Lean in Moments: Jenny Choi

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This summer, I am working as an international relations intern at Chile’s Servicio Nacional de la Mujer (SERNAM or National Women’s Service). Chile is a beautiful country that offers beaches, volcanoes, deserts, and mountains all in one long bus ride. But what has made my stay here truly exhilarating is the chance to observe the activity of a bustling country right on the cusp of full-fledged development. I’ve been eagerly jotting down everything I notice (from actual problems like the prevalence of vagabond dogs on the streets of Santiago to minor details like how few people jay-walk here) in the hopes that if I get a chance to revisit Chile in the future, I will be able to look back and point out the differences.

The work itself also provides a look into Chile’s energy-ridden atmosphere around modernization and liberalization. My project is to review the Chilean reports to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women from 1994 to 2012 and prepare a comparative report. Through my first two weeks (and after perhaps too many minutes of scratching my head over the meaning of SAT-level Spanish vocabulary initially), I have been able to gather that women’s rights, although clearly overshadowed by more spotlighted issues like education and constitutional reform right now, is indeed going through an exciting time as well.

In the women’s discourse in Chile, we see the classic tug-of-war between a Government cautious of change and the comparatively more radical People. Much of the winning Chilean law projects on the subject of women have been sold to legislators as protecting the institution of the family or being beneficial for children instead of as a change to the stereotypes and societal expectations as to how a woman should behave. Meanwhile, we see government services like SERNAM (backed with the power of the executive branch) responding more directly to the pressure from the people, pushing through at full speed with programs that do not require the approval of the legislature, such as career-oriented support systems and gender-related material in schools curriculum and workplace development centers.

Analyzing these patterns, watching massive (and frequent) student rallies for better education, and seeing the protest graffiti all over the city (including the historic church at which I go to mass) have certainly added up to an exciting and deeply thought-provoking study on humans, the world, and myself in general. So aside from seats I have taken at the table and the projects I have started at work, I would like to say that my true “Lean In” experience has been the passive yet focused and organized observation of all the chaos around me.

Sheryl Sandberg’s version of leaning in is quite literal; throughout the book, she urges her readers to take a seat at the table, negotiate hard, and speak up. While all these are certainly essential steps for women to take in this age, I also believe that many women forget to lean in while they are leaning in. That is to say, in the chaos of performing the actions of leaning in as Sandberg puts forward in her book, many women (and men!) forget to lean in to the world in which they live and press their ears against the wall. As a result, we soon lose sight of the bigger picture and the community-oriented mindset as we pour all our energy into overcoming battles within the self.

Leadership is indeed – and I quote our dear friend Merriam Webster here – “the office or position of a leader” or “the capacity to lead.” However, we cannot forget that the higher we are on the pyramid, the more comprehensive the view. If we want to emerge as true leaders, we should “lean in” not only in terms of speaking up at meetings; we can and should also “lean in” by taking a step back to hear, see, smell, and feel the world in which we live, so as maintain a genuine and grounded perspective on the communities we aspire to lead.

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Lean In Moments: Dilia Zwart

A view of Tuzla from my house in the green hills
A view of Tuzla from my house in the green hills

 Dilia Zwart- Bosnia Initiatives for Local Development (BILD) in Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina

I am working for Bosnia Initiatives for Local Development (BILD), a non-profit based in Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina. BILD is, in many ways, a one-man show run by its founder, who came at the end of the Bosnian war. In the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia and in the name of a Serbian Republic in Bosnia, Bosnian Serbs ethnically cleansed Bosniaks and Croats. The war is often depicted in Western media as a muddle of ethnic and religious tensions inherent in the Balkan region. One girl I interviewed here asked if I was surprised that Bosnia is not just a photograph of war and destruction.

Even as Bosnians are moving beyond the years of war, its legacies linger. Not every building has been rebuilt, not every family has been healed by loss, many former refugees still live away perhaps visiting in the summer, and unemployment is at 40%. To establish peace and balance political and regional aspirations, the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords set up the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina as the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska (RS). Here, BILD aims to foster leadership and community among all Bosnians. Since 2008, BILD has been organizing the Tuzla Summer Institute (TSI) in the Federation to teach English and practical skills to young people in Tuzla. For the last 3 years, BILD has also organized the Doboj Summer Institute (DSI) in the RS, linking two cities that haven’t completely resolved wartime tension.

