Presenting free talks on timely topics by prominent speakers, the Harker Speaker Series (HSS) continues to make a mark on the local cultural environment, stimulating staff, students and their families to engage in the issues of our age.
From astronomer Seth Shostak and wrestler Kyle Maynard to foreign correspondent Dahr Jamail, activist and author Rick Smolan, and, the most recent visitor, travel writer Rick Steves, the HSS has sought to involve the broader community.
Paul Woodruff (Katherine, Gr. 9; Helen, Gr. 6) “very much enjoyed the SETI Institute [Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence] talk,” by Shostak. “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more humorous, somewhat technical, discussion before. I am not sure if I laughed more or learned more.” Joining enlightenment and entertainment can be useful approach, said John Jerney (Cristina, Gr. 9; John Nicolas, Gr. 6), who, with his wife, Helena, has helped bring in four of the five speakers through an extensive network of friends and acquaintances.
Having a diverse audience can spur useful discussion, Jerney noted. “Having parents and students attend together makes the experience that much richer because it stimulates dialogue outside of school and deepens the learning by making it a shared experience.
“The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, especially when people find out that every speaker offers his or her time and commitment without any cost to the school,” said Jerney. “Following the model of the Commonwealth Club of California, we have never offered an honorarium, ensuring that all speakers who join our series do so because of a passion to share a message and engage students and parents with their experiences.”
Maynard, a highly motivated paraplegic and the only speaker Jerney did not help arrange for, was an exception. He came to Harker at a request from the administration and spent the entire day with students before speaking that evening, and was paid for his appearance. The series features two to four speakers per year, and may grow.
Jerney, who watches speakers’ schedules to try to attract them while they are in the Bay Area for other events, touts the value of listening to experts who “speak passionately about their work, especially when it’s about something you don’t typically encounter, such as Dr. Shostak describing the search for intelligent life on other planets or Dahr Jamail describing his experiences as the sole unembedded American reporter in Iraq at the start of the war,” Jerney said.
Sometimes the payoff has been obvious. Harker’s GEO club, inspired by Smolan’s passionate appeal for attention to the worldwide water crisis, raised more than $10,000 for the nonprofit charity: water.
Head of School Chris Nikoloff noted that upper school and middle school students were “galvanized into action” after
Smolan’s speech. “We certainly hoped that the HSS would spur both thought and action, but we never imagined such a positive response so quickly,” he said.
Pam Dickinson, who heads Harker’s Office of Communication, which helps run the speaker series, says the program is “a perfect fit with our mission – academic excellence through the development of intellectual curiosity. It’s a meaningful way for us to invite the greater community to share in that quest.”
Everyone has a favorite among the visiting luminaries. Rashmi Sharma, Gr. 12, agreed that the HSS has succeeded in “really expanding our perspective in how we think about various different subjects.” She called Maynard’s presentation “inspiring” and said of Steves’ talk, “I don’t think I’ll ever think of traveling the same way again!”
Tina Najibi (Alexander, Gr. 10; Mary, Gr. 6) appreciated PBS star Steves’ advocacy of travel as a political act, noting that she was “quite impressed that he did a special on Iran – not the most likely vacation destination.”
Upper school history department chair Donna Gilbert expressed hope that Steves “inspired students to travel and do so with a sense of global awareness and social responsibility.” The speaker series embodies Harker’s desire to bring the whole community together in interesting, entertaining and meaningful ways.