Gums among the ivy

Posted 7th October 2014 by Clare O'Neil in Articles | 0 Comment

A year ago, Rosie Dawkins was a surgical registrar at St Vincent’s Hospital in Fitzroy, just back from a stint working in community health in East Arnhem Land. Dawkins was growing frustrated with medicine. While she could cure a patient’s illness, the poverty and unequal access to health care often at the root of their disease remained.

“I wanted to think about how that could change,” says Dawkins, 29. So she set aside her stethoscope and scrubs, and took up a place in Harvard’s School of Public Health master’s program. At Harvard, she joined 60 Australians studying, teaching, and rubbing shoulders on a prestigious stage.

Paul Isaachsen, a 26-year-old lawyer from Perth, highlights the university’s cultural diversity as important to his decision to undertake his master’s at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. More than half his class is from overseas, and Isaachsen shares a dorm with students from 29 countries, including China, Bosnia and Kazakhstan. Conversation in class and at the dinner table is a lively cultural exchange – whether comparing political systems in Venezuela and Vietnam or the national beverages of Ireland and Israel.

Harvard’s diversity engenders a keen sense of ambassadorship among the students. For Australians, this can be based largely on associations with Foster’s and Steve Irwin. Australians are thought to be gregarious, active and relaxed. While this stereotype makes for an easy social transition, it has a down side. Isaachsen, who sports boardies and thongs from early in Boston’s crisp spring until late into its brutal autumn, jokes that Australians are not always expected to be “great intellectual giants”.

This preconception is a source of amusement for Dawkins and Isaachsen for whom the quality of education they received through Australia’s tertiary system is a point of pride. Both attended the University of Western Australia, yet are often debating classmates with $200,000 degrees from Princeton and Yale.

Jeff Overall was accepted for Harvard’s undergraduate program during his first year of economics-law at Sydney University. While life in Sydney was happy and comfortable, Overall chose the path of adventure: at 18, he flew 17,000 kilometres away from family and friends to see what Harvard had to offer.

Prospective students often imagine Harvard as a nerd mecca, where nimrods and techies from around the globe gather to heal the scars of their awkward adolescence. Some scenes at the university do seem to confirm the image. At Hemenway Gymnasium, a woman scholar works fiercely on the treadmill while squinting at the pages of a legal tome. Nearby, an undergraduate flips index cards on the stationary bike.

Young men in Math Olympiad T-shirts strut through the weights room with a pride that would seem misplaced at Monash or Deakin. Across Harvard Yard, Lamont Library is filled late into Friday and Saturday nights with students huddling over projects and sinking energy drinks as they feverishly tap out papers and problem sets.

But to characterise Overall’s undergraduate classmates as nerds alone is to sell Harvard short. Rather, the students apply their obsessive focus to a wide, sometimes bizarre, variety of activities. Your room-mate is as likely to have a national title for macrame or lacrosse as a perfect SAT math score. It’s all a bit overwhelming for Overall, who lives in the same dorm as an Olympic figure skater and one of the world’s best young clarinet players. “The guy down the hall can do a Rubik’s Cube in under six minutes,” he says, shaking his head in wonderment. “I love that.”

Competition and achievement even permeate the social scene. At the apex of the undergraduate hierarchy sit exclusive, members-only “finals clubs”. Of these institutions, the Hasty Pudding is the most prestigious. Founded in 1790, the club is a relic of a Harvard of yesteryear: oak panels, Doric columns, old boys and old money. Despite the club’s penchant for Pilgrim pedigree, this year Overall and almost all the other Australian freshmen received offers of Hasty Pudding membership.

When I ask Overall why Australians do well here socially, he explains that many of his American classmates have been working towards Harvard since childhood. Between synchronised swimming practice and private French lessons, little time was left for socialising. In contrast, the Australian undergraduates fit their abundant achievement around backpacking, sport and fun. Thus, they tend to be socially adept and popular. And, laughs Overall, the accent doesn’t hurt either.

