Campus & Community

Nick Rizzo ’09: Have compassion, will travel

4 min read

Nick Rizzo ’09 has been certain since the second grade that crimson is his color. The young sports fan from Kingston, Mass., used to travel to Boston with his father to cheer for Harvard in the annual Beanpot hockey tournament. When it came time for college applications, there was no question: early action to Harvard.

His path since arriving, however, has been somewhat less straightforward. Rizzo’s college experience has been one of change and discovery.

Rizzo came to Harvard planning to be a doctor and eventually pursue international clinical work. He concentrated in social anthropology and dutifully enrolled in pre-medical classes. While slogging through organic chemistry in his sophomore year, however, Rizzo came to feel he might be headed in the wrong direction.

“Everyone struggles in ‘Orgo,’ and spends the entire semester telling each other ‘this is just something you have to get through,’” he said. “But I had a lot of trouble convincing myself of that. … I came to realize that I wasn’t looking forward to any of the pre-med classes.”

Some serious thinking was in order, so Rizzo decided to take a year off to explore his options.

“I recognized that there are other ways to help people in the world outside of medicine, especially internationally,” he said.

His interest in international development led Rizzo to apply for a position with the American Refugee Committee (ARC) in Rwanda. After receiving a polite but firm “no,” Rizzo reached out to another member of the organization and pleaded his case.

“I told them I was tired of just sitting in class learning about what was going on,” he said. “I wanted to actually do something.”

Rizzo’s persistence — and timing — paid off. The group had just received a grant from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), so Rizzo was invited to help set up an HIV education program in two refugee camps in northeastern and north-central Rwanda.

He spent more than six months there, working in the refugee camps and living in a small village nearby. He and his colleagues provided technical training to the local program staff, constructed a voluntary counseling and testing center, and educated mothers about children’s health care. Rizzo enjoyed the training and the community-based work, and decided once and for all that he did not need to attend medical school.

“The experience gave me the confidence to realize there are so many ways to have a positive impact on the world,” he said.

Following his term with ARC, Rizzo traveled to northern Uganda to teach English, math, and science in an orphanage.

“More than 20 years of insurgency has made the plight of children in Uganda just unbelievable,” said Rizzo. “I was there during a break in the violence … a temporary peace agreement, which allowed me to work there for four months.”

Since returning to Harvard, Rizzo has focused on the intersection of anthropology and foreign policy. He worked as a research intern for Samantha Power, Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), and for Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at HKS.

“Sometimes it’s an uphill battle, thinking about what social anthropology and foreign policy have to do with each other,” Rizzo said. “People don’t always agree, but social anthropology is essentially about understanding other people and their values, … which can be immensely useful in shaping foreign policy.”

Appropriately, Rizzo wrote his thesis on an anthropology-based program in the U.S. Army. Known as Human Terrain System (HTS), the program is designed to help commanders better understand local populations and cultures. Rizzo conducted phone interviews with Army personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan and traveled to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to learn more about the initiative.

Foreign affairs continue to beckon Rizzo. Next year, he will travel to India on a Rockefeller Scholarship to study religion and suffering in the northwest part of the country. Rizzo plans to trek across Northern India, and for part of his journey he will follow the Char Dham pilgrimage route stretching through the Himalayas.

“This area is an intersection of the Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu worlds,” Rizzo said. “Literally and figuratively, it’s a contested space — and I am interested in exploring how people deal with hardship in terms of their religion.”

He plans to stay with local residents as frequently as possible, and enjoy the great tradition of hospitality for which that corner of the world is known.

“I’m sure I’ll have some bizarre experiences, but it will all turn out great,” he said, with the excitement of one who has his eyes — and heart — wide open to the world.