News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Student Memories of Ash Carter

Nov. 02, 2022

Following the sudden passing of Ash Carter on October 24, his students and others impacted by him at Harvard Kennedy School shared their stories and thoughts about their professor and mentor.  The Belfer Center is pleased to share these tributes compiled by Kennedy School student Bethan Saunders.

Tributes for Ash Carter from the Belfer Center community and beyond can be seen here.

Poorva Phalguni KaushikBelfer Young Leader Student Fellow

“I will always remember the day when I first met Secretary Ash Carter at the orientation of the Belfer Young Leader fellows last year. I was already his fan for his contribution to opening combat jobs for women in the military and ending a ban on transgender people serving in the military.  However, meeting him in person,  I realized how he was also so warm and gentle. I still remember his answer to one of the fellow's questions. Upon being asked how we (Belfer Young Leaders) can ensure success like his in our careers, he said, 'I did not chase success. I followed my heart and kept studying the subjects I thought were important for society's welfare. Success was the by-product.'  As a new entrant from the nuclear field into the policy, his answer keeps me motivated, assuring me if I remain passionate about the cause, I will be able to carve my path. Secretary Ash Carter will be greatly missed, but his wisdom, warmth, kindness, and gentle spirit will be with us always.”

Casey CorcoranBelfer Young Leader Student Fellow

“Secretary Carter had a passion for the country and for guiding students. He was a great leader and mentor and his presence at Harvard and in the world will be missed.”

Shanthi PandianHKS Student

“I am part of the last class that Secretary Carter ever taught. I was just in his class in the afternoon (day of his passing). He was being his usual personable, jovial, passionate self while trying to simplify extremely complex concepts and explaining to us in laymen terms. To make the class exciting and current, he roped in several industry professionals and experienced personnel to share with us. It opened up so many opportunities for us. It's been difficult to process his passing and am still coming to terms. On a personal note, he had joked with me about how he had tried to remember my name. Since I'm from Singapore, he associated me with "Changi Airport" (main airport in Singapore) and said Changi rhymed with Shanthi. I told him I wouldn't have thought of that and found it amusing. Such was his creativity. He was so endearing and took time to get to know all of us over class socials at Charlie's - he bought us food and drinks. It was so nice and generous of him!! He truly made such an indelible impression even though it's only been about 2 months. He will be very deeply missed and fondly remembered.”

Paul SedilleBelfer Young Leader Student Fellow

“It is easy to admire people we agree with, harder those who do not see eye-to-eye with us. I did not see eye-to-eye with Secretary Carter, and yet I admired him. He spent a career in government serving others, and upon retiring, continued his service in school. He did this with exceptional dedication: former students will remember their surprise at realizing their high-ranking professor would not only grant them office hours but also offer to write recommendation letters or make introductions to needed contacts. Ash Carter had his ways, which didn't always match mine, but he cared, and for this I will miss him.”

Satwik Mishra, HKS Student

“I took Prof. Ash Carter’s class in my first semester at the Kennedy School.  Through the three and a half months of interacting with him in classes, office hours, socials, I was in awe of his intellect. Here was a man who had done enough to sit back and cherish in his accomplishments and accolades. But he wasn’t done. He wanted to argue, advocate, engage, debate and dissent. He spoke about AI, ML, Algorithms, Social Media, Biotechnology,  all with an infectious passion. He was humble in every interaction I had the privilege of having with him, curious and original in every lecture and public address I attended and deeply genuine in every question he asked himself and his students in class. Repeatedly he would assert, “Look under the hood; it’s not that complicated once you truly understand how technology works.” It is possible to fulfill public purpose with emerging tech, provided we comprehensively understand how it works. His intent to do good was relentless. He truly epitomised “Ask what you can do.”   Harvard Kennedy School has lost a gem of a professor in tech policy.”

Rob McCabeHKS Student

“Secretary Carter's professional expertise and service to his country have been forever amplified by his intellectual rigor and pursuit of educating future leaders.  His demand for students' examination of current and future challenges with moral fortitude and intellectual energy is rare and will be dearly missed at the Kennedy School.”

Nagela NukunaHKS Alum

“Secretary Carter had such an incredible impact on not just the defense community, but on students and many individuals alike. His ability to manage people and teams effectively was something I learned from his guest lectures, and his commitment to doing the right thing with professionalism, preparedness, and grit was always a trademark of his. Furthermore, his impact on women and transgender individuals in the military was a monumental step in breaking barriers to opportunity - signaling a shift in the U.S. and beyond our shores. He will be sorely missed.”

