On May 30, Anna Carlstone will graduate from Harvard Divinity School with a master of theological studies degree. Below, she discusses the ways in which her experiences at HDS have helped shape her life; why new students should use their summers wisely; and what her plans are for the future.
Why did you choose to attend Harvard Divinity School? What were your initial expectations before you started at HDS?
I chose to attend HDS because I was looking for schools that would allow me the freedom to design my own program and to fuse the study of literature with the study of religion. The real selling point was looking through the course titles and realizing that almost every single one looked like a class I would love to take.
What have been the biggest surprises you have discovered about HDS since you've been here?
I have been incredibly surprised by the warmth of the community here at HDS. One of my apprehensions coming in was that graduate school would be characterized by a sense of competition and intellectual showmanship. Instead, I found that my classes were full of genuinely thoughtful and extremely intelligent students who were drawn to HDS from a broad range of diverse backgrounds and experiences.
Academically, what has been your focus?
I designed my own academic focus. I came in under the umbrella of literature, religion, and culture, but between my first and second years I changed my focus back to education. My academic focus has been understanding education from a religious, political, and economic standpoint.
As a student at HDS, were you able to take advantage of the opportunity to enroll in courses at other Harvard Schools?
I feel as though I have uniquely optimized the flexibility that HDS offers. I've taken classes in the Yard, the Graduate School of Education, the Kennedy School, and Harvard Business School. By doing so, I've had the chance to broaden the network of connections that I have made across the graduate school campuses. The class at HBS, 'Entrepreneurship and Education Reform,' challenged me to rethink what was possible in the education sector and completely altered my trajectory from the study of religion to opening my own charter school.
I understand that you did a field education placement as an MTS candidate, which is pretty unusual. Where did you do your field ed and what was the impact?
I applied to a summer fellowship to work for the mayor of Sacramento that was made available to students of the HBS class that I took. I was the first Divinity School student to work for Mayor Johnson, which was something the staff in his office enjoyed mentioning. I worked in his office on intergovernmental affairs and education policy. It was an incredible experience to be able to plan a major event featuring Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and to present the plan to a board including Mayor Johnson and former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Michelle Rhee.
The experience working in an office and managing relationships with such high profile stakeholders helped me transition out of the mindset of a teacher to thinking about effecting change on a broader scale. The Office of Ministry Studies at HDS was hugely supportive throughout the whole process and made it possible for me to receive funding as well as a structured theological framework to help me reflect on the experience.
How have been impacted by your experience at HDS? What, if anything, has changed about you as a result of your time here?
Prior to coming to HDS I had a difficult time imagining what I could be other than a teacher or an academic. But now, after the opportunity to have rich conversations with people from HDS and across the Harvard graduate schools, as well as interact with highly accomplished professors, my sense of possibility has grown exponentially. I've been exposed to a broader range of interests and passions, and I've learned more about myself and what my role is in the midst of it all.
Do you have any advice for new students?
Make use of the full range of resources that Harvard provides and use summers wisely to get jobs and internships that you might not have had a chance to otherwise.
Last, can you describe a bit more about what's next for you? I believe you are starting a school in Los Angeles. Can you talk more about it?
I have a fellowship with an organization called Building Excellent Schools that will train me to open my own fourth- through eighth-grade charter middle school in Los Angeles.
My next few years will be spent designing the school, writing the charter application, building my board of directors, hiring staff, and finding facilities. My title will be executive director and founding principal. The organization has a saying that I think will characterize this process: "The work will be long and hard and good."