SSP: A Most Uncommon Cohort

The anticipation was real: the more I read over the summer, the more I looked forward to my first days at HGSE. I couldn’t wait to explore the quiet corners of Gutman and the dozens of other libraries around campus, and to finally meet the students and faculty with whom I would be sharing this adventure.

But I was nervous about one thing. The other master’s programs at HGSE — International Education Policy, Human Development and Psychology, Language and Literacy, to name a few — provide a core curriculum structured around a particular field, and a cohort of fellow students and colleagues who share academic and professional interests. My program, Specialized Studies (SSP), is different: Instead of having a set curriculum and required courses, we each design and propose our own course of study, with help from our advisors and faculty.

I won’t lie: looking at all the course options, I feel like a kid in a candy store! In SSP, each of us is free to build our own curriculum with courses at HGSE, as well as most of the other schools at Harvard including HBS, HKS, GSD, and HSPH. (Don’t worry, you get used to the acronyms quickly.) In addition, and depending on our professional and academic interests, we can also cross-register at MIT and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts.

On one hand, that freedom is what made SSP the natural choice for me: having no course requirements or set curriculum made it possible to take both courses in the Higher Education Program, e.g. College Student Development Theory with Professor Jim Antony, as well as courses focusing on organizational leadership and development including Education Sector Nonprofits with Professor Jim Honan, Mission and Money with Professor Joe Zolner, and Crafting a Compelling and Rigorous Proposal with my wonderful advisor, Professor Eileen McGowan. 

On the other hand, as fall orientation grew nearer, I remember worrying I wouldn’t have anything in common with my cohort, and that would miss out on the deep connections and lifelong friendships that so many of my friends had forged in grad school. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The SSP cohort certainly comes from diverse backgrounds: our ranks include a former airline pilot, a theatre company director, a squash coach, a few journalists, a handful of doctors, and a number of experienced classroom teachers from around the world, not to mention yours truly, a former political operative and communications / fundraising consultant. But where I worried that our differences would mean we’d have nothing in common, instead I’ve found the opposite to be true: our varied backgrounds and interests allow us to enrich each other’s experience at HGSE, and ensure we have no shortage of perspectives to share.

And man, do we share them! In addition to karaoke, trivia nights, and celebrating each other’s birthdays and engagements, this semester we’ve begun a new SSP tradition: weekly hot chocolate at LA Burdick on Brattle Street. 

SSP cohort

Now that finals are in full swing, it’s safe to say each of us is looking forward to a well-earned Winter Break. But whenever we get back into town, whether it’s during J-term or course shopping for the spring semester, one thing I’m looking forward to the most is getting together to raise a glass, break some bread, and share some more stories with these spectacular people – my SSP family.

Blog and photo by Eli Center

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Eli Center is an Ed.M. Candidate (2018) currently studying higher education and nonprofit leadership in the Specialized Studies Program at HGSE. A marketing and communications consultant and a ten-year veteran of political campaigns, he lives in Jamaica Plain with his wife Shira, the politics editor at the Boston Globe. https://twitter.com/elicenter

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