco), she told me it was on the house.

I was on cloud nine. I soon made plans to quit my job, spend the summer on an epic road trip through the southwest to Colorado and then to Spain and Europe. It was a unique and amazing time in my life. Limitless opportunity, no obligations, and most of all, a sense of pride that I’d worked towards an ambitious goal and achieved it. It was done. Nobody could take it away.

For the rest of my life I’d always have that Harvard acceptance letter. I was in the club. Indeed my life would change forever, but not in the ways I originally expected.

It was through the Kennedy School that I met my wife: Chancellor Berdahl introduced me to the Lieutenant Governor of California, John Garamendi. He offered me a summer internship writing environmental policy papers. His wife Patti gave me a ticket to the event where I met Melissa. We would eventually get married and start a family, raising my two beautiful girls. This is easily the biggest, most important thing I’ve ever done.

I thought the Kennedy School would set me on a path into government, but instead I caught the startup bug. I applied to and got accepted to the MBA program at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The registrars at Harvard and MIT allowed me and three other students to get two Master’s degrees in three years. The company I’d go on to co-found with Sunil Rajaraman was a ten-year odyssey through the ups and downs of startup culture in Silicon Valley.

My career to date stems entirely from this startup rather than from my graduate school degrees. I can’t say that I regret it. The startup experience I’ve gained allowed me to buy a house and raise two kids in the Bay Area. I have tons of flexibility to explore my community and work on a lot of different projects. I had no idea 13 years ago that this is what I would be doing now, that I’d skip my 10-year Kennedy School reunion in favor of my MIT Sloan reunion, where the cover band I played in would headline the main happy hour party for my entire class.

But such is life. It’s unpredictable. At 36, going on 37, I’m still young. I feel young too, physically in better shape than I was when I was a student. I’m definitely stronger. I can do way more pullups now than I could at 24. Jogging up hills pushing a double stroller has done wonders for my fitness, so I’m probably thinner although my weight is more or less the same.

So I’m taking my time here in Boston this weekend to soak it all in. The Charles River is beautiful, the brick sidewalks and lush vegetation as alluring as it was the first time I stepped foot in Cambridge. This place has the same magnetism that it had for me back then, and it gives me the same curiosity about my place in the world, the potential I still have in front of me. I can’t help getting excited about what’s next.

But first I have a concert to practice for, my first rock and roll performance in five years. It’s all going to be awesome. All of it.

5 thoughts on “What my grad school experience meant to me”

  1. […] At one point in my life, this was definitely a goal. I really wanted to dedicate myself to environmental sustainability. I was going to be an activist, a networker, mover-and-shaker, someone who could influence policy at the highest levels. This was the person I was in high school and college. It’s the person who spoke at his college graduation, got some University-wide and national awards, and ultimately got accepted to the Harvard Kennedy School and MIT Sloan. […]

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