Setting up to interview 300 applicants for the summer institute!
Setting up to interview 300 applicants for the summer institute!

My job as an intern? Recruit applicants from top high schools and universities, interview them, process them, place each student into appropriate classes, maintain the volunteer community that embodies BILD, teach three classes. If you asked me a year ago if I would ever go to a foreign country to teach English, the immediate answer would be no. And somehow I find myself here, compelled by BILD’s respect for multiculturalism and its subtle approach to post-conflict reconciliation.

At Harvard, I am a student interested in the intersection of culture and international law, politics and religion, conflict and reconciliation. These academic interests give me a foundation for the real world, only a beginning. Here, I learn how the games of politics can affect a whole country from the top down. Just being driven by goodwill and sacrifice is not enough. Pleasing donors, prominent community leaders, and the community itself is not enough. I see how these endeavors can lead to disillusionment, embittering even the most kind-hearted and well-meaning among us.

This internship is all about personal initiative. One example of when I “leaned in” was when it came down to extracurricular program. I’d been in Tuzla for over two weeks preparing for the summer institute, and we had vaguely mentioned excursions and afternoon programs to engage students in after classes. Since I think it is important for students to participate in such a program, to practice English outside of classes and get to know each other, I decided to take charge of this project. Together with two other interns, I am planning and choreographing everything from speakers and announcements during lunch, to tennis tournaments and British high tea in the afternoon.

The nature of this internship is highly unstructured, which can be frustrating but also gives me the freedom to get things done when I see that they need organization and execution. There is no manual to tell me what needs to get done and how to do it. Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to take the initiative, especially when you have a boss who is passionate but intimidating (and quite challenging to work with). Often I feel as if I cannot question or challenge how certain things are done here, while other aspects are left entirely to my own devises. I have learned a great deal about working together with difficult people, effective communication, and how to value myself even when I do not feel valued by others.

Us having fun after driving back and forth to Doboj for a week, recruiting applicants!
Us having fun after driving back and forth to Doboj for a week, recruiting applicants! (I’m on the far left)

High hopes, high goals. There is no time or patience for inefficiency. Compassion is the first step, action and cooperation follow. I hope to emerge from this experience knowing that I have what it takes to take charge of my own passions, and share them with others with both empathy and determination.

Lean In Moments: Bernadette Lim

“Project SHE: Innovating girls’ health and education in western Kenya”

by Bernadette Lim

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Martha has high hopes to become a doctor. Trisha proudly exclaimed that she wanted to be a pilot, and Mary knew that she wanted to be a teacher like her mother. As the four of us began to share our future aspirations in one of my recent visits to Kibono Primary School, Trisha said something that deeply struck me: She didn’t know if she could become a doctor because she had missed so much school.

One of the greatest highlights of my trip to Kisumu, Kenya has been working, with SANA International (Sustainable Aid in Africa), an organization that provides clean water, sanitation facilities, and hygiene education to local communities and primary schools in the Nyanza province of western Kenya. As one of its current projects, SANA partnered with UNICEF to build more latrines (toilets) and washrooms for girls in primary schools. According to a 2013 UNICEF study, if girls had these sanitation facilities available to them, they would be more likely to attend school, especially during their menstruation period. Coinciding nicely with my passion for girls’ empowerment through health and education, my partner and I were asked to evaluate this initiative. As a result, we have spent a lot of our time visiting primary schools and conversing with girls and teachers about their thoughts and reactions to these projects.

Our research led us to discover something intriguing. Getting girls to attend school during their menstrual period isn’t as simple as just building the facilities they need. A more effective solution should be multi-dimensional, one that includes the reliable provision of sanitary pads and an accompanying health education curriculum centered on menstrual health. SANA addressed one facet of the problem by building the latrine facilities for girls and several NGOs operating in Kenya addressed the lack of sanitary napkins (with accompanying health education varying per organization,) Yet, despite their efforts, they had failed to coordinate to provide all of the girls with a comprehensive health solution to increase their attendance in schools.

Our solution? We initiated Project SHE: Kenya. By recognizing the need for a comprehensive solution to girls’ health in schools, we sought to lean in by talking to officials of the Kenya Ministry of Public Health, experts from SANA, teachers, and students about our idea. The mission of our project is to increase girls’ outcomes in schools by improving access to Sanitation facilitiaes, Hygiene supplies, and health Education for primary school girls. By combining these efforts into one solution, we believe that we can deliver a more powerful intervention to increase girls’ education in Kenya’s primary schools.