Nancy LuHKS Student

“No single word can fully describe my feeling today. It’s a mixture of shock, disbelief, regret, a hole in me, tears, and a ton of everything else. I fought hard to get into Secretary Carter’s course in Harvard and since I got in, I have taken every single class with upmost respect. I prepare thoroughly and carefully because I respect him so much for his intelligence, his patriotism, his passion and his commitment to teach. In the two months of class with Carter, he emphasized on the importance of education and why we, individually and collectively, can do and should do something greater for our world. Carter taught us by stimulating us with ideas. He challenged our presumptions, he encouraged us to share, he connected us between our classroom and the real world, and he reminded us that as humans, we can do so much more for our future generation. I feel fortunate to have met Secretary Carter in person and had the opportunity to share our thoughts over class and after class. I appreciated his honesty when he answered my questions about New Zealand and where we stand in the world.   What’s most painful is what his family is going through right now. I sincerely hope you will be okay and I trust you will pull through as a strong tight family. Secretary Carter would’ve loved to see that.   A day to remember. Thank you Secretary Carter. RIP.  #thankyou #share #future #education #respect”

Paul-Etienne PiniBelfer Young Leader Student Fellow

Ash Carter in the foreground with a microphone speaking to students, in focus in the background, seated around a table.

Ash Carter welcomes new fellows in 2021 including Paul-Etienne Pini, second from left.

“When I think of Ash Carter, the first things I remember are his caring smile, his warm voice, and his unwavering confidence in our potential as aspiring young leaders in public policy. Even though I only knew him briefly, I was impressed by his intellectual rigor, his decision-making style, and beyond that, his great simplicity. Despite his impressive career and experience, Ash Carter was indeed someone you could discuss freely with; someone who made you feel comfortable, listened to, understood. Ash Carter is the person who founded the Belfer Young Leader Fellowship, without which I could not have gone to Harvard. On a very personal level, I am also inspired by his life trajectory, especially the way he linked a scientific background with policy responsibilities. Such interdisciplinarity should become more of a model for future public officials. For this, as for everything else, Ash Carter will live on through the generations he has guided.”

Vishal ManveCross-Registered Tufts Student for Prof. Carter's Tech Dilemmas for Public Policy Class

“It is no understatement that Professor Carter's class was my favorite and changed how I view academics and innovation and the confidence I can present these topics. Professor Carter invested so much in his relationships and mentorship, which was deeply reflected in the guest speakers who came to visit us. Within 14 classes, he taught me to cultivate a deep interest in the foundations of science, AI, and biotech and subsequently move toward policymaking. There is no policymaking without understanding the foundations and investing sufficient time and resources in both knowledge and relationships. I had a chance to speak to Professor Carter after the class and I cannot believe this was the last time and opportunity ever. He changed my life and so many others during his time - with a smile, professional demeanor, and kindness.”

Richard T. GarciaHKS Student and Army Officer

“It was a great honor to be Secretary Carter’s student and to serve under him while in the Army. As Secretary of Defense, I saw the positive impact your leadership had firsthand. Your commitment to equality led to the opening of all military jobs to women. Today, many of my closest friends and most respected colleagues are women due to this brave decision. We all live richer and safer lives due to your hard work, wisdom, and dedication to equality. Thank you for all you did for us. It was an honor to get to know you in person.”

Haegun ChungBelfer Young Leader Student Fellow

“What would you say when you get a call from the president? ... You can't really say no to him. I will follow your path. Thank you for your teaching.”

Pearl RisbergHKS Student

“Secretary Carter told his students that we don't get to shy away from complex, controversial, and scary concepts as policymakers--we have to be willing to continue learning as the world evolves. He pushed us to think critically and to question conventional wisdom. As a mentor, Sec. Carter was generous with his time and compassionate, especially in uplifting the voices of women and marginalized communities in national security. This loss will be felt broadly, both by those who were lucky to learn from him and by the broader American public who live in a safer and more inclusive world because of his impact. A tremendous loss of an extraordinary public servant and member of the HKS family.”

Jenny LiBelfer Young Leader Student Fellow

“I didn't know Secretary Carter personally, but I had the privilege of listening to him moderate many conversations, including with Kurt Campbell just the day before he passed. Seeing him walk around the Forum and magically appear at various Belfer Center events, like Oktoberfest, always made me smile. I appreciated that he took the time to greet students and faculty, and hold private conversations with us at every event -- it was obvious that he cared about people and relationships the most. As a future national security leader, I will remember the contributions Secretary Carter made to ensure diverse voices are heard in the field. May his legacy live on.”

