When Country Roads Become the Classroom

Mo Earley, Contributor

Cases conversations and lectures can only take us so far: we need to go out into the world and see it for ourselves. Over Veterans’ Day Weekend, a group of 20 HBS and HKS students did just that on a trip to West Virginia.

Picture this: a first-year public policy student raises his hand, inquiring about how lessons from the natural gas boom in the United States could be applied in his home country, while a second-year MBA student inquires about the environmental implications. Later, around dinnertime, a dozen students raise their hands when a gubernatorial candidate asks the audience whether they would be willing to reimagine politics as usual. In a room with bright lights and modern art, a first-year MBA student asks the executive director of a new venture capital incubator about the incubator’s strategy related to cybersecurity and fintech. The next day, several MBA students sit around a small wooden table gazing at an aerial map, asking a social entrepreneur about the risks he foresees related to scaling his businesses too quickly.

These scenes likely feel familiar to those of us in graduate school: each of these conversations could fit neatly into a day in the life of a Harvard Business School or Harvard Kennedy School student splitting time between lecture halls and events. But these conversations didn’t happen in Cambridge: what if I told you they happened in my home state of West Virginia? Would you be surprised?

For the 20 HBS and HKS students who chose to spend Veterans’ Day Weekend traveling across the state of West Virginia, our days included far more than what you could easily find in a classroom. The weekend was organized through an ongoing partnership with West Virginia’s Secretary of State and West Virginia University, with funding from the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at HKS. Our group traveled hundreds of miles to learn about the state’s economic opportunity, political dynamics, and most pressing challenges faced by communities and their leadership. Over the course of three days, we drove across the northern half of the state meeting with energy industry leaders, local entrepreneurs, professors, elected officials, fellow MBA students, and passionate community members as they welcomed us into their towns, offices, and businesses. 

In some ways, our long weekend visit in West Virginia resembled the average day of a graduate student: a back-to-back schedule of presentations and meetings, a mountain of pre-reading, hurried breakfasts before running out the door to start the day. Like any good students, we came prepared with questions and were eager to learn from everyone we met. What we found when we arrived, however, was so much more than what the readings could have prepared us for.

As we moved across towns, each and every West Virginian welcomed us—a student group of mostly strangers—with generosity, humility, hospitality, and a sense of humor uniquely found in the hills of my beloved home state. These opportunities to be on the ground and in these rooms gave us a first-hand glimpse at the complexities of the economic, environmental, and human elements of the topics we study every day. 

Our whirlwind trip brought us throughout the state’s hilly geography and allowed us to absorb some of the best of what West Virginia has to offer. When touring the largest natural gas processing facility in the United States, a multi-billion dollar project that’s still growing, the leadership team generously came in to work on a Saturday morning to meet with us. We talked about the economic and environmental impacts of their projects over plates of Italian cookies from a local bakery, with the last rust-colored gasps of fall foliage contrasting with the enormous, metallic towers of the energy complex visible through the conference room windows. We stood on the front lines of America’s energy transition.

Later that day during dinner, when we hosted gubernatorial candidate Stephen Smith of the “West Virginia Can’t Wait” movement, he didn’t just give a standard politician’s stump speech to a group of strangers. Rather, after stopping by each table to ask our group members what they most wanted to learn about West Virginia, Smith led us through an interactive exploration of the history of politics in the state. More importantly, Smith and Secretary of State Mac Warner modeled what bipartisan discussion looks like when it’s humble, respectful, and relational; they sat at dinner together, asking about each others’ families, and joked around like old friends—even though many of their views diverged. We sat at the center of America’s political dialogues.

On the final day of the trip, several of us stopped in a town of fewer than 300 residents to meet with social entrepreneurs actively investing in the town’s economic future. Over the past few years, they’ve opened a general store, an organic farm, and a bakery, where they collectively employ 60 local high schoolers at any given time. After snacking on homemade cinnamon rolls the high schoolers had baked that morning, we walked to meet the students working on the farm to hear directly from them what it meant to have this opportunity in their hometown and share our gratitude for their hospitality. We learned from the next generation of students working to improve their communities.

While the weekend’s jam-packed itinerary delivered on its promises to show us the state’s perspectives on energy, politics, and economic development, many of the group’s favorite experiences arose in unexpected moments. When visiting the Clarksburg Mission, a homeless shelter also providing access to recovery services for those struggling with substance abuse disorders, we each had opportunities for one-on-one conversations with Mission Director Dr. Lou Ortenzio and with current shelter residents about the personal impacts of the opioid epidemic. After touring Tomaro’s Bakery, a group member enjoyed his pepperoni roll (West Virginia’s most-famous food) so much that he went in to purchase a second, only to be given another one free of charge by the owner, without question. To kick off our final dinner, the state’s Curator of Arts, Culture, and History broke into a medley of West Virginian songs and received an echoing round of applause. You learn about the hospitality, pride of place, and generosity in these stories in a book, but these are the real reasons West Virginia is almost heaven.

Now that we are all back in Cambridge, hurriedly eating our breakfasts before running between classes and meetings, I’m hopeful that the experiences our group shared in West Virginia will continue to enrich the learning we do here everyday. More importantly, I hope the stories of our trip encourage you to step out of your lecture halls and into the communities you care about the most, and I hope you also bring your classmates. You might be surprised by what you see, and find that you’ll really enjoy it.

Mo Earley is concurrently pursuing her MPA at the Harvard Kennedy School and MBA at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Prior to attending graduate school, Mo worked as a consultant advising public sector clients  for a United States federal agency using behavioral economics to improve government programs. Born and raised in West Virginia, Mo holds a deep commitment to understanding and addressing issues facing rural communities across the country.