Campus & Community

What’s It Like To Be President of Harvard? Inquiring seventh-graders want to know

4 min read

At noon on a very wet Valentine’s Day, a lively group of seventh graders from the Grover Cleveland Middle School in Dorchester entered a lecture hall in Byerly Hall to meet with President Neil L. Rudenstine.

Their visit was part of a program called GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), which provides academic assistance, mentoring, early college awareness, and financial aid information to the entire seventh grade at Cleveland Middle School.

Each Monday, a small group of students from the school come to Harvard for a taste of college life. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and coordinated by Harvard’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions and the Office of Government, Community, and Public Affairs.

After introducing himself and shaking hands with most of the 30 or so youngsters, Rudenstine announced that he was ready to take questions.

Q: How does it feel to be the president?

A: It feels pretty good. Some days are better than others, but overall it’s fun and interesting.

Q: How did you get to be president?

A: It’s very mysterious how these things happen. I wasn’t looking for the job. I was asked to apply and after many conversations I was offered the position. Being a college president isn’t something you start out to do. If you did, you’d probably be disappointed. There’s a lot of luck involved. Usually you start out as a college teacher, and then you might take a job as an administrator or a dean.

Q: What does a dean do?

A: A dean is a person who has charge of a school or a faculty. If you’re a dean you have to think about what students should learn, what faculty to hire, how to raise money for programs. You have to run the whole show, day in and day out. I couldn’t do anything without the fantastically good deans that we have at Harvard.

Q: What do you have to do to get into Harvard?

A: Nobody knows. [Laughter] But to get into Harvard or any college you have to think ahead and plan to take good solid courses in math and English and history. You also need to have some extracurricular interests. One thing I can tell you is that it doesn’t depend on how much money you have. If you get in, we’ll make sure you get the financial aid you need to go. We never turn anyone down for financial reasons.

Q: What do you like most about Harvard?

A: I like the way the students and faculty together create a very interesting environment. There’s music, drama, sports, clubs, student government, public service projects, teaching. A lot of it comes from the students. They bring their own ideas, their own perspective. They make the place hum.

Q: What are your expectations for students at Harvard?

A: We try to have people from all different backgrounds who want to be part of a lively community. We want people with more than just one interest. They have to be serious about learning and they have to want to teach others too – not just in the classroom, but when two people have a conversation, they might learn something from one another.

Q: What makes a good student?

A: Someone who is really interested in learning, who pushes himself or herself, and who talks to other students and faculty about what they’re interested in. I think all of you have that potential. You just need to find out what you’re interested in and then push it hard and far. There are many, many colleges in the United States and there’s one that’s right for each of you. Maybe it’s here, maybe it’s somewhere else, so take your time, keep your eye on the ball, and good luck!