Zeslene MaoStudent of IGA505 - Solving Tech's Public Dilemmas

“Solving Tech's Public Dilemmas is one of the best classes I have taken in Harvard. It is clear that Secretary Carter went to great effort to curate materials, craft the assignments, and engage students, all with a view to equipping us to serve the public good in our own unique and distinct ways. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to learn from Secretary Carter, and I mourn his passing greatly. He was an exemplary leader whose life's work has shaped a more secure world order. I believe that Secretary Carter's memory will live long in each of us who have had the privilege to be inspired by him, and we shall honour his legacy by advancing his mission of public purpose.”

Arsen FazlovicHead Course Assistant (Fall 2022) for IGA 505

“Secretary Carter was a teacher, mentor, and - at times - father figure to me. I am proud that I knew him. I am honored that I could work for him. I am privileged that I could learn from him. And I am grateful that he made me a better leader and public servant. He died one day after my birthday. Thank you, Secretary, may you rest in peace.”

Brendan MossHKS Student

“Secretary Carter was a great professor and the consummate public servant. He brought rare intellect and a profound sense of public service to the classroom. He was the epitome of what the Kennedy School is about.”

Andrew N. WebsterFormer Course Assistant

“Working with Secretary Carter as a course assistant was one of my greatest privileges while at Harvard Kennedy School. Two great lessons I learned from him were about how to be a quiet professional and how to be a selfless leader. He was a man that could have written a tell-all memoir, made a lot of money off his title, and retired to a life of comfort; but instead he avoided the public spotlight and sought to mentor and develop tomorrow’s leaders until his last days. He was constantly taking time to help all of his students dream big and achieve those dreams. I would not be who I am today without the impact he made on my life. You are gone too soon sir. Rest in Peace.”

Sam YoonHKS Student

“My best professor ever, and made me realize the important interactions between society and technology. Great combination of wisdom, intellect and humor during his classes.”

 Jen NamHKS Student, Army Veteran

“Sir, the world is a lesser place without you and we are so grateful for your service and commitment to making the Armed Forces and our country stronger and more diverse. We are grateful for your courageous and empathetic leadership. Thank you.”

Samantha Hubner, Student and Informal Advisee

“I will never forget my first office hours with former Secretary Carter. Almost exactly a year ago today, I walked in and sat down, unsure of what to expect. This was how he broke the ice: 'My only question to you, Sam, is what can I do to help get you where you’re going. I’m ready to make the calls. What’s the plan?' I collected many stories during the year I spent in his classes, but I truly cannot think of a better story that showcases the type of professor he was to his students. I walked out of his office that day feeling ready to take on the world. In a mere 20 minutes, he had given me a completely revitalized sense of confidence, just by being so vocal in expressing his own vote of confidence in me. This was particularly impactful to me because I was not a Harvard student. I was a cross-registrant through the Fletcher School, and this was my first class outside of my home turf. My classmates were brilliant, but they were strangers. It sounds silly to say now, but in the beginning I struggled to gauge whether or not I really 'belonged' in his class. I was grateful to be there nonetheless, but it was tricky to navigate. Needless to say, I was utterly floored by his aggressive commitment to inclusivity, as he built community around our classes. It didn't matter if you were from MIT, Fletcher, or even a different school within Harvard. You deserved your spot in the class, and he was determined to make sure you knew that. As a result, I walked away with a whole new community across the entire greater Boston area. Therefore, in writing this tribute, I want to emphasize that Professor Carter was a rare pillar of interdisciplinary knowledge, servant leadership, and personal mentorship to not only students at Kennedy and Belfer, but to the entire greater Boston community overall. My classmates across numerous colleges within MIT, Fletcher, and Harvard are collectively feeling this loss. Professor Carter put massive effort into countless individuals throughout his tenure, simply because it was his passion and purpose to dedicate the rest of his career to paving the way for the next generation. The magnitude of his investment in this extended community only further ensures that he is leaving exactly the legacy he had hoped.”

Crystal RugegeHKS Student

“I am so deeply saddened to hear about the passing of my professor, Secretary Ash Carter. I was taking his class this semester at the Kennedy School on 'Solving Tech’s Public Dilemmas,' and was privileged to be in the last class he ever taught on Monday October 24th. In his usual form, he entered the classroom with his boisterous voice always delivering the perfect mix of intellectual rigor, humor, and candor. He loved cold calling and watching us fumble through our notes. 😀 He was a generous and affable person, regularly hosting us outside of the classroom for 'Pints with Prof.'  He challenged us to deepen our curiosity and sharpen our analysis of balancing technological progress and ethical boundaries. He was a remarkable person, most erudite professor, and extraordinary public servant. May we honor his legacy of service to his country, to his students, and the many lives he touched. Rest in perfect peace, Secretary Carter.”