Currently, we are planning to implement our plans in 50 primary schools throughout the Nyanza province in western Kenya to accompany the construction of girls’ latrines by SANA with various NGO partnerships that will provide free or affordable sanitary pads to these schools. Additionally, after reading Kenya’s National School Health Policy and discovering that menstrual health was not mentioned in its standard curriculum, we have spent time developing a curriculum to be run through established school health clubs; this curriculum will provide the information girls need to know about appropriate menstrual health management. We hope that our multi-faceted “package”— privacy and cleanliness of new latrines for girls, a reliable supply of sanitary pads, and comprehensive menstrual health education— will not only result in an increased attendance for girls but also elevate girls’ academic performance.

My partner and I are still in the developing stages of coordinating Project SHE and ensuring its success and continuity beyond the four weeks I have left here in Kisumu. In the hopes of creating a more accessible and achievable future for girls in Kenya, we hope that Project SHE will be a simple and sustainable solution that will testify to the powerful and inextricable link among health, education, and empowerment for girls everywhere.

Outliers Lean In (and a new series!)

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If I’m being honest, I read it mostly out of a sense of obligation. It turns out obligation is not such a bad motivation.

One of the programs I lead at Harvard is called the Women’s Initiative in Leadership (WIL.) In this program, we talk a lot about the struggles women face in the workplace, at school, and as they navigate the choices they must make when they choose to start a family. So, inevitably, when Sheryl Sandberg released her book Lean In, it was a topic of conversation in our little circle; her book’s theme and a lot of its content after all lend itself perfectly to what these women are working through right now. So I admit it, I read her book not because I wanted to. I knew that eventually someone would ask me about Sandberg’s book or it would be a topic of conversation at WIL and how could I possibly participate– let alone lead that conversation– if I hadn’t read it?

It was a quick read, one with many little lessons and tid-bits of advice. A lot of it has been recounted in interviews and book write-ups so I won’t bore you with the details. After all, for me at least, it was really the book that I read after I read Lean In that leant (yes, pun intended) more meaning to Sandberg’s bits of advice. That book was called Outliers. By Malcolm Gladwell from the New Yorker, it’s been on my list ever since freshmen year when my proctor told me about it. He used to call me an outlier and, mathematically inclined as I am not, I used to brush his comments away, teasing often that I was in search of redefining that word. Outlier, after all, to most of us means someone who’s really different, who’s off the charts inexplicable in some weird, word-defying way. Definitely not me. I’m normal, I would protest. (Hold the sarcasm please, peanut gallery.)

But Gladwell’s book challenges that definition. “Outlier” after all suggests some quality intrinsic to the individual– some merit they alone deserve that steeps them higher than their peers– or at least on a different plane or playing field. Outlier is for the fish who swims out of stream, who doesn’t hang with the in-group… or really any group at all for that matter. Hence my hesitation and aversion to the word.

But not so, writes Gladwell. Outliers are products of their environment– and not just products but beneficiaries too of the distinct advantages their environment, their upbringing, their unique social status or even time of birth affords them in life. This to me is actually a more compelling argument.

You can call it nature and nurture. It takes the onus a little bit off the individual; likewise it credits their success (or lack thereof) to the circumstances they find themselves in. (Basically, it’s not your fault if you’re a screw up– you can see why I like this argument a bit more ;) This is the argument that is behind the criticism of Sandberg’s book– albeit most people wouldn’t get straight to the point and tell you that. Sitting from her perch, she writes a book that is very much for women like those I meet each week in WIL. Women who aren’t exactly juggling 2 or 3 jobs or forced to take care of sickly parents or deal with the death of a loved one. Women who are fortunate to be able to invest time and money into perhaps the best investment there is– their own personal growth and education. Sandberg’s advice is great but is perhaps, Gladwell would say, for the outliers, people with the right circumstances, the right lot in life. Is this to say that people who don’t get that lucky break are stuck? That they too can’t be outliers?

No, not at all.

I think here there is a potential to bridge the gap between the arguments Sandberg makes (i.e., that the individual can chart her future) and that Gladwell does (i.e., it doesn’t matter how much you do as an individual– you have to get lucky, you have to have to the right timing, the right family, the right opportunities.)

