Nation & World

International Education Program fetes 10th anniversary

6 min read

Program works at establishing, maintaining network of international education leaders

A politician intends to revolutionize the educational system in Kenya. A husband-and-wife team offers professional development to teachers to reduce social violence, develop civic competencies, and help eradicate poverty in Mexico. A student hopes to work on international educational reform.

These committed men and women are just a few of the participants — past and present — in the International Education Program (IEP) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), an initiative now in its 10th year that aims to level the education playing field for students around the world.

Created by Fernando Reimers in 1999 to expand the School’s international education efforts, the curriculum for the one-year master’s degree involves regular course work, self-directed study, and a seminar every other week led by top international education professionals. A key objective is to help students understand the connections among educational, social, and policy reform.

“We want to educate distinguished leaders who can be recognized by their understanding of important education problems, solid knowledge of the field of international education and development, strong analytical skills, well-developed communicative and political competencies, and a solid ethical commitment to social justice, empowering low-income children and improving equity through education,” said Reimers, the program’s director and Ford Foundation Professor of International Education.

The IEP also works at establishing and maintaining a network of international education leaders that reaches far beyond HGSE, said Reimers, who connects current and past members of the program on a range of education issues.

“We want every student in each cohort to be bound by a commitment to a set of shared purposes bigger than themselves.”

The program features a comprehensive orientation session. Students come to campus for three weeks in the summer, before fall classes begin, to familiarize themselves with their surroundings and prepare for the rigors of a Harvard education. The intensive course introduces students — many of them foreign — to the core teaching methodologies used at HGSE and the central problems of theory and practice in the field.

Interaction with fellow students who share similar goals and the ensuing exchange of ideas and insights are what make the program so successful, say its participants. Current students and graduates alike remark that much of the learning goes on after class, in the hallways or nearby coffee shops, where classroom discussions often continue late into the night, and in collaboration in student-led initiatives organizing conferences or other projects.

“I think the biggest strength of the IEP is that my classmates are from all over the world and they have done all kinds of different things, so that there’s really a richness of experience that is brought to the table,” said Ann Horwitz, a current member of the program. “I don’t think any two of us have similar stories to tell, which is really valuable in the context of learning. We learn as much from each other as the articles we read and the cases we study.”

Horwitz used a Fulbright grant after college to teach English in Indonesia, where she was dismayed by the “single-minded” system that requires students to pass a poorly constructed national exam to graduate from high school. The test, she said, exemplified the pressures developing countries feel to emulate the academic standards of the West.

Horwitz will graduate from the program this spring and hopes to find a job with the U.S. government or a nongovernmental organization to work on education reform in other countries.

While at Harvard, Mariali Cárdenas said she “tried to understand what could happen in an educational environment where — through innovation — children could develop skills … so they could influence their environments in positive ways, be agents of change, and improve their own community.”

In 2004, Cárdenas, together with other graduates from the IEP program including her husband, Armando Estrada, created the nonprofit VIAeducation, an international network that uses education to address quality-of-life, sustainable development, and civic engagement issues in Latin America.

Back on campus last month to talk to current students in the IEP program about her work, Cárdenas described one of her program’s early initiatives with schoolchildren in Monterrey, Mexico. The students, who were encouraged to improve their environment, decided their sweltering classrooms made learning difficult and created a successful recycling campaign to raise funds to buy fans.

“The results are not the most interesting thing,” said the 2000 IEP graduate. “The most interesting thing is the process that students experienced. For the first time, [the students] had the space to participate.”

Cárdenas said the knowledge that so many others are committed to and working on educational reform was one of the most important lessons she learned while at Harvard.

“[The IEP] makes you understand that you are not alone; that there are other people thinking about the same problems, the same situations, and trusting education as one of the main means to overcome different social difficulties.”

Sweeping educational reform was the furthest thing from the mind of a young, Kenyan nomadic tribesman born in a cow-dung hut. But the chance for an education at a nearby missionary school and the encouragement of its founder, who told him she knew Harvard was in his future, set the stage for Joseph Lekuton, who graduated from the IEP program in 2003. Now a member of the Kenyan Parliament, he is committed to providing every child in his country a chance at an education.

In March, Lekuton returned to Harvard to deliver the keynote address at the annual HGSE Alumni of Color Conference. The theme of this year’s event was “Crossing Borders: Exploring Local and Global Perspectives on Race, Inequality and Education.” As the head of an effort to build schools in some of his country’s most remote villages, Lekuton knows the subject intimately.

“I knew we couldn’t build a strong society if we didn’t have the basic needs [met]. … We cross borders by building the schools, so tomorrow a child from that village will become somebody in the government,” said Lekuton.

His experience with the IEP, where he was exposed to committed professors and students from around the world, he said, led him directly to the work he does today.

“The confidence that the HGSE gave me during the time I was here,” he said, “is the cornerstone of my success now.”