Viet NguyenHKS Student

“In an organisation that often took itself too seriously, Professor Carter still retained his humour and humanity. An exceptional man who will be missed.”

Daniel Perumal, Defending Digital Democracy Contributor

“Having been previously in the military, I was very familiar with Secretary Carter's achievements in service to our country. However, when I got to fully realize the impact of Secretary Carter's influence was while working with Defending Digital Democracy. Secretary Carter fully empowered Eric Rosenbach and our team to follow in his footsteps by striving to make a lasting, significant impact for our country's good. His presence was always felt in our work. We knew that with Secretary Carter's support, no matter how tough the work was, we wouldn't fail. I will always remember him not only as a true Patriot, but also someone who truly cared for his people and their work. The United States is a better country because of Secretary Carter. His impact will be felt for generations to come.”

Dhananjay GoelHKS Student

“I remember Secretary Carter fondly and admire him, amongst all else, for his curiosity of thought and willingness to engage in discussion. I recall once roaming the halls of HKS with a friend and running into him as he was probably wrapping up his day. We said good evening Professor and he smiled and asked us what we did. Perhaps Dean Elmendorf said it correctly in that Secretary Carter really loved his time as a professor.  While answering his question, I recall both my friend and I speaking of our time at HKS and of our interest areas, one of which is cybersecurity. I don't know if he had time or made it on the spot, but he was willing to listen to our thoughts, tell us his, and engage in some incredibly insightful conversation (at least for both of us).  When we spoke he listened, with an attentive gaze and a curious mind. That engaged us even more and in the end we smiled and walked out fulfilled with the conversation. This may be a small instance in hindsight, but I will never forget that conversation and his insights. Not because of his stature within the school, or to the U.S., and the world. But because of his keen mind and generous spirit. He was willing to give us his time, ear, and mind. He was also equally willing (if not more) to learn from our thoughts— even if they were much less formed than his.  He embodied to me the person who always had the beginner's mind—one in whose mind there are only curious possibilities as opposed to expertly crafted filters and limited options.  May you rest in peace, Professor Carter. I will pray for your soul's safe onwards journey.”

Craig JohnsonHKS Alum, MPP 2022

“Secretary Ash Carter represented the best HKS had to offer. He was resolved to equip me and my classmates to help solve our nation's pressing problems. He was kind, patient, and thoughtful. I hope his legacy lives on through all the students' lives he made better.”

Matt Schubert, HKS Alum

“I was so shocked and saddened to hear about Ash Carter’s passing. I took his course, Leading the National Security Enterprise, last spring. I was struck by how sincere and thoughtful he was about preparing a new generation of leaders. He encouraged students to approach the serious business of national security with the sense of seriousness and responsibility it deserves. At a time when politics have become so cynical, it was refreshing and inspiring to have the chance to learn from someone like Ash Carter, who modeled a genuine patriotism and commitment to service.”

Michael Bediako, Sec. Carter's Student from Ghana

“In our last class, Sec Carter asked, “When you are in public office, what gene editing will you allow in genomics.” He would often ask, “will you ever allow designer babies”?  I wondered, why the deep concern about designer babies. Who wouldn’t want to have a perfect baby curated for them? Sec Carter would say, the question is not just about the possibility of innovation for good; it’s equally about the unpredictable hereditary consequences of greed-engendered innovation, malicious or otherwise. For Secretary Carter, the value of his class is to embed in future leaders the knowledge to know these differences; and the wisdom and values to make the right decisions.  That is the Secretary Carter I know. God keep you safe, my Professor.”

Josh Altman, former Course Assistant

“Professor Carter was a giant whose impact on our nation's security will be felt long into the future. Yet what I cherish most are the innumerable ways in which he demonstrated his belief in his students and this institution, his commitment to passing on his wisdom to the next generation of public servants, and the tremendous difference he made in my own life. His example will remain a guiding light for those with whom he worked and those he taught. I am grateful to have known him.”

Krizia R. LopezHKS Student

“Truly saddened to hear about the passing of my Harvard Kennedy School professor, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. His class on leadership in the public sector and on international affairs and security were among the highlights of my time so far at the Kennedy School. Secretary Carter really embodied the values of public service and leadership: I learned so much from him about doing your absolute best - through deep consideration of others & fundamental values coupled with analytical rigor & strategic, operational planning - to make the world a better place even in extremely difficult or ambiguous situations.”

Jordi Calvet BademuntHKS Student

“Secretary Carter has left an indelible mark on me in just two months, as he did with many others throughout his life. In class, I was extremely impressed by his intellect, warmth, and passion for public service. It was touching how much he cared about us, students. I feel incredibly grateful for having had the chance to learn from him and inspired to devote my life to the public good.”