Well, I think they’re both right. And that’s not a cop-out or some grandiose diplomatic gesture meant to find the merits in both arguments. I really mean it. They both make good points. But if experience has taught me this it is that your success is not a direct product of your own volition and proactiveness but those things are important too. But, to be an outlier, you need both. And this is perhaps the half-glass-full naive idealist in me, but I think there are more opportunities out there then most people think. Your circumstances present opportunities for you each and every day but it is your prerogative to act on those circumstances. Most people don’t really. But even the tough stuff, the horrible background, the suckiest of situations, they too allot you a special vantage point if you think critically and really strategically about what you get from them. You see you can have the right circumstances– or even the wrong ones– but what matters just as much is that you view them and use them as an opportunity to–wait for it–lean in.

And with that, Ishani and I are kicking off a whole new series with a line-up of awesome women we know. They’ll take us from Bosnia to Kenya, up through New York and down through Chile. We’ve asked them to “lean in” in some way and then guest blog about it. We see it as a slight push– hey, an opportunity even– to get them not just to share in the incredible work they’re doing this summer but to also lean in a little and show off their outlier-ish tendencies.

Maybe, you’ll be inspired. We sure are.

Here’s our first two guest blog posts:

Bernadette Lim- Kisumu, Kenya

Dilia Zwart- Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina

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My Domestic Summer

For a while I thought I couldn’t stay stateside when not at Harvard for the regular school year. The past two years have seen me whisked around the world from Sri Lanka to Tanzania to China to Italy and, most recently, to Israel. But this summer, my travels have mostly fallen into a comfortable Richmond-Boston-NYC rhythm. Needless to say, my previous presumption was proven wrong.

My domestic summer has proven wonderful in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate before. I don’t have to worry about losing internet connection and remain happily smart-phoned and email-ed and linkedin. My parents can send me almost anything I need and, better yet, can come see me with very little notice or prior planning. I can hop on a bus or plane and visit friends and Inesha in NYC (where our family spent Father’s Day weekend). I was even at home for a precious while to drive my dad’s celestial blue car (yes, I finally asked him what it’s official color name is because even though I’ve never been an avid car enthusiast (I mostly just liked anything with 4 wheels), I began to appreciate the serenity of cruising down the road whenever I wanted and having–yes–complete control over the radio.) Plus, that color is just so darn beautiful.

And, even as I’ve thrown myself headfirst into my love of maternal health policy and research this summer, I’ve had the unique pleasure of sharing in the overseas adventures of friends and classmates who are jet-setting all over the world through the words they write on their personal blogs, in emails, and my personal favorite–a blog that our blinkies (blocking + linking group in Harvard lingo) share that is affectionately titled Cheaper by the Dozen 2.0 (a follow-up to last summer of course). So, from reading about friends who are working for future reconciliation and peace in a post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, traipsing through the mountains of Granada, Spain, running into Nicole Scherzinger in London, taking beautiful pictures in Genova, Italy, or working for the betterment of public health in Mexico, I have a newfound appreciation for traveling vicariously through the many adventures of those around me. And to my surprise–though my itch for travel is certainly not gone–I am so happy to be able to do that from the comfort of my very own American life. :)

And on to Father’s Day Weekend! Another perk of being stateside is that my entire family can be in one place at one time and experience the beautiful and exciting sites that are here, right at home. We spent this past weekend celebrating Father’s Day in NYC–pics below!

Desirée Smiled

“Meet Desirée.” The nurse turned to us and watched our eyes move from her’s to the yet-unseeing ones of the 24-week-old premature baby just an arm’s reach away. Little Desirée lay swaddled in blankets in her carefully temperature-controlled bassinet, gently prodded by tubes that helped her breathe and gave her nourishment. She weighed less than 1 lb. My breath caught a little.

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The nurse pulled Desirée’s right arm from underneath the blanket and showed us why this little girl wouldn’t be able to use her hands in the same way as other children.

“She has a congenital hand deformity,” the nurse explained, “but luckily she still has her thumb.”

Luckily. The frankness with which the nurse spoke made me think about just how many such abnormalities she must have seen before in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). No matter how frank she was, the use of that word–luckily–was the right one, I decided. She was setting the tone for the optimism that Desirée and her parents would need to have as they navigated a childhood that no one could have ever predicted. As I looked down at little Desirée, a small smile began to play on her lips.

