When Hodan Osman, M.C./M.P.A. Mason Fellow 2018, arrived in Cambridge last summer, she knew exactly what she was looking for. After spending nearly five years working in Somalia’s fledging government, the former banker had three things in mind.
“I came to the U.S. to find lattes and sidewalks,” Osman says with a laugh. “I’d been working in Mogadishu since 2013, and we would hear explosions outside the compound while we were having meetings about the country’s financial future. We’d order lunch, and you’d hear the bombs dropping. It’s amazing what you come to accept as normal.”
While Cambridge certainly has sidewalks and lattes in abundance, the third thing Osman was searching for proved a bit more elusive.
“I’m passionate about state-building,” she says. “After spending several years working in a new government, I wanted to know: Is there a process for state-building? A formula? An A to Z? We’ve been doing things that are new in Somalia, but these things are not new in the world. I wanted to find models, answers, a how-to guide.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Osman’s time at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) has left her with few definitive answers. Instead, she has gained a new appreciation for asking the right questions.
“I’ve been amazed at how HKS emphasizes leadership and problem-solving skills,” she says. “Even in classes that aren’t ostensibly about leadership, your professors are always pushing you to ask good questions.” She reels off a list of them: “How do you listen? How do you bring in different voices? How do you break down a problem into parts? How do you lead a team and bring people together?”
The child of Somali nomads who spent her formative years in Canada, Osman worked in commercial banking and at the United Nations before returning to Somalia. Working for the country’s central bank and ministry of finance, she relished the chance to help shape Somalia’s fiscal policies.
“Debt relief, payment systems, access to financing — all these things are so important,” Osman explains. “They feed the peace agenda in a country because they pave the way for development projects. You must have these building blocks in place if you’re going to create lasting peace.”
As a mid-career student and Emirates Leadership Initiative Fellow, Osman has drawn wisdom and strength from her HKS classmates, whose backgrounds and experience span countries and sectors. “Our experiences are surprisingly similar,” she says of her fellow students from developing countries. “I’ve loved being a part of this tight-knit cohort and having access to people who understand me. Our countries may be different, but we’ve gone through some very similar things and we can help each other.”
Osman isn’t leaving the sidewalks and lattes behind just yet; she’ll spend next semester in Cambridge, doing additional research on state-building, before returning to Somalia to resume her work with the government. Though she’s grateful for the extra time stateside, she’s also excited to return.
“I fell in love with public service in Somalia,” she says. “I definitely needed some perspective, and the chance to gain new tools — but I left knowing I was coming back. I’m excited to go back. I can’t imagine myself doing anything better with my life.”
This article was originally published on Harvard Kennedy School’s Student Life web page in May. It has been lightly edited.