Svenja Kirsch, HKS MPP 2022 and Belfer Center Fellow, Defense Project and Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship

“Secretary Carter was an inspiration to generations of students that got to learn from him. He led by example while guided by deeply held values that influenced his decisions, amongst them the DoD's order to open up all military roles to women. An advocate for the creation of technology with public purpose, he remained at the cutting edge of policy conversations in a changing world until his very last day. His passing leaves a void at the Belfer Center and in people's hearts. My deepest condolences go out to his family.”

David VillarrealHKS Alum

“Dr. Ash Carter is one of the best professors I have ever had. My dialogue with him was limited to the course I took, but the impact he made was profound. Not only did he impart deep knowledge on the course subject, but he also shared lessons from his experience that would benefit me for the remainder of my military career to the present.  Thank you, Dr. Carter; you will be missed.”

David RifkinHKS Student

“Professor Carter brought an unyielding moral compass to his role as a physicist and scientist. He brought the best of principles of science to his role as a public servant. He brought the most crucial lessons of public service to his role as a professor.  I am grateful, as one of his students, to be the recipient of his ethics, knowledge, and life experience.  I believe Secretary Carter, as an educator and a leader, would be proud to know that he not only taught, but also inspired us all.”

Tess CushingHKS Alum and former TAPP Research Assistant

“My time working with Secretary Carter at TAPP was one of the highlights of my HKS career and I am so grateful to have experienced his feedback and mentorship. When I first attended his office hours, he had my resume in hand and he immediately asked me about my undergrad thesis topic. I will never forget how genuinely excited he was to talk to me about a topic that I was personally passionate about.  During the pandemic, the TAPP team had a virtual Thanksgiving and, when asked what he was thankful for that year, Secretary Carter responded, 'I'm thankful for all of you.'  I know that everyone who crossed paths with him at HKS was thankful for him and for the opportunity to experience his leadership, knowledge, and passion. This is an immense loss for HKS and for the country.”

Richard Kuzma, HKS Alum

Ash Carter leans over a desk to pat Richard Kuzma on the back as students around them clap.

Ash Carter pats Richard Kuzma on the back during the last study group session of the semester held at the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental in Cambridge.

“For HKS students who want to pursue careers at the intersection of technology, national security, and public purpose, Secretary Carter was a titan of his field. But it is the person more than the public figure I will miss.   For those of us who know him more closely, Secretary Carter was exceptional in his kindness, mentorship, devotion to service, and clear sense of right and wrong. He loved his students and advisees, always finding time for a phone call or drop-by visit for life advice. He was as energetic speaking with a grandmother at graduation as he was speaking about emerging technology issues. And he was always seeking to learn as much from us as we learned from him. As the world mourns Secretary Carter’s death as a professional, we feel his loss most as a person. HKS and Belfer won’t be the same in the absence of the stories he loved to tell and the laughs we can no longer share. We were blessed to know someone who dedicated his life to his country, and shared that life with us.”

Maddie Kriger, HKS Student

“I have two quintessential memories of Secretary Carter from when I was a student in his Tech and Public Dilemmas class. I went to office hours with him to discuss what I wanted to do next with my interest in regulating social media companies, especially when it comes to the spread of political disinformation. He was a great listener, gave helpful advice, and had a good sense of humor. He also almost immediately followed up to connect me with someone at TAPP whose team he wanted me to join. I immediately felt respected by that followthrough and trust from a person I respected so much. The second memory is from the end-of-semester party that Secretary Carter threw for our class. Everyone was eager to shake his hand and take a photo, so I was hanging back while I grabbed a drink. He walked over and came right up to me to say hi and ask what I thought of the class. Once again, he made me feel valued and respected, especially in a class where other people had expertise that I did not. This community has lost a caring, brilliant leader and teacher.”

