OCA Spotlight on Sol Carbonell MC/MPA 2010

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The Office of Career Advancement (OCA) Alumni Spotlight Series features interviews with Harvard Kennedy School Alumni who share details of their career journeys. Spotlight interviews are published almost exclusively on the school intranet site where only current students have access, but they are sometimes shared on this blog as well. In this installment of the series, Sol Carbonell MC/MPA 2010, Director of Financial Education for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, talks about setting goals, financing her education, and ultimately realizing her dreams.

Tell us about your current job.

As Director of Financial Education, my role is to set the vision for our work promoting financial literacy in this region. I manage a team committed to improving the financial capabilities of New England families, and together we develop a strategy that leverages our strengths to further the mission of our department. I spearhead partnerships and collaborative initiatives across units and departments as well as with external organizations. My own interests center on system change and higher impact. I see myself as a facilitator, providing leadership and enabling others to be leaders as well.

Tell us about the journey you’ve taken to get to where you are.

When I was nine years old, I pasted a picture of myself onto a One Dollar Federal Reserve Note and gave it to my grandmother. The road from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston has been full of adventures. Now, looking back, I recognize the importance of all the decisions that I made along the way and the courage it took to make them at the time. Most important, I remember that friend of a friend who gave me a job opportunity when I was a newly-arrived immigrant, or the stranger who encouraged me to apply to a leadership program—those people who played a critical role in opening doors and inspiring me, whether they knew it or not.

When I started college in Argentina, I had heard about Harvard University and calculated how long it would take me to save the money to take a class there. My calculations said I would need about ten years. (I did not know about inflation and the rising cost of college education back then!) I never could have imagined that ten years later, I would be sitting at the Kennedy School participating in a leadership development program offered by the National Hispana Leadership Institute! It was love at first sight.

Two years after that, I attended HKS for the full experience: the Mid-Career MPA program. After a year of learning, absorbing, questioning, and pondering, my husband and I decided to settle in Boston, his hometown. Having chosen where to live, I began to look for organizations that focused on my interests: economic empowerment, education, poverty alleviation, access to credit. At the Boston Federal Reserve Bank, I am part of Regional and Community Outreach, a key department whose mission is to promote economic growth in low- and moderate-income communities. I have had the opportunity to work on regional community development efforts, and I am now leading a new program on financial education that targets adults. The diversity of my personal and professional experiences has been incredibly valuable for our initiatives. I am proud to be part of an organization committed to leadership, innovation, and excellence in service to others. 

Is what you are doing now what you thought you would be doing when you entered HKS?   

I would say yes, to some extent. As a seasoned professional, I had a clear understanding of the kinds of work that I enjoy the most and the types of roles that would play to my strengths. I also had an idea of the potential opportunities that I would want to pursue, even if I wasn’t sure what my position would ultimately look like. While at HKS, a universe of opportunities opened up. I allowed myself to wonder, experience different cultures, ask many “why” questions, dream a little, sometimes get lost, and at the end of the day, grow a bit. It was not uncommon for me to come back home and tell my husband, “We should move to India! I could probably work on Microfinance…” Well, I didn’t get far geographically speaking, but my mind covered great distances, and the choices that I made, informed by what I value the most, leave me at peace.       

Is there anything you might have done differently knowing what you know now?

Perhaps, because all the choices that I made had financial implications. As a recent immigrant to the United States, I paid out-of-state tuition and had to carry a lot of debt to finance my own education. I arrived at Harvard University with substantial undergraduate loans and without any kind of financial aid for graduate school, even though I had applied for countless fellowships and scholarships nationwide. Regardless of the financial burdens, my husband and I made the decision to invest in my education, and I will never regret it. 

What do you think has been the greatest professional benefit to you from your time at HKS?

My experience at HKS gave me many professional benefits. Besides particular classes that helped to hone certain hard skills, I had the opportunity to experientially sharpen my leadership abilities in Dean Williams’s class and my organizing skills in Marshall Ganz’s, both of which have proven especially helpful in my job. Those skills are critical when I spearhead taskforces and work to effect change both within the organization and on a larger scale in New England communities. Perhaps one of the most profound classes I took was at the Graduate School of Education: Adult Development with Bob Keagan. This class provided great insights and gave me the framework and theory to better understand adult learners, colleagues, and even my husband!

I would be remiss if I did not mention the importance of the informal conversations, the chats, the dinners, and the opportunities to speak with people from so many different cultures and backgrounds, all within a setting that is inviting, non-competitive, and intellectually stimulating. That, to me, is the greatest value of attending HKS. At the beginning of the year, someone said to our class: “You are at Harvard University. The world comes to you. You’d better take advantage of that.” I surely did.      

What career advice do you have for busy students juggling problem sets, great Forum events, family demands, social events, and a job search?

It can be overwhelming to juggle family, studying, and trying to find a job at the same time. What helped me was to accept my own reality and understand that everybody was going to have a unique experience at school. I had great communication with my husband about expectations, priorities, and how to help each other accomplish our goals. Having support from loved ones can make a huge difference! We talked about how to organize activities and balance school engagement with life’s other demands. Be aware. Be intentional. Do your research. Talk to people.