Stuart Macintyre, former dean of Melbourne University’s arts faculty, is serving a one-year appointment as Harvard’s chair of Australian studies. For Professor Macintyre, the posting offered respite from the Byzantine world of university administration that has, in the past decade, distracted him from his passions of teaching and research.

The professor’s in-tray, recently filled with leave applications and budget requests, now brims with essays to mark and draft syllabuses for courses he will teach on his return. “The chance to recharge your intellectual batteries is terrific,” he says.

The appointment also offered the opportunity to be part of a different academic culture. Australian universities face enormous pressure to justify their public funding. Governments want a bang for their buck and hence require Australian institutions to demonstrate the vocational results of everything they teach.

At the privately funded Harvard, says Professor Macintyre, “learning is valued for its own sake, not its utility”. This ethos affords academics a flexibility that would be the envy of Australian colleagues. When developing his autumn curriculum, Professor Macintyre contacted Harvard to inquire about the rules with which his subject would need to comply. Puzzled, the university told him that he should teach and assess his students as he pleased.

Professor Macintyre’s students gave him the highest evaluation of any professor in Harvard’s history department. Students liked his attentive, informal approach.

On Australia Day, Professor Macintyre hosted lunch at home. His wife, Martha, made pavlova and lamingtons for his students to sample. This contrasted with the more remote relationship between many Harvard professors and undergraduates. While Professor Macintyre’s American students refuse to address him by his first name, he says: “I would fall over if an Australian student called me Professor Macintyre.”

Australians at Harvard punch above their weight inside and outside the classroom. So is Harvard really better than what’s available in Australia?

Though most Australian students recount deeply satisfying academic experiences at home, what makes Harvard so special is not found in its classrooms.

Like many Australian students, I squeezed my undergraduate degrees at Monash between jobs and politics. Subjects were selected to fit around my work schedule, classes skipped when other commitments got in the way. At Harvard, students are drawn into one, residential, academic community, where the educational experience envelops them from morning until night.

Harvard sprawls across an entire suburb in Boston, where the streets are peppered with book shops, the cafes filled with friends chatting excitedly about their research – and people, everywhere, are reading.

Students attracted to this environment are inspiring to be around. The person next to you in management built a refugee camp in Chad that is home to 20,000. The girl next to him began a bone marrow drive that resulted in 5000 new potential donors.

Later, you’ll gather with another group of remarkable students to hear one of the eminent speakers that pass with dazzling regularity through the university’s halls. In recent months, I’ve heard the head of the World Bank talk about multilateralism, former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright reflect on American foreign policy and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev speak on world politics after the Cold War.

Being so regularly in the presence of people who have changed the world, and among students who have done so much, expands your conception of what is possible. Each interaction builds on the last, so that after one or two or four years here, every student walks away with bigger ideas, a bigger notion of the world, and a bigger sense of responsibility to change it. That’s what makes Harvard such a powerful and inspiring place.

So it’s no surprise to me that instead of opulent libraries and opportunities for advancement, Paul Isaachsen identifies an address by Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus as the highlight of his experience here. I was there too, with 400 students who want to believe a world without poverty is possible.

In simple Indian dress, Yunus would tell us how one day he had an idea that changed the world. He saw that the lives of the poorest people he knew were crippled by debt. He took $27, cleared what they owed, and told them to repay him when they could. What grew from this act – the concept of microcredit – has since helped millions of people rescue themselves from poverty. Yunus would tell us that poverty was not inevitable but the result of systems man created. “Poverty is not part of humanity,” he said. “Since it is artificial, it can be peeled off.”

In any other environment, you might not have believed him. But somehow, sitting in this place, with those people, it all became possible. I’ll carry that feeling with me forever.

Clare O’Neil, 27, is a Fulbright scholar who will graduate next month with a master’s (sic) in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She was formerly mayor of the City of Greater Dandenong.

Originally published May 28, 2006 in The Age

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