Sabs QuereshiHKS Alum, Former Student of Ash Carter

“I am deeply saddened by the news of Professor and former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter's passing. As a professor, leader, fellow scientist, and personally, a mentor, he was a dedicated public servant who was incredibly generous with his guidance and support to his students and colleagues. They say don’t meet your heroes because you will be disappointed. Prof. Carter was exactly the opposite-- the hero I didn't know I needed. The more time I spent with him the more I saw the kind, humble man, who loved devoting his time and energy to rising talent.  As a former student at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard's Belfer Center, I was grateful to be able to take his course and learn from his expertise on national security and management. He was dedicated to female empowerment, racial diversity, and representation in national security and as many may not know, to humanitarian assistance, international development, and global health synergies. On a personal note, his mentorship came at a time when I, like so many other women and people of color, began to feel the fatigue and weight of a life in the federal government, public service, foreign policy, national security, and humanitarian assistance. He guided, inspired, and encouraged me to 'stay in the fight' while working as an ally to 'break down walls,' not solely for myself but for all whom we serve on a daily basis. This loss has been so heartbreaking, sudden, and devastating. But if there's one silver lining, he reminds us of the fragility of life and to never wait for a moment that may never come to share what someone like Ash means to us. At least we share the blessing to have known him.  Thank you, Ash, for reminding me of my worth when I began to forget. Thank you for seeing the unique potential in each of us, while sharing your unique sense of humor and ease that made everyone feel like family. I will be forever grateful and honored for your support in becoming a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and for having faith in my future contributions to the USG and foreign policy space; the course of my life has forever been altered for the better by having known you. All my love and support to your family. You were taken too soon, Mr. Secretary. Rest in Peace, Sir. You are surely missed.”

Manya-Jean GitterHKS Student, Mentee

“When I answered my first cold call in Professor Carter's class, "Leading the National Security Enterprise," he stopped, looked at me, held the moment and said “that’s exactly what I said when the President asked me.” When we spoke after class, he shook my hand and congratulated me. That’s the kind of professor Secretary Carter was: giving, encouraging, committed to making his students feel proud of their work and abilities. It was at times easy to forget that he was an architect of modern day national security: with us, he often acted like a proud parent.  From that moment on, our mentoring relationship grew. After every conversation with Professor Carter, I felt not only that my substantive analysis and understanding of the issue at hand had skyrocketed, but also that my confidence in my own potential in the field was heightened. I assumed I would spend the next ten to fifteen years consulting him and growing from his wisdom in whatever roles I held. Over the course of this heartbreaking week, I have come to learn how many hundreds if not thousands of students like me felt the same. This speaks to Ash's unlimited capacity to give of himself both in mind and in heart. I know that like me, all of these students mourn this immeasurable loss. With them, I will work to help carry his torch and endeavor to bring about his vision for a safer world.   Thank you, Secretary Carter for forcing me to believe in my highest potential, for nurturing me as a mentee, and for committing your life to keeping all of us protected. I am so grateful to have learned so much from you. I hope you are reunited with Secretary Albright up there, laughing gently at her broach collection. We love you.”

Alexander de AvilaHKS Alum and Former Course Assistant

“I never planned on applying to HKS. I thought I would go to law school. But there I found myself one blustery afternoon in JFK Park, touring the campus with my mother. School was out. HKS was empty. We were alone, except for three figures we noticed walking through the park towards us. The two men behind wore long trench coats, and as the group approached, it became clear that they were there to guard the man in front. The man in front was seizing us up, wearing that inquisitive smile that would have been immediately recognizable to all who ever got to know him. I recognized him as Ash Carter, the recent Secretary of Defense. As he approached, I introduced myself, said that I was a Marine, and told him that we were checking out the campus to get the feel of the place -- at the time, a place I did not think I would ever be applying to. He asked me about my interests and background, listened thoughtfully to my responses, and thanked my mother for her service to the country. After nearly ten full minutes of back-and-forth about my goals, his career, and his return to the Belfer Center, it became clear he needed to continue on his way. He paused before turning, though, and looked me right in the eyes. 'You know what, Alex, I think this is where you belong. I really think you should consider applying to the Kennedy School.' Then he turned and walked off, the trench coats behind him flapping in the wind. My mother and I were in awe at this man, who had been extraordinarily successful in his career, and how he took so much time out of his day to encourage me, someone he really did not know. I resolved after that to learn more about the Harvard Kennedy School. I applied, got accepted, and in my first year as an MPP student enrolled in Secretary Carter's class. Eventually in my final year, Secretary Carter hired me to serve as his course assistant for 'Leading the National Security Enterprise.' He would then write the letter of recommendation that helped me get hired as a John McCain Fellow at the Department of Defense, where I still work now. It is amazing to consider how impactful a simple ten-minute interaction can be. HKS has many rockstars on its staff. You can't throw a rock around here without hitting a public servant who has done remarkable things in their life. But of all the professors I had the chance to meet during my time at HKS, none compared to Secretary Carter when it came to helping students. He would tell his classes on the last day of the semester that he was not at HKS for the money and had no interest in serving in a future administration -- but that he instead was there for us: the students. He said bluntly that for the rest of our careers, he would always be available to mentor us, support us, and when requested, write a letter of recommendation. We didn't even need to ask. Of all the institutions I have been a part of -- military, academic, or otherwise -- I never saw a clearer example of someone so fervent about supporting and guiding the next generation. That was Secretary Carter. Just like his time as SECDEF, he also gave that mission his all. He will always be known as Secretary Carter. That's what we all called him, since we did not dare otherwise. But to some of us whose lives he so impacted, we will forever know him as Ash. The man who served his country at the highest levels, and still asked what he could do for the ones who were up next. Climb a mountain. Reach a hand back down. Repeat. That was Ash Carter.”

