Featured Alumni: Esther Lee – “Asking What I Can Do at HKS”

Esther Lee is a proud alumna of the Civic Fellowship (2011) and Dr. John Tsu Fellowship (2013), through which she was offered internships from the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Agriculture. She is currently attending the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard (HKS), pursuing a Master in Public Policy with a focus on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region.

Can you tell us your background?

After graduating from Harvard College in 2013 with a B.A. in psychology and government, I spent a year in Taiwan on a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship- teaching English at a local elementary school with over 1,500 students. Prior to HKS, I worked as a market researcher at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai, China, focusing on agricultural trade and U.S. export promotion.

Why did you apply to HKS?

Frankly, I had not thought that I would be pursuing a Master’s degree only two years out of college. In spite of minimal work experience, I applied because I wanted to specialize in international relations and believed that a graduate degree would accelerate my career development. Among other graduate programs for public policy, HKS stood out to me because of its robust program- there are five areas of concentration ranging from urban and social policy to international affairs and governance (See more here). I was also attracted to its diverse student body, drawn from applicants from 130+ countries and all three sectors (public, private, and nonprofit).

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On the first day of the orientation at HKS

What were some of your most memorable experiences at HKS?

There is no such thing as a typical day at HKS. Even on a Friday afternoon, you could always choose to attend a seminar, a workshop, or a conference organized by Harvard and student groups. For example, I attended a public address by His Excellency Paul Kugame, the President of Rwanda, last week. The network and resources at HKS are truly limitless. Everyday I learn something new through various activities. Some of my favorite experiences have been watching a presidential primary with 100+ other peers at the John F. Kennedy Forum, attending quorum calls (“HKS happy hour”) hosted by the Student Council, and visiting the Israel-Palestine border with a student group over spring break.

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President Paul Kagame of Rwanda lecturing to HKS students

In what ways the HKS education has affected your professional development?

For me, my peers have been the greatest source of professional development. Through working on team projects, attending study groups, and having policy discussions over meals, I learned a lot from my classmates who bring an extensive array of experiences, skills, and backgrounds to the table. From an anti-human trafficking activist to a former military officer, each and every one of my classmates has contributed to my personal and professional growth. Moreover, classes on ‘soft skills,’ such as public speaking, negotiation, policy writing, and statistical analysis have provided me with valuable transferable skills.

With a group of classmates at the HKS Winter Ball
With a group of classmates at the HKS Winter Ball

Do you have any suggestions for prospective candidates?

I would highly encourage you to apply to a Master’s program at HKS, especially if you are thinking of a career switch (i.e. private to public and vise-versa). Also, try to have at least two years of work experience (internships do count!) under your belt before applying. That way, you will have a more clear idea of what you want to get out of the graduate school and also have more to contribute to class discussion. Depending on how much work experience you have, you can choose to enroll in one of the four Master’s programs at HKS. Last but not least, keep thinking hard about where your passion lies. Although students hail from all sectors, HKS is a school of public service and mission:

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

–President John F. Kennedy-

If you have any questions about HKS, pursuing an MPP degree, or a career in international relations, please feel free to reach out to me: esther_lee@hks17.harvard.edu