Parsing Harvard

For a dozen years, my remarkable partners, Marjanne Pearson and Paul Nakazawa, and I taught a course on professional practice classes in the Executive Education Program at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. Exhilarating, educational (for the educators) and exhausting. Our first gig ran for nine years — 1996 to 2004; the second from 2011 to 2013. Much changed for the professions over all those years.

 What has not changed is my own curious relationship with Harvard. Not so much the real place, rather the over-determined Harvard of my mind.

As a westerner, Montana-born and California-bred, the great colleges and universities of the East were not part of my personal mental map. I knew no one growing up who attended Harvard (nor arch-rival Yale.) They were backdrops for fiction, schools for an elite that was simply not part of my world.

Arriving at the University of California San Diego as a freshman, suddenly Harvard was there. Professors and graduate assistants held Harvard degrees and talked about their famous profs and their haunts in Cambridge. Still I wasn't in awe, I was having an exceptional experience in La Jolla—without all the mythology.

But in the end the myth seduced me or maybe it was the charming grad student, who became my first husband. His stories of the college, the classes, the houses, and clubs seemed an exotic foreign country to me (and I had just come back from a graduate year in Paris.)

My first visit to the campus, attending my husband's 15th reunion, confirmed the magic. The history, the rituals, the scale of the campus and the town, the students everywhere captivated and challenged me. Could I ever be a part of that? Graduates of Harvard College have an unnerving question they pose when someone says they went to Harvard. For four years, they ask archly. Obviously, that wouldn't be me.

Imagine my perplexity, when years later, I arrived to prepare for our classes at Harvard. Yes, it was the Graduate School of Design, and, yes, it was Executive Ed, but in fact, it was and is Harvard. And it is an exceptional experience to be a part of the program that has done as fine a job of leveraging the Harvard mystique as any graduate.

By the time we began teaching in 1996, I knew many grads from both the College and the graduate schools, especially the GSD; spending time on campus and in Cambridge, heightened my understanding of the power of place in education, formal and informal. Later, when I actually lived in Cambridge part-time, for a few years, I found my own lessons in the town and gown geography.

I took shortcuts through Harvard Yard to the Square amazed at the diversity and intensity of the students, spent late nights at the Harvard Bookstore content to cull through the remainders for hours, attended lectures on campus on a dozen topics, and chatted up the shopkeepers who all sounded to me like Click and Clack on NPR's Car Talk. And far, far more.

While it's unlikely that I'll ever hold a Harvard degree, I now clearly possess a small, yet meaningful piece of that polyvalent place called Harvard.