My second wind

Gianna R. Montinola
The greatest gift was the opportunity to meet students with different perspectives from all over the world and all walks of life


GIANNA MONTINOLA“You are kidding, right? Why?” was the general reaction to my news that I was going back to school to pursue a master’s degree. Thank God for the occasional “You go girl, you can do it! I am so proud of you!”

“Why not?” I thought to myself.

Thus I began my journey to the Harvard Kennedy School.  “What? No safety school?” my son inquired anxiously when I told him that was the only program I was applying to. The truth is it was the only one I was interested in: a one-year mid-career program for students between 40-60 years of age with an average of 15 years work experience.

I was elated to be accepted as an Edward S. Mason Fellow, together with over 80 students from developing and newly-industrialized countries from all over the world. So why wouldn’t I go? As the famous American comedian and now fellow alumnus Danny Tingle once said, “That’s why you go to Harvard. Because you were accepted.”

Adjusting, coping

Not that the rigors of student life came easy at 54. Retraining my slower paced brain and body to adapt to the academic rigors of graduate studies was challenging. After reading the first 10 pages of my initial 300-page reading assignment, I couldn’t remember what I had just read.

Leapfrogging the technological advances was part of my trials and tribulations. “Who are those?” I asked an undergraduate classmate when instructed to try Prezi or Zeega for multimedia presentations. It never dawned on me that PowerPoint was fast becoming a thing of the past.

Learning to maneuver Twitter, a Domain Name, a Blog, Google Groups, Google AdWords, Linkedin, Storify, Bitly and all the endless social networks were only some of the complexities I came to know and understand for the first time.

But living in Cambridge, Massachusetts was delightful. It was like drinking water out of a fire hose. Oftentimes I was torn between getting my work done or hearing Aung San Suu Kyi, Lawrence Summers or Dani Rodrick speak at the Kennedy School, Toni Morrison lecture at the Divinity School, Roberto Unger teach at the Law School or Michael Porter at the Business School.  Not to mention the Dalai Lama and Noam Chomsky’s talks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

NEVER TOO LATE. The author (leftmost) with fellow Filipino graduates of the MPA program of Harvard Kennedy School (from left to right) Benigno Durana, Jr., Anneli Lontoc and Alma Dolot. Photo contributed by Gianna Montinola

During our first meeting, our Quant Professor gave us a fair warning:  “Now I know you all have staff halfway around the world but please resist the temptation to ask them to do your homework!”

It was tempting, I admit, because the immersion courses in quant, economics and the excel spreadsheet were far from my cup of tea. Add to that the copious reading lists, cases and academic papers.

“You all were accepted into this program because we were impressed with your accomplishments.  You need not impress us further.  If you get straight As in all your courses by the end of the year, you probably chose the wrong ones.  This is a time for you to grow – to overcome your weaknesses and to dig deeper into things you know little about,” our program director advised.

Beyond academic learning

And so I embarked on my way of the cross. My most memorable courses were Exercising Leadership: the Politics of Change; Religion and Politics; Educational Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship; Media, Power, Politics in the Digital Age and a history course on leadership from Henry V to Mark Zuckerberg.  

All required endless hours of study and work but were extremely stimulating. All were taught by learned and well-renowned professors who initiated intelligent and thought-provoking discussions.

To this day, I still marvel at how I got accepted into this group of illustrious, well-educated and accomplished leaders. They came from different sectors:  government, military, police, politics, diplomatic service, private sector, non-governmental agencies and journalists. Professions ranged from a defeated presidential candidate to a navy seal to a poet to a Buddhist monk.

The greatest gift, perhaps, was the opportunity to meet students with different perspectives from all over the world and all walks of life. We spent an unforgettable time together, connecting, sharing ideas but most importantly, learning.

MOMMY'S TURN. The author with her two children at Harvard Kennedy School

Finishing strong

On May 30th, we donned our caps and gowns and marched with our symbolic globes to the commencement ceremony. Oprah Winfrey, our commencement speaker, who was awarded an honorary degree, said:

“Even though this is the college where Facebook was born, my hope is that you will try and go out and have more face-to-face conversations with people you disagree with. That you’ll have the courage to look them in the eye and hear their point of view.”

Many have asked why I chose to go to the Kennedy School and my decision to pursue a Masters in Public Administration. I believe the reason is because I want to dedicate a part of my life to public service.  

One of the most valuable things the year taught me was the “art of the ask” –  the courage to ask the hard and challenging questions, the ones that many are frightened to ask.

As public servants, we should all be prepared to ask these difficult questions not only for ourselves but also on behalf of those who cannot. Only then can we begin to think of possible solutions to our country’s pressing problems; only then can there be hope for a better world.

At times I felt like I was going through a washing machine and clothes dryer at high (not delicate) speed. I ended with a slow, exhausted crawl rather than a triumphant march over the finish line. But thanks to the encouragement and support of many, I made it!

Gianna R. Montinola recently graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School where she obtained a Masters in Public Administration. A lawyer by profession, she is a member of the Board of Trustees of Far Eastern University and handles the marketing and communications of the FEU group. She is a Co-founder and Board Member of Hands On Manila Foundation, Inc., a foundation dedicated to the advocacy of volunteerism in the Philippines. She is likewise the Co-founder and President of PeaceTech Inc., a non-profit organization which promotes the use of technology and dialogue in building respect and understanding between groups of people.