It was September 10, 2001, orientation day for those of the incoming Master in Public Administration program. None had reason to know that within 24 hours, the world of public service – the world at large, for that matter – would be turned violently upside-down.
But each knew his or her own small place, and each was there to share it for exactly 30 seconds before MPA program director Sue Williamson would blow her whistle to indicate time was up. So one by one, they stood.
One was the former Prime Minister of Mongolia, who spoke of being recently deposed in a silent coup. Another was the leader of the opposition party in Zimbabwe, who now had a bounty on her head. There was a Jamaican, who promised to use Harvard’s vast educational resources to help bring clean water to the third of his country that was presently without.
Then stood the second-term state lawmaker with an accent that rang distinctly more local.
“I’m Rachel Kaprielian,” she said. “I’m from Watertown, and I took the 71 bus to get here.”
She was State Representative and Rappaport Urban Scholar Rachel Kaprielian, to be precise, and when she looks back on that day some two decades later, she remembers less about the differences in the voices, and more about the collective resolve in the faces.
“I remember thinking that there was this whole world of people trying to make change and make a difference, and I felt a part of that,” she said. “Still to this day I feel the belonging with people all over the world just trying to do that.”
Kaprielian’s professional landscape has been varied ever since – Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, Massachusetts Office of Labor and Workforce Development, U.S. Health and Human Services, and most recently McDonald’s Corporation – but there is a thread that binds: the desire to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
“There are public servants, and the souls of public servants, in all kinds of roles, not just in government,” she said. “That comforts me, that there are always good people trying to make a positive difference and live a life of meaning.”
The roots of that meaningful life, for Kaprielian, began with a working-class Watertown upbringing and a culture of respect for public life and public service. Her mother was a devoted social worker who spent the bulk of her career securing homes for foster children across the state. Her father was a proud former Army pilot who spoke fondly of his years in the military.
It was a constituent services internship with then-Congressman Joe Kennedy while she was a student at Holy Cross that fed Kaprielian a first-person taste of her own, and it was powerful.
“I was talking to World War II veterans, trying to help them get housing and services from the VA, and it was just a great experience,” she said. “I was really lit up doing that. I wanted to help them in any way I could.”
She returned home to Watertown after graduating Holy Cross, and she was soon knocking on local doors, pouring her heart and soul into the campaign of a local substitute teacher running for state rep.
A later it was 1991, and a 22-year-old Kaprielian was at the kitchen table with her family, talking about the prospect of working on a campaign for a city council seat, when her father looked up and uttered what would become fateful words.
“Why don’t you run?”
So after a moment’s hesitation, she did. Door by door, street by street, Kaprielian began walking Watertown in support of her own campaign, simply highlighting a paper map to indicate where she’d been and with whom she’d spoken.
She talked authentically about the things that were important to her, like curbside recycling, a permanent senior center, and getting the budget under control. She shared that her grandparents had come as immigrants to raise her father, and that she grew up on Mount Auburn Street. And in each case, she asked for one of their four votes for the at-large city council seat.