Why did you decide to earn a degree at Harvard Extension?
Five years ago I made a bold career transition and helped start and run a digital health company focused on at-home diagnostics. The start-up environment is very fast-paced compared to academia and industry, and forces one to wear many hats. I wanted to complement this new role with knowledge and business know-how that I didn’t get from the traditional science degree.
About halfway through I hit a roadblock not just in my life — but career as well. I was diagnosed with a life-changing rare disease that I thought took away my dreams of being a researcher and serving others. What was helpful with the Extension School degree is that I didn’t have to drop or change all the progress I had already done. And most importantly, I didn’t have to give up on my dreams. It allowed me to quickly pivot career tracks and embrace the unknown with a smile and confidence, knowing that everything is always going to be OK.
The biotechnology degree had just added the new capstone track which would allow me to not follow the traditional thesis track of most science degrees. This way I could get out of research and into entrepreneurship while not wasting valuable time, repeating course work, and still graduate on schedule. I could enthusiastically bring ideas to life and inspire others to do the same by making my graduate project focused on designing a product and future company that will help the undiagnosed and those living with a rare disease. It helped me feel like I could help others and make a difference by turning a negative experience into a one-of-a-kind positive one.
How has/will this experience help you in your career or personal development?
What I loved most about this program is that the class projects were not just basic memorization or pointless word assignments that never translate to what you do on a daily basis at work. The focus is on real-world projects that make you critically question and think everything you’ve ever learnt before. Through my Project Management class, my team and I helped design an expansion plan for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. In Drug Development, we got to develop a biologic drug for Celiac Disease from design, clinical trials, marketing and selling. We were held to such high industry standards that we could take that project directly to a pharma company and begin development. Every project and interaction is designed to challenge you and make you grow in some way, to think outside the box and push the limits of creativity and design to new frontiers. I did things I never thought I’d be able to do, allowing me to walk away more well-rounded and capable.
I feel like I have grown more as a person in these last 3 years at Harvard than in the previous years combined. I have gained insight that I feel I can proudly share with others to help them grow in their careers by being an exceptional leader. This degree brings out the best in many, and that’s hard to beat because everyone here has an incredible track record and truly inspiring story. I feel honored to have been among them and taken in as one of them.
What was the most challenging aspect of your time at Extension? What was the most rewarding?
My biggest challenge was overcoming the feeling of not being good enough, which I think is something many can feel. Taking on school, while working in a start-up environment and dealing with the ups and downs of life, can seem like a daunting task. There may be days where it feels difficult to keep going, but actually this is when you are your strongest because you still show up for yourself and others.
Knowing that I had wonderful classmates counting on me and looking up to me made me challenge myself to reach new levels and be there for them, as they did for me. My professors challenged me to stay focused on my goals. My friends and family challenged me to be my authentic self, and to conquer every task that came my way. In the end, all the hard work is well worth it, because not only do you come out more capable and feeling like you can truly accomplish anything, but because you also have something to show for it. Something that no one else can give you, and that is PRIDE in yourself.
I leave not only with a master’s degree and certificate in business management, but also with a business plan in hand and a breadth of knowledge, experiences, and resources that allow me to take this innovative idea I had two years ago and turn it into something that one day can help others.
When you look back on the journey you realize: Wow! I managed to do all of that, while dealing with work, life, and family. It is extremely gratifying. I was lucky to find help at every turn during my time here and I am thankful to the professors, new friends, councilors, and staff members that just get it.
How did you manage to balance your studies with work and family responsibilities?
If it wasn’t for my parents, who have been my greatest cheerleaders through this all, I wouldn’t be here writing this. Family and friends understand what the name Harvard means and the responsibility it comes with. They accept the long hours, the stress and the busy weekends cramming last-minute assignments. My family and friends around the world gave me the support I needed every day.
One of the best memories I have is seeing my proud parents, who fled Romania to start a better life for their child, contentedly standing on the steps of Widener Library with their Harvard hats and the biggest smiles on their faces having realized their dream of giving their child the best education and opportunities in the world. Making your loved ones happy and proud has got to be one of the best feelings in the world, so you work hard and stay focused for them. When I say I graduated from Harvard, I say WE ALL graduated because they put in as much effort into supporting me as I did into this degree! They worked hard for this as well and we have to thank our families everyday.
Do you have any advice for new students?
Don’t be intimidated, you belong here! You can do this, no matter what limits you think you have. You are limitless. And don’t forget to smile, have fun and enjoy the journey, because it goes by fast!
Describe your Extension School experience in one word.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.