She must know we’re talking about her,” said the nurse, all the love and happiness of a true caregiver radiating out of her and towards the baby.

The nurse talked on and on about the conditions that the doctors had discovered upon Desirée’s birth. She explained that the little one would probably also be wheel-chair bound as she grew older and had craniosynostosis, which meant that doctors would have to watch her skull growth carefully since one of her sutures had fused prematurely, thus preventing skull expansion perpendicular to it. In addition to that, she had a rare stomach abnormality and other conditions that the doctors weren’t even sure how to diagnose yet. My mind buzzed with all the information that the nurse was sharing–all of which would forever change the life that this small child hadn’t even begun living yet. Though only 24 weeks old, she had no idea how much she was teaching me while my heart was hurting for her. But all the while, Desirée smiled.

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As best as I can encapsulate it, that was just a fraction of my experience visiting a NICU and seeing a room full of premature babies at different stages of life and growth. It was nothing short of incredible to see the tiny hands, feet, and heads of human beings that weighed so little and yet filled the room with their presence.

For a premature baby born just 24 weeks into gestation, life’s balance lies entirely in hands of the doctor who cares for her.

As we walked from one crib to another, many questions buzzed in my head as I wondered about theses babies’ lung development, since the surfactant which reduces the surface tension of fluid in the lungs–thus allowing an individual to exhale without the lung collapsing–is made by the fetus while in the womb. Premature babies often lack an adequate amount of surfactant and must be treated with specific therapy after birth. (I guess that Biology class was good for something after all :))

I wondered about the bond between mother and child. Wouldn’t it be harmed irreparably by the fact that these babies were separated from their mothers for so long after birth and cared for by so many other doctors and nurses? In response to my question, the nurse giving the tour of the NICU explained that each crib had a camera that was connected to an online feed that the baby’s mother could use to see her baby whenever she wanted. It’s fascinating how technology has been able to step in where distance would otherwise prove to be an insurmountable obstacle. Once the baby has grown sufficiently, the mother might choose to participate in a kangaroo care program, where the baby is placed in a small pouch on the mother’s chest so that both can experience skin-to-skin contact that would normally occur immediately at birth. As we walked around, I couldn’t believe my eyes as I saw babies that almost certainly had deformities that the nurses and doctors knew would render them immobile, or big splotches on their lung x-rays that called for additional treatment or time in the hospital. Despite the sometimes dire circumstances that these babies found themselves in, their lives were being saved by the combination of human compassion and technological innovation that filled the NICU.

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Leaving the NICU, I felt I had a deeper understanding of what these doctors were doing on a day-to-day basis beyond “helping people” or “saving lives.” Sometimes I think these phrases are so hackneyed that they border on cliché, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are trying to communicate a truth that is really best understood when you can see it for yourself. Even though I had known that doctors who work in critical care are unique in that their patients are in life-threatening situations, after visiting the NICU, I became distinctly aware of the different stages at which a life can be saved. In other words, I was touched not by what, but by the question of when.

Thinking about it, I wonder, how different is the work of saving an 85 year-old’s life versus that of someone who is less than a few months old? If we think about life like a story, then every patient is living in a different part of the narrative arc–from prologue to epilogue, the writer’s pen and thus the doctor’s actions must change accordingly. For me, visiting the NICU was a step into the neonatal narrative, which is almost universally stuck in the prologue until the baby, swaddled in blankets and love, leaves the hospital in her parents’ arms.

When you look at a 24-week-old human being, your heart doesn’t almost stop because you’re paralyzed with fear or hope or distress or love –it almost stops because you feel the weight of the immense possibility of this new life pressing against the rhythm that pulses through your entire body, and it makes you realize that if you could do one last thing if it were to stop in the next moment, with all your heart you’d want to give that life a fighting chance.

Desirée, keep smiling.

Seeing 25 years into the future

Inesha and I are back on Harvard’s campus for a relatively laid back reunions week–a week filled with almost tangible excitement as a new class of Harvard grads exits the Yard for the last time (and celebrates plenty in the days and nights leading up to it) and many classes of years past re-enter for their 5th, 10th, 15th, 25th, 35th, and 50th reunions.

