Congratulations to the Class of 2023 on making it to graduation day! If you’re anything like I was approaching Commencement, you’re feeling proud, excited, a little sad to be ending your college journey, immensely relieved to be done with your final final exams, and grateful for four great years.
The world is open to you, and you undoubtedly have impressive professional accomplishments ahead. Some of you will pursue a career in public service, as I have. Some of you will not.
I will not try to dissuade anyone from their chosen career path. But I will make the case that service is for everyone, and you should find a place for it in your life. There is a tendency to think of success in terms of degrees, professional accomplishments, and job titles. But success is also measured in services to those without the same privilege you enjoy as Harvard alumni.
My mom was a career educator. My dad led the Manhattan chapter of the New York Urban League and later helped run homeless shelters. Some of my earliest memories with them are of being stopped on the street by their former students and clients who just wanted to say “thank you.” As an impatient child, I was often pulling on them to move on, but those encounters made a tremendous impression on me. I saw the fruits of my parents’ service in the faces of people whose lives they improved in ways big and small.
When I got to Harvard, I incorporated service into my life there, volunteering as a teacher and mentor through the Phillips Brooks House Association.
And I have continued to teach — for a time as a law school professor and currently as a volunteer Sunday school teacher at my church. Teaching and making genuine connections with young people remains deeply fulfilling to me, even though it’s been a relatively small part of my professional life.
As a student at the College, I also pursued service by advocating for policy change. I served on the Student Advisory Committee at the Institute of Politics, and as president of the Black Students Association.
Those experiences ultimately served me well in my career in government, although my path was not straight. My first job out of college was as a consultant (like so many of you!). But I continued to volunteer in my personal life, and since law school, the majority of my career has been in public service, as a federal and state prosecutor.
In many ways, I have achieved in my career in the traditional sense of the word. But achievement isn’t the most important throughline in my career.
The connecting thread, as I see it, is using different areas of the law to address power asymmetries: suing or prosecuting people in privileged positions who stole from government programs, companies that exploited workers, law enforcement officers who abused their power, healthcare companies that denied mental health treatment to people in need, and businesses that financed violent crime.
In the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, I have focused on expanding our services for survivors of crime who often feel left behind by the criminal justice system. We have embedded alternatives to incarceration into the core of our practice to ensure that people who have been failed by countless societal systems get the services they need and break the cycle of recidivism.
I have not always seen the faces of the people who have benefited from my work, as I saw with my mom and dad’s former students and clients, but I know that I am using my Harvard education to help people who need a powerful ally to level the playing field.
Whether it is in your career or as a volunteer in your community, I encourage you to do something to serve. Advance your career, yes, but also measure your success but what you do for others — students taught, victims counseled, patients healed.
Systemic change requires advocates both inside and outside the government. You do not have to pick just one lane, and you do not have to take a straight path. Follow your particular passion at a particular moment in time.
And regardless of what your day job is, remember that there are lots of ways to serve.
One of my favorite scriptures comes from the Gospel of Luke: “To whom much is given, much will be required.” I was provided the opportunity of a great experience at Harvard. For me, that opportunity came with an obligation to serve.
When I was a kid, I don’t think I knew where my parents went to college. I may not have known their exact job titles. But I saw their resumes of accomplishments in the people who stopped us on the street to offer thanks.
If my kids can say the same about me in 40 years, I will have had a successful career. I wish you the same as you embark on your next chapter.
Alvin L. Bragg, Jr., ’95 is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the current District Attorney of Manhattan.