Student Conferences at HKS: India Conference

Student Conferences at HKS: India Conference

Each spring, Harvard Kennedy School students organize a

series of student-led conferences focusing on issues that are timely,

relatable, and of substance. And they’re also opportunities for our students to

listen to, learn from, and speak with thought leaders from across fields and

sectors—and to present their own ideas and research.

The first of this year’s student-led conferences—the India Conference—was held on February

11-12, 2023. The India Conference at Harvard provides an opportunity to

discuss, debate, and champion India-centric issues. The India Conference has a legacy

of hosting conversations with some of India’s leading politicians, business

leaders, government officials, academics, artists, athletes, philanthropists.


The conference’s 400+ in-person attendees heard from more

than 100 speakers during in a record 37 panels and sessions focused on a wide

range of policy topics including:

  • India’s role chairing the G20
  • The caste system
  • Climate transition
  • LGBTQ+ rights in India
  • Strengthening India’s democracy
  • India’s internal security dynamic
  • Universal healthcare in India
  • Criminal justice reform in India

Below HKS’s conference co-chairs Dhananjay Goel (MPA/MBA 2023)

and Vidhi Lohia (MPA 2023) share more about the conference and what went into making

it a success.

What was the theme of this year’s conference?

This year’s theme was Vision 2047: India at 100 Years of Independence.

Recently, India concluded 75 years of independence, and as it begins its 76th

year as an independent nation, we wanted to ask what the next 25 years would

look like.

We believed that the forward-looking theme would lend itself

to a wide array of topics, some of which require long-term thinking. For

instance, this year we had four different panels focused on climate change and

energy, which are topics that require us to think far into the future.

What were some of the key takeaways you hope attendees walked away with?

We wanted attendees to recognize India as a diverse and

beautiful country—imperfect, flawed, and yet wonderful in so many ways.

We hope that attendees took away a broad perspective on

various topics: healthcare, climate, LGBTQ rights, democracy, annihilating

caste discrimination, criminal justice, decoding a unicorn, sports, fashion,

infrastructure, and so on. Every issue has multiple stakeholders—from civil

society to business enterprise, to policy makers, bureaucrats, artists, and

more—so the cross-HKS/HBS programming, along with student contributions from almost

all schools at Harvard, allowed for intersectionality.

We also hope the conference allowed attendees to make new connections.

Our conference app had over 3,000 messages and 50 community board posts exchanged

amongst attendees. These connections are perhaps the most meaningful takeaway

for us and hopefully for those who attended the conference. While going back to

an in-person conference after two years of virtual programming came with its

challenges, it was absolutely worth it for the opportunity it presented for

students and professionals to connect in person.


Why did you decide to chair the India Conference?

Dhananjay: I first contributed to the India Conference

in 2018-19. Back then, I was working in India as a startup founder. In my free

time, I volunteered to help with the India Conference as an external website developer,

as a way for me to connect with the Harvard community and to broaden my own

perspective of the different issues at play in India. At the time, I was

a few years out from applying to HKS. Looking back, that was the first

contribution HKS made to my personal journey. Once I was here, I wanted to give

back. I worked last year as a panel manager and absolutely loved my experience.

I soon realized that chairing the conference this year, given the opportunity,

would be a fantastic way for me to connect with other students at Harvard and the

broader conference audience and provide a path for me to continue to expand my

own perspectives—a journey that began in 2018.

Vidhi: I was an active part of the organizing team

for the conference in 2022. That experience, after two years of being in on-and-off

isolation due to the COVID pandemic, made me feel like a part of a bigger

community here at Harvard. It helped me connect with other Indian students

across Harvard schools and engage in some brilliant conversations. I saw months

of hard work culminate into deeply impactful discourse that shaped the minds of

so many individuals.

Chairing the conference has been a great opportunity to test

out some of my newly learned leadership skills before I return to the

professional world. The last 6-8 months have entailed a lot of hard work and long

nights; I have been pushed outside of my comfort zone multiple times. But this

is exactly what I had hoped for, and I can say with 100% confidence that I would

do it all over again if given the chance.

What goes into coordinating such a conference?

Dhananjay: Coordinating the India Conference has been

a wonderful, hectic, hands-on learning experience. It required a constant push

and a combination of teamwork and, in some parts, luck. We are all tremendously

satisfied with how the conference came together—and the attendee feedback has

been extremely heartening.

Vidhi: Coordinating a conference of this scale

requires a lot of time, commitment, and passion. It also requires patience and

persistence. Working with 80 students across difference Harvard schools who are

juggling multiple commitments through the semester is a fun but mammoth task.

As co-chairs, it was our responsibility to keep the team morale up, tap into

the expertise of our past co-chairs and other conference organizers, and manage

all the aspects of planning. I feel extremely proud of all of us for having

such a successful conference with about 500 attendees and over 100 speakers

(many of whom flew in from India just for this!).

It’s been amazing to see the impact the conference has had.

Some students told us after the conference that they are planning to go back to

India after graduating because of India’s potential and its growth story. Being

able to inform attendees’ thinking on such a deep level makes us feel like this

conference was so much bigger than we had imagined.