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Harvard President Drew Faust and recipients of Harvard honorary degrees, Commencement 2013

Being a part of all of this–and yet, not being a part of it (since we are, after all, still current students)–has been a a real “looking glass experience” if I’ve ever had one. These have been days when we walk through the Yard at a time when the green has practically turned Crimson with  unmistakable gusto as regalia adorn every signpost and t-shirt. At night we work as “night counselors” (an unbelievably pleasant job) since it requires only that we sit inside one of the residential colleges and ensure that no 9-17 year-old children of alumni slip out of the doors while their parents are out late into the night (alumni delight in staying inside their old college dorm while attending their reunion). Fortunately, this job has also afforded me time to pick up a book that I had only just glanced through when all the hubbub around it began–that widely critiqued, widely praised tome of Mrs. Sandberg’s: Lean In.

Just last night, as I waved  slightly inebriated alumni through the gates of the college and towards various nightcap events, I was reading Lean In and doing my best to lodge in my memory the small nuggets of wisdom that Sandberg was imparting on me. The book was a pleasant read and by the end of the night, I was feeling inspired and, as you might imagine, the alumni were quite happy as well as they left their cocktail parties and trickled back into the dorms for the night.

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George Barner ’29, the alumnus from the oldest class year (104 years old!)

Fast forward to this afternoon, a Saturday, when the hot temperatures were  accompanied by only a few light festivities and little in the way of personal commitments or work to attend to. Thinking we could beat the heat, Inesha and I stumbled into one of the lecture halls in the Science Center. There we found air conditioning and also, serendipitously, an alumni panel that had drawn a sizable crowd to the rows of bright red chairs that I will probably forever associate with my morning Chemistry lectures. Inesha and I sat in the far left corner of the cavernous hall, hoping not to be a disturbance, though surely the other attendees wouldn’t mind the presence of two much younger (and more naive) students. At the front of the room sat a panel consisting of four women and one man. “Come on everyone, don’t be afraid to lean in and sit closer to the stage,” said one of the panelists into her microphone. She was a tall blonde woman wearing a patterned sheath dress and a pleasant smile as she beckoned to the audience. Her choice of words elicited a chuckle from those around us. It all made sense a few seconds later.

Unbeknownst to us, we had just walked into a panel on none other than Sheryl Sandberg’s, Lean In.

Now, to be sure this book had already been the cause of much conversation on campus. But also, the book (along with Mrs. Sandberg herself) arrived at Harvard at a time when classes and seemingly everything else were in full swing. Thus, even though I was eager to join the discussion, I had quietly planned to read the book in the first few weeks of my summer and tucked it away in my mind for the time being. But even if I wasn’t jumping to join the discussion, I wasn’t impervious to it going on all around me. I can distinctly remember how positive the reaction seemed to be from the many young women around me–after all, Sheryl Sandberg was fighting the good fight, and she was speaking up and leaning in to start a conversation that simply needed to be had. I, tempering my own comments with the caveat that I had not yet read the book, tended to feel the same way: yes, this was a book that was trying to move mountains and change entrenched norms in the workplace. Careers should not be thought of as a ladder, Sandberg writes.  Because then it seems that there is only one way up and most of the time you just end up staring at the butt of the person above you. Too true.

Fast forward a few weeks and I am sitting in an alumni panel feeling sheltered from the merciless heat, and yet pelted by a hard-hitting reality that certainly wasn’t shared on Commencement Day. Surrounding me in this Harvard lecture hall were graduates who presumably represented the reality that I would be facing in 25 years. They had kids, careers, health insurance. They had divorces, disabilities, and memories. But most of all, they had nuggets of wisdom that I found far more telling than those that I had read just the night before in Sandberg’s book. Now this was a conversation that had to be had.

One woman shared her story of going from earning a six figure salary at Oliver Wyman to applying for a job at a local Starbucks in a time of hardship. Her husband had been laid off and she had left her job in order to take care of her children. And of course, health insurance is tied to one’s job. The problem was, Starbucks paid $8/hr and daycare was $10/hr. What followed were many tough choices.

Another man shared a story about working at a dream career but then going through a terrible divorce that left him feeling detached from his children and miserable from the hardship. Years later he is remarried and, fortunately, has managed to find happiness again.

The stories were uplifting too, explaining the empowerment that comes from making choices and staying true to yourself in the worlds of both career and family.

Another mom took the mic and said, “I want to talk about the terminology a little bit. Why is it that deciding to stay home with your kid is leaning out? I may have had a corporate job that had me working overtime every week, but I have to say that staying home with a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old was the hardest job I ever had.” Applause erupted in the hall as she sat down.

