Noah Harris was in the middle of a basketball game for Oak Grove High School in Hattiesburg, Mississippi when Harvard sent him his acceptance email on December 12, 2017.
"I knew I wouldn't be able to know if I had been accepted until after the game was over, which was agonizing," he recalls. "I played all right, but my mind was somewhere else — on the admissions — as you can imagine. We ended up winning."
After the game, Harris and his parents raced home and crowded around a laptop in their kitchen and together read the word "Congratulations."
"We were ecstatic," he says.
This year, the 20-year-old got the chance to celebrate again when he was elected Harvard's student body president, making him the first Black man to do so in the school's 384-year history.
CNBC Make It spoke with Harris about his campaign, his professional ambitions and his advice to other students.
Transitioning to Harvard
Harris says his first year at Harvard came with some shocks. He had never lived in a city as large or as cold as Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Having served as the student body president of his high school, Harris decided to run for student government his first year on campus.
"The first-year elections are super competitive and normally deter people from running because there are four first-year 'yards' and each yard gets three spots, but everyone comes into Harvard, as you can imagine, being their high school student body president. Just being 'that' person," he says with a laugh. "And so everyone runs."
He estimates that between 60 and 100 first-year students typically compete for 12 spots and says he felt lucky when he earned one, soon becoming the secretary of the finance committee.
Harris says he "fell in love" with the finances of Harvard's student government, describing the details of a $1.5 million annual budget — nearly $500,000 of which is typically allotted by the finance committee.
"I had done student government before, but I'd never done student government where the government actually had a budget that was so significant," he says. "[The finance committee] has roughly half a million dollars to be able to do projects and to make make your mark."
It was during this first year on Harvard's undergraduate student council that he met his future running mate, Jenny Gan.
'We knew that people were struggling'
By his junior year, Harris says "I knew I wanted to run [for president] with Jenny Gan."
"We both wanted to use our campaign to move Harvard forward in a significant way," he says. "But to do so in a year that is just so unprecedented was an interesting challenge for us because we knew that people were not engaged. We knew that people were struggling."
This school year has undoubtedly brought a unique set of challenges to students across the country. And in light of these challenges, Harris and Gan picked an ambitious platform and a progressive slogan: "Building Tomorrow's Harvard."
Their platform took on several issues they knew were on the front of students' minds, the first being a diversity and inclusion plan designed to "make sure that Harvard is standing behind its students of color during a time where you needed support."
Harris and Gan proposed creating an advocacy fund, intended to give interested Harvard students as much as $300 to protest.
"Students are at the forefront of [social] movements," says Harris, who this summer attended Black Lives Matter protests and helped raise $300,000 for Black advocacy and civil rights organizations. "And so we want to give them the cost of food, travel, other supplies to voice their opinions publicly"
The pair's platform also included policies aimed at improving the lives of students during the pandemic, including renting a local warehouse so students can cheaply store their belongings as well as bolstering mental health resources.
But communicating this platform came with its challenges, especially as Covid interrupted the on-campus experience.
"Campaigning virtually was very difficult because in a normal year, I'm used to going up and meeting people, knocking on doors, passing out fliers and getting a pulse on the ground for how the campaign is going," admits Harris, "It was just very hard to read the climate in that way because everything was in such a vacuum — it was taking place on social media, in group chats, in club email lists."
What's more, many Harvard students could not vote in the election because they had chosen to take time away from school.
The pandemic also impacted how the election results were announced.
"Normally, every campaign has a gathering with all their supporters and campaign staff. But of course, we weren't able to have that because of the virus. And normally, you get a call from the election commission — that's tradition — and the election commission will call every ticket involved and they will tell them the results good or bad. That call normally comes around 11 o'clock at night," says Harris. "But we got a call at about 5:30 p.m. and so we were very nervous."
To their surprise, Harris and Gan had won, and Harris became the first Black man elected to serve as Harvard's undergraduate student body president.
Making history and looking forward
"We were so grateful and soon after that, realizing that we had made history made that moment even more profound as well. It wasn't something that we went around telling people, like, 'Hey if you vote for us, you'll be electing me first Black man student body president!'" Harris says, "But making history was special, especially in this year of all these racial injustices and police brutality and people being taken from our communities way too soon. For the Harvard student body to elect its first Black man in that way was just so special and something that I'm honored to be a part of."
He continues, "I hope the message is that Black men, and young African Americans in general, belong at these universities. That they can be from Mississippi. And to not be deterred from applying to [schools like] Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford. That they can belong in these spaces. And not only can they belong, but they can thrive."
After earning his Bachelor's, Harris says he wants to go to law school and become a courtroom attorney, though he seems to have a natural ability for, and sincere interest in, politics.
When asked where he would like to study law, he quickly and politically responds:
"My dream law school would be Harvard."
"But I'm definitely open to a number of other places as well."
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