President Bacow speaking to students.

Harvard President Larry Bacow shared his personal experience with students at Highline High School.

Photos by Suzi Pratt

Campus & Community

Bacow urges high schoolers to pursue their educational dreams

7 min read

Harvard president also meets with participants in a college-readiness program started by alumni and with incoming and current students and grads

Harvard President Larry Bacow shared lessons from his own journey through higher education with a group of high school students in Washington state on Monday, urging them to pursue their goals and to be unafraid to dream big.

Since his first days leading Harvard, Bacow has been meeting with high school students, teachers, and school leaders across the country — Michigan, Texas, California — and hearing students’ hopes and concerns while encouraging them to consider what higher education can mean for their futures. Bacow made his latest trip Monday to Highline High School, outside Seattle, to speak to more than 200 students, faculty, and administrators. Later that evening he met with area alumni at an event in downtown Seattle.

“For many of [Highline’s students], attending a university like Harvard seems unattainable, so to have President Bacow take time to share his story and answer their questions was powerful,” said Superintendent Susan Enfield, Ed.M. ’02, Ed.D. ’08, who leads the Highline Public Schools system and was on hand to meet with Bacow. “The highlight of the visit came when he said, ‘If anyone tells you that you can’t, tell them that the president of Harvard told you that you can.’ I have never been more proud to be an alumna of Harvard, and talking with students after yesterday’s visit, it is clear that many of them now see themselves one day calling Harvard their alma mater as well.”

Bacow told students that he felt that college was where he found the opportunity to pursue his interests with others. “For the first time, I felt like it was OK to be interested in things like math and science,” he said. “I found people who were interested in what I was interested in and that it was OK to be interested in them. And that’s one of the things you have to look forward to as you decide what’s next in your life.”

President Bacow handling a microphone to audience member.
Allowing time for questions, President Larry Bacow spoke before an audience of 200 at Highline High School outside of Seattle.

As part of the visit, Bacow heard from a cohort of students who are part of an innovative college- and career-readiness program, as well as from the Harvard students and recent graduates who mentor them. Founded by Alexis Wheeler, J.D. ’09, the president of the Harvard Club of Seattle, the Club’s Crimson Achievement Program (CAP) provides guidance and other resources to support a path to college for high-achieving, low-income high school students from western Washington, starting in ninth grade.

“I often say that Harvard exists to make the world a better place, and in fact we saw this in action,” Bacow said of his visit to Highline. He acknowledged those like Wheeler and others who help high school students “who dream of the opportunity to get an education at place like Harvard … understand that they can achieve those dreams.”

During his visit, Bacow heard presentations from the students about their experience, watched a video about their five-day spring break field trip to visit Harvard and MIT, and participated in a Q&A session with current Harvard College undergraduates and recent graduates who work with Highline students.

Seattle-area mentors include T.J. Hazen ’20, undergraduate CAP chair, Simone Abegunrin ’18, Margaret Ho ’15, Floriane Kameni ’18, Jennifer Niemi ’22, and Emily Prentice ’20.

President of the Harvard Club of Seattle, Alexis Wheeler, J.D. ’09, founded the Crimson Achievement Program. Photo by Michael Nakamura

Throughout the morning, Bacow also met with district and school leaders, including Enfield, Highline High School co-principals Tremain Holloway, Ed.M. ’16, and Clint Sallee, and other administrators and faculty. Bacow also made a stop in the school’s 10th grade AVID classroom, a course that focuses on preparing students for college, career, and life. From there, he visited the college and career center, the high school’s hub for students to receive support on college planning, internships, and educational field trips.

He concluded his visit in the gymnasium, where he made brief remarks and took direct questions, which ranged from inquiries about the best way to prepare for college to what to expect when they get there.

“Going to college — everybody struggles. That’s normal. So the best piece of advice I could give you is to be willing to ask for help,” said Bacow. “Wherever you go to school, there are going to be people there to try to support you, because schools, colleges, and universities want their students to succeed. But if you don’t ask for help, you’re not going to get it.”

Monday evening, Bacow made remarks and visited with nearly 300 alumni from the region at an event in the heart of Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood.

Attendees traveled from Washington, Oregon, and Vancouver and included graduates from the Harvard College Classes of 1952 through 2019, as well as some current and newly admitted students. Alumni from nearly every Harvard School were represented. The Harvard Club of Seattle, Harvard Alumni Entrepreneurs, Harvard Alumni for Education, and the Harvard Alumni Association sponsored the event.

Introducing the two faculty speakers for the evening, Bacow noted that inequality “is among the most important topics that we confront as a nation, as a society,” and that the speakers were two of the foremost experts on access to education and health outcomes.

Lisa Berkman spoke to the audience about her work as a social epidemiologist in examining inequality in workplace policy and practices. She is the director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies and the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy and of Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Berkman began by noting that “life expectancy for the United States is intricately entwined with the kinds of inequality that we live with” and that “data show these inequalities are widening.”

“The demography of workforce is changing,” she said. “We still design work as if there’s one white, male, middle-aged, healthy person who is married to a woman who is going to stay at home, even though that’s not been true for ages.”

Reflecting those shifts, Berkman’s research looks at how workplace redesign can improve health. In one study, she examined the “long-run outcome” of countries that have maternity-leave policies. As an example, her study found that a woman’s odds of being depressed in her 60s was reduced by 16 percent in those countries.

In her research on workplace redesign, Berkman explained, “We didn’t ask people to adapt to toxic physical exposures. We changed physical exposures.” She said this kind of intervention “is an opportunity to reduce inequality in health” related to work and work cultures.

Anthony Jack, Ph.D. ’16, assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, spoke about his work on inequality and poverty, especially as it affects children and youth. He is the author of “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students.”

Jack’s research focuses on what he describes as a “new responsibility that diversity demands of all of us — professors and students, administrators, and all of us — as we open our doors to ever-more-diverse groups of students.”

For his book, Jack asked more than 100 students what it means to be a poor student on a rich college campus, and how different low-income students’ experiences can be. He argues that some are doubly disadvantaged, “by virtue of their disparate high school experiences, [and] different access to what sociologists call dominant-culture capital.”

In his remarks to the audience, Bacow praised the work of all Harvard faculty and researchers. “There are faculty who are worrying about the origins of life and others who are thinking about the meaning of life,” he said. Faculty are thinking about “how we use computation to simulate intelligence, and then we have other faculty who are thinking hard about the ethics of artificial intelligence, [those] who are creating new music, new literature, and at the same time we have other faculty who are thinking about how the brain encodes language or music.”