Nonprofit Leader Reflects on Key to Earning Degree: Drive
At the 2017 Harvard Extension Information Session, alumnus Evan Bernstein shared the hardships and rewards of pursuing his graduate degree at Harvard Extension School. Bernstein earned his degree in the field of management with a concentration in nonprofits. He is currently the New York regional director at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Watch the video of his inspiring speech or read the edited transcript below.
We moved from Arizona to Boston in the winter of 2007. My daughter was only a couple of months old. And I took a position as the national director of development for an organization that helped train leaders on college campuses. What better place to do that than in Boston, with so many schools.
At that point in my career, being 34 years old, I wanted to get out of development. If I wanted to run an organization and be someone that was going to be the thought leader for an organization, someone that's not only raising money but setting policy for an organization, I had to get myself educated. I had to get myself activated and ready and knowledgeable to do that.
So right away when I started the position, I said, “OK, I know there's going to be a plethora of opportunities for me to extend myself, and extend my education, and grow.”
I did a Google search, like everybody else. And I saw all the usual schools. But then I saw the Harvard Extension School and I said, “What is this?”
I lived in Boston, in the early 2000s. I'm from New England. I thought I knew all the schools––Harvard Law or Harvard Kennedy. I [had] never heard of the Harvard Extension School, and it was shocking to me.
So I started doing more research, just like you're doing right now, and I started realizing that this is absolutely an unbelievable hidden gem––a place that you could get a Harvard education [flexibly] and get everything that you need to be able to grow professionally.
I think about some of the things that I had to do in order to get that degree accomplished. I can't believe I did it.”
At that point, as I said, I was 34. I think I was one year older than the average age [of a Harvard Extension School student]. So for me, I already knew what I wanted. I started my master's at Columbia University in my early 20s, and it wasn't for me. I thought I was going to take a two-year break. I ended up taking a 10-year break. So it was a perfect opportunity for me to come back in, but this time really knowing what I wanted to do.
They had this amazing management program with a concentration in managing nonprofits. I took my first course with Professor Patricia Deyton in the fall of 2008––Introduction to Nonprofits. It was life-altering, as almost every one of my courses were, because in that moment I started learning about case methodology, about how to look at Harvard Business cases that were actually analyzing nonprofits. And I was already working for a nonprofit, so right away, as I was taking my three admission-level classes, I was able to take those classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then come back into the office the next day and actually utilize what I was learning, which was so amazing.
Do you know how empowering it was? It was unbelievable. And I started looking at organizations differently. I looked at the four frames and Peter Drucker, and [learned] about how organizations work, and how businesses work, and about financials. And it was unbelievable, but it was incredibly hard.
My wife got pregnant again with my son. The economic downturn happened. I was responsible for keeping the lights on and the bills paid for at our nonprofit. We were in one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression.
So simultaneously, I had to help raise a young family with my wife; I had to be able to keep the lights on in an almost four million dollar nonprofit here in Boston. [I] managed to write
papers, and take coursework, and take the Red Line to Cambridge and then get on
the bus near Auburn Street back to Brookline, and do that consistently.
And it got really hard. I think about some of the things that I had to do in order to get that degree accomplished. I can't believe I did it. I still look back on it, and I honestly can't believe it.
I remember writing papers in Scottsdale Public Library in Arizona when I was on vacation, on Amtrak going down to Washington D.C., in a hotel room in Jerusalem on a Saturday night, in Los Angeles in the Hilton. Believe me, when I was in those areas, the last thing I [wanted] to think about was writing a paper on organizational management or human resource management, but you have to do it.
I remember when my son was born, my wife had an emergency C-section. We're running to Brigham and Women's, and I'm not going to say the professor's name, but the professor would not let me hand the paper in late. I had my paper on my USB stick in my pocket, and I'm taking off the robe. My wife comes back into the room, and [then] she's on the bed. And I'm like, “Everyone's okay. Baby's okay. [My wife is] okay.”
I run to the nurses' station; I shove the USB stick into the computer. The nurse is looking at me like, “What are you doing? Your wife just had an emergency c-section.”
I gotta get the paper in. I gotta get the paper in.
It's Harvard, right? It's Harvard. So I get the paper in; I hand it in. Gmail going on––boom. Get the paper out. Go back to my wife, and my son, and my daughter, and my mom, and everyone else, and enjoy that amazing moment.
But that's the kind of stuff that you're going to have to experience when you're doing this. And it's not easy. It's really hard, but it's really rewarding.
