When No Means Yes

It all goes back to a rejection letter that I didn’t quite believe.

When I was the executive director of non-profit in Wisconsin, I applied for a scholarship to attend a week-long training at the Harvard Business School, an executive education program for non-profit directors. The local Harvard Business Club awarded two well-publicized scholarships per year from about 70 applicants in the Milwaukee area.

Where I come from, Harvard was like the moon, a place so far off that even though you read quotes in the paper from people who had been there, nobody you knew had actually been. The possibility of studying there even for a week seemed ridiculously huge.

I applied anyway. I received a rejection letter from the local Harvard Business Club almost immediately. It said try again next year. I doubted that would work, because the organization I worked for was an association, and their criteria specified they were less inclined to award the scholarship to an association leader.

I set the letter aside and went back to work. The letter bothered me. I picked it up and read it again. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I still got to go to this training. I wondered how that could possibly be.

Somewhere I had learned that if you know in your heart that something is possible, but you aren’t sure how, just let that notion cook for a while. Keep your mind open. The ‘how’ might just make itself known, if you let it.

By the next morning, I had an idea. I called the Harvard Business School itself and asked if they had scholarships available, and if I could apply directly to them instead of going through a local entity. To my surprise, a live person answered the phone number on their website. I learned I could apply to the executive training program directly, online. The Harvard Business School had a few scholarships available for the leaders of organizations with tiny budgets, which mine had. And they didn’t mind at all that my organization was an association.

So, on a day when I was home sick with the flu, I filled out Harvard’s online application. A month or so later, I received a letter by email from the Business School. I was awarded $4,400 for the executive training, including room and board for the week in student housing.

At the training, I fell in love. I loved the stimulating conversation with dedicated public service leaders from all over the world. I loved the people I met and the instructors. I loved the case studies we talked about and all the stuff I was learning. I loved the campus. I wept openly on the last day when it was time to go home.

The following summer I went for another week-long executive education program. This time, the topic was performance management and it was held at the Harvard Kennedy School. Still beguiled, I asked the professor, “What else have you got?” He said there were no more short training programs for non-profit management, but there was a Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration, a year-long degree-program with a residency requirement.

Um, what did he just say? There’s no way I could do that, I thought. I have a family and a house and a job in Wisconsin. It’s too expensive. Harvard would never let me in.

Walking back to the residence where I was staying during the training, I noticed strollers and kids’ play sets on the decks of student apartments. People with families go to grad school, I thought. They do. I thought about what it would mean for my kids to spend a part of their formative years in this dynamic environment. How would it change their perspective on what they can do, to watch their mom get a degree at this place that was so unimaginable a little while ago?

So that night I looked up the Kennedy School Mid-Career MPA application online. It seemed huge. Five essays, the GRE exam, references. It was pretty daunting. I kept thinking about this option on my return flight home. And somewhere over Ohio, the notion hit me that this degree was something I could do if I just decided to try. Once again, I somehow knew what was possible, and the ‘how’ would make itself known, if I let it. I don’t know where that inner sense of knowing comes from. And it can be bothersome when the facts around you don’t yet support what your instincts are telling you. It can be just about impossible to explain it to other people. Trust your instincts anyway.

My husband’s first reaction was that I was out of my mind. Within a few days, he warmed up to the idea and then he was just as excited as I was.

I spent about four months gathering more information. I spoke with people who had been through the program or whose kids had gone to the Kennedy School. I revisited the campus to stand in the space and do a gut-check again. I put together a timeline. I planned when to prepare and to take the GRE. I set aside Friday evenings for six weeks to work on the essays. I submitted in December. I waited and waited and waited to hear. After I was accepted, sometime in March, it was a rapid three months of hard work to orchestrate the move, the financial aid, schools, selling our house, finding an apartment, making pet arrangements, and leaving my job. By mid-June my family and I were on a plane headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

My grad school experience turned out to be one of the most amazing and transformative of my life. A year after our arrival, I received my diploma from the Harvard Kennedy School with my daughter and son, ages 13 and 10 at the time, cheering in the audience.

Our decision to move opened up a whole new chapter of adventure and opportunity for the four of us, connecting us to new friendships, creating family memories and paving the way for a new life in the DC area. Has it all been a bed of roses? No, not by a long shot. Parts of this odyssey were really, really hard and expensive and filled with self-doubt. But each of us had our consciousness raised about what life can do, especially my kids. I can hear it in the way they talk about the future and their place in the world. As much as any personal ambition and commitment to public service, that’s really what this was all about.

As they get older, I sometimes remind my kids that small things can make a big difference and, yes, your perception can change your reality. And I have proof. Our whole lives are different now because of one little rejection letter that I didn’t quite believe.