Some women spoke about finally telling their bosses “no” to that request to work overtime when they had to leave work in order to watch their kid make the winning shot at his basketball game. They spoke about demanding a pumping room on the trading floor of an investment banking firm and encouraging their male and female colleagues alike to leave work when they had to be there for their families (and to explain to their coworkers where it was they were going). “By talking about it we make it ok,” explained one woman. More than anything, the message that resonated with me is that these alumni who had been through all stages of hardship with children and careers didn’t necessarily believe that Sheryl Sandberg’s message was as well positioned as myself and many other 20-somethings might think. What they called for was not a change in the behavior of women, but rather changes in the cultural and structural factors that can often prevent them from leaning in. I am aware that the people who sat around me in the lecture hall today are also privileged in their own way. They are by no means representative of the average American family, but simultaneously demonstrate that hardship cannot be defined by any one experience and hits at all levels of the economic spectrum. We may not be able to predict the challenges that we will face later in life, but we do control our response to it. One man’s words remained with me throughout the session:

Life is more stressful than any one of us thought, but it’s more beautiful too–a Harvard alum, 25th reunion

His words reminded me of many similar ones that my father would share with Inesha and me when we were even shorter and (if possible) more of a handful than we are now. Even though he never put it in a single statement, this was exactly what he was trying to tell us every time we rolled up to the gas station and he reminded us that a car–like life–doesn’t just run on fuel and energy. There are also the car inspections and vehicle registration payments and unanticipated visits to the mechanic. The groceries, too, wouldn’t just find themselves in our kitchen. We would need to choose carefully and shop for them, and generally, it’s just a good idea to know what the cost of bread is these days. What might have seemed like mundane advice on the surface, was an implicit appeal to always appreciate what we have and work for what we want, all the while remembering that no one does it alone.

Throughout the school year, I attend various panels that bring celebrities and politicians and true changemakers from around the world to rooms filled with millennials who want to soak in their wisdom. We hear about their first job out of college, the mistakes they made on their resume, and the hard times during graduate school. But sitting in that lecture hall this afternoon, one crucial factor was distinctly different–the makeup of the audience. Here, there were families in the room. Wives sat next to their husbands or partners and women and men alike shared stories about their struggle to balance work and home life, decisions to have kids or no kids, or fears about the future as their kids leave home for college and they are faced with the difficulty of jumpstarting their careers at age 50. Rather than feeling that the excitement and limitless energy of a room of college students had been unceremoniously sapped from the room, I felt fortunate to hear about a reality that I had never been exposed to in such a real way. I was given an opportunity to see 25 years into the future. Between the jubilation and ceremonies, nightcaps and reminiscing, these alums had real stories to share about their experiences post-Harvard and, on this afternoon in particular, how these related to Lean In.

I haven’t finished reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book yet, but when I do, I know I will set it down with a far more nuanced perspective. Leaning In assumes a different form for every person, and for some, it may be that taking a step back from work is their personal way of leaning in and doing something that they never thought they had permission to do. It’s true that Sheryl Sandberg had a powerful mentor in Larry Summers, and she is gracious in recognizing him and the many others who have helped her get to where she is today. But the reality is that sometimes we have to be our own best advocate. Discussion about the injustice of having no federally mandated paid maternity leave in the United States when it exists in many countries around the world or the fact that there are many explicit choices that we have to make but never talk about only supported that point.

No matter what your opinion of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, you can’t deny that she has started a national conversation. I still feel far removed from the problems that were discussed during the alumni panel today, but just hearing about them and hearing from families, and not just successful individuals, gave me a more than one-dimensional view of “what success looks like.”

Though I have dreams and hopes and plans for the future, I have to recognize that I don’t actually know where I will be in 25 years. But one thing is for sure: I sincerely hope that I find myself back here at Harvard during my own 25th reunion. As powerful as conversation is, it is made doubly so by the passage of time through which intangible ideas can be shaped into reality. Of course only time will tell, but having “seen through the looking glass,” I feel strength in knowing that I as much as any of my peers have the ability to change the tide with regard to many of the cultural and structural challenges that we face in the workplace. And for starting that conversation, I have to thank that famed management maven-turned author herself, the one and only Sheryl Sandberg.