Masumi ItoMIT Student

“I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to take Secretary Carter's "Solving Tech's Public Dilemma" course. Coming from Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) and wanting to pursue a career in technology and national security, this class was a great way for me to learn the logic and principles underlying industry and policy. Secretary Carter's teaching style not only provided me with knowledge, but also the fundamental ideas and perspectives that will stand the test of time and are necessary to create effective policies. Technology has evolved rapidly, but there are difficult issues such as what are the conditions for deploying a technology that can be harmful when used publicly, and we discussed these issues in class. I was particularly impressed by Professor Carter's questioning of what you, as Secretary of Defense, would say in front of the media the next day if an autonomous weapon accidentally killed an uninvolved citizen. As a policy maker, there are many situations that arise in such conflicting dilemmas, and we discussed these very difficult questions in class and learned how to face such questions. Another striking point that I learned from Professor Carter was the structural difference between digital innovation and bio-innovation and the fact that we are now in a transitional period where the difference is disappearing. In the field of biotechnology, the model has been that basic research is conducted with large federal funds, and then US pharmaceutical companies use phd holders to create new drugs based on the basic research. However, biotechnology and platforms are merging, and new innovations are being created as bioplatforms, not by phd holders, but by the same layer of traditional digital innovators. And that this is just the beginning and more innovation in this field will happen in the future. I believe that having this acute view of the structural changes in society shared with us will be truly helpful in creating industrial, security, and innovation policies in the future. I cherish what I learned here and hope to apply it when I return to my home country.”

Caroline Kaufman, HKS Alum

“Professor Carter was an incredible teacher, mentor, and advocate for his students. I can think of so many small, everyday examples of the type of teacher he was: kind, generous with his time, incredibly sharp, encouraging, and committed to pushing his students to be their best and to see the best in ourselves. I will never forget how he sought me out after our final class briefings to congratulate me. Upon spotting me in the student lounge during one of his well-known walks, he came over to shake my hand and tell me that I had done a great job. This was the first of many briefings that I would go on to do at HKS (and in my career!), and his encouragement that day continues to buoy me.  I have many other anecdotes I could share: the way he made time to see every single student during office hours, the way he announced to our class that the Red Sox had won the World Series, and the way that he would always smile, say hello, and sometimes stop to chat, when he passed me in the hallway. I know that countless of my classmates share similar memories.  I am also grateful for his support for and allyship with a student group that I co-chaired, Women in Defense, Diplomacy, and Development (W3D). I remember that Professor Carter sought us out at the beginning of the year to ensure that he could join us for our annual kick-off event. After that event, I began describing him as a 'proud parent;' it was clear how proud he was of our work to elevate women in foreign policy. I have heard many other students use this same phrase to describe him and I think it encapsulates well the pride that he felt in all of his students, and the pride and confidence that he likewise sought to instill in all of us. Thank you for everything, Professor Carter. We'll try to keep making you proud.”

Michelle BartonFormer State Dept. and HKS Alum

“You can't measure the impact a professor like Ash Carter has on you. What he taught us will live on with us for the rest of our lives. We'll never forget his immense intellect, his profound kindness, and mentorship. He was the best.”

