Tomer Rosner has a way of seeing hidden possibilities. Like the archetypal optimist turning lemons into lemonade, Rosner has managed to turn a Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) storage closet into an office.
Tucked into a first-floor corner of the Littauer Building, the sparsely adorned and poorly lit room is nothing to brag about. But Rosner, a midcareer student from Israel, didn’t seem to mind the lack of ambience as he showed off the space where he does much of his coursework.
“I can’t see it anyway,” he joked.
In a school that hosts students from dozens of countries, and that is home to a vast array of languages, religions, and political beliefs, Rosner brings another kind of difference to the classroom. He is currently the only legally blind student at the Kennedy School. But that fact has hardly kept him from making the most of his year at Harvard.
Rosner has experienced some challenges since moving to America last summer. Cambridge’s bumpy cobblestone sidewalks can turn a leisurely stroll into a complicated dance. He can easily get lost in the Kennedy School’s mazelike buildings. (“It feels like we’re in a Harry Potter book,” he said of the half-floors and tight spiral staircases.) And of course, there’s no easy way to learn graduate-level statistics if one can’t read a graph.
“Being in a new environment is not easy for me,” Rosner said. “I’m used to having independence. But it’s a price I’m willing to pay to be here.”
It has helped, he said, that the School has provided a mobility orienter, or guide, who taught him the walk from his University-owned apartment to campus. There also are special proctors who transcribe his essays or describe for Rosner those aforementioned pesky graphs.
“It wasn’t obvious to me that I would get so much help,” Rosner said.
And then there is the Littauer office’s pièce de résistance: a University-provided computer that reads documents aloud. Next to it sits a projector that magnifies documents to many times their original size, allowing Rosner, who maintains some sight, to read them. The technology has come a long way since he first lost his sight 28 years ago. Then, his father had to travel to the United States to purchase a primitive reading machine.
“When I began to have these medical complications, my father said, ‘You will be like everyone else,’ ” he recalled. That attitude led Rosner through college, law school, and into an impressive career in Israeli public policy.
Rosner is now studying for a master of public administration through the Wexner Foundation’s Israel Fellowship Program, which sends up to 10 Israeli civil servants to HKS each year to train them to be public-sector leaders.
Despite his casual demeanor — at 41, he wears jeans and Converse sneakers to class — Rosner wields a great deal of influence in Israel’s government. He is the senior legal adviser to the State Control Committee and the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee in the Knesset, or parliament.
“This position gives me the opportunity to be in the center of policymaking in Israel,” Rosner said. “Every day has its new issue, and I have to dig into it, study it, and know the implications” before advising Knesset committee members, most of whom have only two staffers to help with policy research.
Over the past several years, Rosner has helped to craft major environmental legislation, including a law that forces corporations to pay for their pollution even if they are doing so within legal limits.
“We’ve had what I would call an environmental revolution,” he said.
He came to the Kennedy School to access the latest environmental policy ideas and to network with an international group of policymakers. He has strengthened his leadership skills, he said, by taking classes on crafting public narratives, ethics, and public speaking.
After several months on campus, Rosner still exudes an infectious enthusiasm for Harvard life. He keeps vigilant watch over upcoming University events, and once penciled in six public lectures in a day. (Unsurprisingly, he couldn’t make them all.)
“I didn’t imagine how diverse an experience this would be,” he said. “You can be in a class debating dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, and you’ll have both military officers and Japanese students in the class.”
One eye-opening moment, Rosner said, was hearing a talk by the political economist Robert Reich in his Arts of Communication class last fall.
“Everything we talked about in class, he did,” he said of Reich, who is considered a master public speaker.
But the speech stuck with Rosner for another reason, too, said the course’s instructor, Marie Danziger.
The 4-foot-10-inch Reich opens every public appearance with a self-deprecating joke about his height. After hearing Reich, “Tomer developed this repertoire of blind jokes,” said Danziger, a lecturer in public policy at HKS. “Almost every time he gave a speech in class, he would find some way — some charming, moving way — to acknowledge this difference that he contends with.”
That strategy gave Rosner a way to connect with an audience he couldn’t see, Danziger said.
“I don’t know how he did it,” she added, “but his last two or three speeches were perfect.”