I was able to use that knowledge that I was getting right away in my workspace, where I was getting feedback from my leadership, my board members, and other colleagues. They saw me morphing into a different professional.”
And there were things that kept me going. For me, I did it in three years. Around the year-and-a-half mark, where you're like, “Do I really need to keep doing this? I have a good job. I'm doing my thing. Do I really need to continue on with this unbelievably tenuous thing, even though it's Harvard?”
You absolutely do. You absolutely do, OK.
There were three things that kept me motivated throughout my degree program. Number one was the learning that I was doing––to be able to use that knowledge that I was getting right away in my workspace, where I was getting feedback from my leadership, my board members, and other colleagues. They saw me morphing into a different professional. They saw me thinking differently, especially because of the case model and case studies. That was something that I felt happening, but [it] was great to get the feedback from others.
The other thing was walking into Harvard Yard––walking through Johnson Gate. I'm a big Red Sox fan. It was like going into Fenway Park every day, even when it was freezing cold, icy rain, [or] I had a long day. [You’re] getting on the train to get [to] that 5:30 class on the Red Line, and you walk into Harvard Yard––it's like Good Will Hunting. And you [are] there, and you're doing it. And you're walking to Sever Hall, or you're going to Maxwell Dworkin, [or] you're going to Northwest Science. And you're saying to yourself, “I'm doing this.”
This is hallowed ground. So when you feel like, “I don't want to do it,” just think about the surroundings you're in, and get your strength from that. And I was lucky because I had one extra thing that happened to me.
I was lucky enough to be put on a student board at the Kennedy School, called the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. Our job in that group was to analyze nonprofit curricula for all of Harvard and do research in the field. It took place right around the middle of my program when I was selected for that.
I really felt like then I was really fully a part of Harvard because a lot of the people there are people from Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School, Harvard College, Kennedy School, School of Public Health. And we're all there together, and we're all working together to make our Harvard a better place, especially around the nonprofit sector. And that was something that kept me motivated, knowing that.
Again, I would not be able to sit in that group and do that work if I wasn't in the Extension School program. That was amazing for me. So we kept working through, and kept working through, kept working through, and then, all of a sudden––bam––it's graduation.
This is something that is part of you forever. It's not just a little window in time. You are part of this family forever. You are Harvard alumni when you finish. And it is an amazing thing.”
I'm looking to the right and left, and seeing Harvard Business School graduates, Harvard School of Education graduates. And we're standing up, and we're sitting down. To be part of that is one of the greatest things you will ever have in your life––I promise you.
My wedding day, the birth of my children ... graduation was for me a special day just as those were. It's that big a deal because you're all surrounded with people that went through the same experiences as you––that went through the hardships of raising a family, doing it all, with your job and all the things. We're all together in that final moment, that one glorious moment. It's a fantastic day. It was so wonderful to share it with my family.
And then there's after the degree, the impact of the degree. For me, I got my executive director job right when I graduated, in New York. I became the head of a social service organization. I did that for two years. Then I got recruited to be the head of the ADL [Anti-Defamation League] in New York, one of the oldest civil rights organizations in the United States, an over 103-year-old civil rights organization.
And when I came into both those organizations, specifically the ADL, I was told, “Evan, you need to be a change agent. You need to be able to come in and analyze everything––the financials, the human resources, the development side, the programmatic side, and be a change agent.” And I can do that because of my Harvard Extension School degree.
And when our new wonderful CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, came in a year into my time with the ADL, he said to me, “Evan, I need you to do a SWOT analysis––a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats analysis––of the ADL, of its entirety.” And I could do that because I did it in one of my courses at Harvard Extension School. I could turn that around in 24 hours.
Okay, real-life experience. And now when you leave, you're still part of the family. I'm a member of the Harvard Club in New York. I ate two meals there yesterday. I'm there almost every day for meetings. I just joined the Harvard Extension School Alumni Board. This is something that is part of you forever. It's not just a little window in time. You are part of this family forever. It will impact you forever. Harvard doesn't go away. It's an unbelievable experience. So much of it is about what you put into it, and what you put in, you will get out.
There are so many resources for you as an alum, and you are Harvard alumni. You are Harvard alumni when you finish. And it is an amazing thing.
My last parting words to you: it changed my life to go to the Harvard Extension School. And I know if you decide to take it on and put the seriousness to it that it really demands, you will get out of it what I got out of it. And it will change your life forever.
This speech has been edited for clarity and length.