Campbell HoweFormer Course Assistant, Former TAPP RA, HKS Alum

“In writing a memo, Professor Carter would advise his students to outline several policy options, to describe each of their pros and cons, and to ultimately recommend one. He did not like when students (as we so often do) waffled and prescribed an 'all of the above' approach. Throughout this tragic week, I have heard Ash Carter called many things: a patriot, a technologist, a public servant, a leader, a teacher. To me, he certainly was all of the above. But in the spirit of his teachings, I will select one thing to call him: a center of gravity.  Within HKS, he was at the center of the community and conversation. His two courses were among the most popular on campus, his TAPP initiative spawned widely circulated publications and sought-after research positions, and his lectures in the Forum on Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan or on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drew such large audiences that there were lines out the door for a chance to hear him live. He openly shared his opinions on world affairs, which were formed from history, from science, and from personal experience. He was one of the select few at HKS that could convince students of an argument while also encouraging them to draw their own conclusions, and his thoughts inspired conversation that will continue for decades to come.   Beyond HKS, his office felt like the center of the universe. Take just one example. Last year, I walked into his office a few minutes before our IGA 505 class to discuss that day’s topic – germline editing. He was finishing up a call, so I sat down and looked up at the ISIL flag (turned upside down of course) he was honored with for his efforts in Iraq. I caught pieces of his conversation – he was giving advice on the future of quantum security. As it turned out, Google’s top leadership was on the other end of the line. He hung up the phone, and without missing a beat, made a link between quantum’s implications from a foreign policy perspective and China’s flagrant abuse of CRISPR technology. With that, we dove into the course materials on the bio-revolution. I do not know if I will ever meet anyone who is so well-versed in such a vast array of topics, but I do know I will never meet anyone who is relied upon so heavily by so many people in different fields around the world.   I am one of many who relied on him. When I was unsure of my professional path after graduating from HKS, he gave me the encouragement I needed to return to the private sector as a venture capitalist. He told me that serving the public can take many forms. Although he is gone – and gone too soon -- I will continue rely on his lessons and his example. Whenever I look at new technologies or new companies, I am reminded of his hope that we future leaders can 'get the good without the bad.'  I know I am not alone in this – the tributes I have read and heard this week alone ensure this. Secretary Ash Carter’s centrality will not diminish. His legacy will live on, and I can only hope that we who have relied on him will make him proud.”

Nelly RousseauHKS Student

“Passionate about technologies and passionate about humans, and eager to make the world a better place, Sec Carter was an exceptional Professor and a great mentor to me. I feel privileged to have known him and he will live in my mind and keep on inspiring my work.”

Harshini JayaramFormer Course Assistant, Former TAPP Researcher

“Professor Carter was a role model in every dimension. His impact on the world was clear, and so was his impact with every student and in every conversation.  He would always greet students in the hallway, and as a CA, I had the chance to see firsthand how dedicated he was to always teaching us the most important topics in the most engaging way. For me - as someone with a STEM background trying to move into the public sector - Professor Carter's path and mentorship was invaluable. He inspired me to stay committed to serving the public good, and to comfortably wield my tech background in the new (to me) world of policy. I'm deeply grateful to have known Professor Carter, and for the positive impact he had on my life.”

Kenny ChenHKS MPP'22 and TAPP Research Assistant

“Secretary Carter embodied the kind of leadership that I most admire and aspire to emulate. A true servant leader, he dedicated his career to making the world a safer place and equipping the leaders of tomorrow to tackle the challenges of the future. His brilliant mind brought forth numerous visionary policies and innovative programs, but it was his big heart—generous, considerate, and unwaveringly principled—that compelled so many to follow and learn from him. The full impact of his work is beyond measure, but we can be certain that countless lives have been improved by this extraordinary individual. For me, my experiences as his student and research assistant were defining aspects of my time at the Kennedy School. I feel immensely proud and privileged to have known Secretary Carter, and although it breaks my heart to see him gone so soon, I find strength in knowing that I’m among many who are committed to carrying forward his legacy.”

Abia S. KhanHarvard College, 2024

Ash Carter and Abia S. Khan

Ash Carter and Abia S. Khan prior to a JFK Jr. Forum event in 2021.

“Ash Carter was a remarkable human being. Beyond his intellect and brilliance, his kindness and humility were truly something to be admired. Through everything he did, he made the world a better place, and we will forever be in debt to him.  Secretary Carter inspired so many through his leadership, courage, and selflessness. There was never a moment where I doubted Secretary Carter's commitment to us, his students. He wholeheartedly loved being in the classroom and teaching, and his investment in our success was evident. While he's no longer with us, Ash Carter's legacy will continue to live on through the countless lives he touched.  I wish I had more time with him, but I'm incredibly grateful for the time and space I could share with him. I'm thankful for all the memories, stories, and every laugh and smile we exchanged.  I miss him deeply, and his passing is a tragic loss for Harvard and the country.”

Ping Wang, HKS Student

“Prof. Carter’s leadership course “Leading National Security Enterprises” is one of the highlights of my HKS experience. He was such a strategic and visionary teacher, above all, a kind person. I never met him in person due to the pandemic. Now there is no chance. He will be missed.”

Diego D’Sola, HKS Student

“One time during office hours I asked Secretary Carter about a career in the DoD. His answer: 'A Venezuelan born immigrant, who has lived in China for years and actively follows Chinese foreign policy? Good luck getting a security clearance pal.' Despite my disappointment (and laugh), I look back at that conversation with fascination. Here was a man who used to run the Pentagon spending over 30 minutes of his time with me alone, giving me solid advise on my career and life in general. It showed Ash Carter's deep commitment to his students, away from any spotlight or notoriety.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Student Memories of Ash Carter.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, November 2, 2022.