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Working for Change: Nick Hoekstra, IEP'14

Nick Hoekstra
When asked what he will change in education, Nick Hoekstra answers simply that he will change the way people think. Having lost his vision as a child, he is particularly sensitive to the struggles of students with disabilities.

“We all have disabilities, every single one of us,” Hoekstra says. “We also have great abilities. I work to change through my actions the way we perceive not only people with disabilities, but our own differences.  … We all have strengths to counterbalance our weaknesses. As a friend once told me, ‘You are lucky, you are blind. You know what you’re fighting.’”

During his year in the International Education Policy (IEP) Program, the Michigan-native made a good start toward his goal, organizing many events aimed at helping his peers better understand what students with disabilities go through, including an international conference focused on supporting students with disabilities in higher education and participatory events such as Dining in the Dark.

“Nick Hoekstra embodies the fine qualities of students in the International Education Policy Program: a commitment to lead so all children can learn what they need to become architects of their own lives; ambitions to support educational change that exceed the resources he currently controls; and ingenuity to collaborate with others building networks for continuous improvement to produce 21st-century education,” says Professor Fernando Reimers, faculty director if IEP. “In the steps he has already taken professionally, and in those he plans to still take to advance educational inclusion around the world, Nick’s actions exemplify [an] idea of Helen Keller, that ‘Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.’”

Upon learning that he had been honored with the Intellectual Contribution/Faculty Tribute Award for the IEP, Hoekstra answered some questions about his time at the Ed School and beyond.

What was your goal upon entering the Ed School? My goal was to understand the ways in which policies at a national level trickle-down to effects on education locally.  Specifically, what I wanted to understand were the policies that influence special, or “inclusive” education. I have seen how systems of special education work in other countries and how they work in the U.S; I wanted to understand what creates those differences.

Is that goal any different now? When I entered HGSE, I only had the most vague idea of how schools and governments interacted through policy. I understand this system much better, but I think where my goals have changed is in my increasing appreciation for the importance of education research. Now, when I hear about any policy or intervention, I can’t help but question the evaluation used in reporting the results. I think this is important and will be hugely influential in special education in the future.

What are your post-HGSE plans? Take over the world through the minds of the youth. Obviously.

What is something that you learned at HGSE that you will take with you throughout your career in education? I learned that “networking” is well and good, but forming real relationships with people is of much greater value.

What advice do you have for next year’s students going through your program? Figure out what most drives you and dedicate your time and classes toward that topic.  We have a lot of opportunities at Harvard and, while it might be really cool to take one class in every area, it is much more powerful to use your passion to shape the course of your studies.

Also — and this is something I’ve noticed in every place I have been — you do not become a leader by trying to be a leader. I know people who have tried this approach and they fail. You become a leader through your actions.  You will contribute so much more to the world when you focus your energies on doing things that matter to you regardless of the popularity or prestige it may garner.

The number one, biggest surprise of the last year was …This awesome Trader Joe’s brand honey Greek yogurt. Really. Its good stuff, I had never even been to a Trader Joe’s before coming to Boston. For a full list of this year’s recipients, visit


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