A bridge to somewhere
One-time dining hall worker triumphs in Kennedy School
Bady Balde’s path to Harvard University began at age 4, on a six-mile trip along a dusty, rural African road. Alone.
It’s the reason he’s a good runner.
Balde recalled trying to catch two older, long-legged classmates on their way to and from school, three miles away. “I couldn’t keep up with them,” he said. For the boys, school was a lucky privilege that was afforded only a few.
Today, the only running Balde does is for fun, and the only people he chases are his two rambunctious young sons.
This spring, Balde, a one-time dishwasher with Harvard’s Dining Services, will graduate from the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), thanks to help from Harvard’s Bridge Program. He will leave with a diploma in his hand and a determination in his heart to help change his homeland, where a lack of education often has devastating repercussions.
“There are parents who can’t read prescriptions for their children,” said Balde. “That is something that I lived with. I know exactly what happens to kids who grow up in a family where the parents don’t know how to read and write.”
In a remote village in his native Guinea, Balde, one of 13 children from his father’s two marriages, was tapped as the son who should continue in school rather than help the family and harvest cotton. The result was an 11-hour day away from home. The decision carried a deep emotional burden for the young Balde, who understood that others would have to work the fields in his place, and that his parents would have to sacrifice for his school supplies.
Then, when he was 12, his mother, dying from complications with her ninth pregnancy, uttered a last wish. “She told me, ‘The only thing I want is for you to complete school.’ ”
Determined to become a doctor and combat maternal mortality, Balde excelled in school, ultimately passing a rigorous national college entrance exam. Lacking money for medical school, he studied economics and general management in the nation’s capital, Conakry. After graduating, he returned to remote areas, showing women how to better manage their micro businesses and market their handicrafts and textiles, as part of his work with the international development agency GTZ.
Next, he landed a job at the nation’s central bank, but instead of helping him explore economics on a macro level, the position opened his eyes to a system rife with ignorance.
“I saw people making decisions that would have terrible consequences for the country, but they had no clue,” said Balde, who realized he had to “learn how to get things right.”
He soon found himself on another long road in search of education.
With his wife Jennifer, a Connecticut native he met while she was working in Guinea, Balde arrived in Boston in 2005 to look for a job, and made his way to the famous campus across the river. Harvard was always his ultimate destination, and despite his education and professional experience, he resolved to take any job available. With support from Susan Simon, human resources manager for Harvard’s Dining Services, who helped him complete his application, he started working in a dining hall part time.
Simon directed Balde to the Harvard Bridge Program, where he met the director, Carol Kolenik, who told him, “We can help you.”
“He was such a quick study. I just have never seen anyone fly like this,” said Kolenik, adding that Balde’s success “means so much to all the Bridge students and staff, and exemplifies our mission of giving people the opportunity to move up and change their lives and be who they deserve to be.”
Under Kolenik’s guidance, Balde enrolled in intensive English classes and met daily with Bridge volunteer tutor Jessica Engelman, a Web editor at HKS. Through the program, he also worked with career development counselor Carla Fontaine, who helped him with his resume and his search for full-time employment. Eventually, the Bridge connected him with the Harvard University Employees Credit Union, where he worked as a teller for two years. With a 9-to-5 work schedule at the credit union, he was able to take math and statistics classes at the Harvard Extension School to help him prepare for a graduate degree.
One day, while surfing the Internet, he pulled up the Web site for Harvard’s Kennedy School and was drawn to the M.P.A./ID program, leading to a master’s degree in public administration in international development.
“I couldn’t stop going back to that Web site,” he said. “It seemed so tailored to what I wanted to do.”
What Balde wants to do is to reduce illiteracy in African nations, particularly his native Guinea. Through his work, he hopes to improve school attendance rates for girls, who often never attend school or leave their studies early to marry and never return.
“I think there are great opportunities available today,” he said. “There are so many ways that we can use technology and resources now that were not available before. There are so many easy changes we can make that can improve the lives of so many.”
But perhaps his greatest accomplishment, he said, will be to act as a role model to young children in his country, to show them what they can achieve.
“For me, the most important part is not actually what I will do myself, but what I will be able to show other kids like me — that Harvard is possible,” said Balde. He recently decided to return to his village directly after graduation, to teach math and explore the best ways to address some the area’s most pressing issues. “I believe in leading by example.”
Balde is certain his story would have inspired someone else, too. “If I could tell my mother that I am graduating from Harvard,” he said, “I am sure she would be happy.”
Now in his second and final year with the master’s program, Balde admits that his status still feels slightly surreal. He calls the lectures with scholars such as the Kennedy School’s Dani Rodrik, Rafiq Hariri Professor of International Political Economy and a leader in the development field, “a dream come true.”
“You are going to the source to learn,” he said, adding that the Kennedy School’s curriculum has taught him new ways of thinking. “After every course, you come out and you start looking at things differently.”
Despite what he called a “grueling” schedule, Balde said his Harvard experience — which included studying for calculus in the hospital next to his wife when she was in labor — has been tremendously fulfilling, and would have been impossible without the University’s support.
Balde credits the Bridge program, among others.
“The result is so tangible,” he said. “They really do change people’s lives. I am so grateful to all the hard work, dedication, and sacrifices of so many people who have made my dream a reality. Now it’s my turn to do the same for others.”
By Colleen Walsh
Harvard Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010