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Harvard’s Laurence Ralph Discusses His Journey to Becoming an Ivy League Professor

Laurence Ralph always wanted to make a difference in his community. After graduating from Georgia Tech, Ralph realized that he could further his research on the social ills in the black community by becoming a professor at Harvard University. Currently serving as an assistant professor of African American Studies, Ralph discusses his academic journey at an Ivy League institution.

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When did you make the choice to become a professor?

I grew up in Atlanta and became interested in social issues. I’ve always been interested in how social problems are understood and the relationship between grassroots community organizations and how they connect to larger intellectual problems. So it allows me to go back and forth between both worlds and do research and engage with enduring problems that scholars have forever been interested in. I can also look at how all of those problems are surfacing in local communities and how they are struggling with the problems.

Do you think getting an advanced degree is taken seriously by the hip-hop generation?

On one hand, there are the hustlers who strive for economic advancement by any means necessary and higher education is often more of a long-term goal. So it’s not about immediacy, it’s more about long-range planning. It doesn’t necessarily pay off in the way other businesses do. But then on the other hand, you have the hip-hop generation even in higher education and there’s a lot of interest in not only examining the musical form, historically, but also everything it’s producing, and what it can do politically.

What do you say to that kid who doesn’t see the value of a long-term investment in an advanced degree?

If you’re the type of person who wants flexibility and want to imagine a different goal for yourself that’s outside the box, it’s a good thing to do. I don’t work a nine-to-five. I teach classes, and I probably put in a lot of hours because I’m always reading and writing. But that’s something I enjoy doing. So, my kind of work, hobbies and leisure are intertwined. If you want that kind of lifestyle where you can do what moves you and it’s not a burden to you, it’s a good thing to consider.

Why is diversity important, especially on a campus like Harvard University?

Diversity programs have an intended focus of bringing perspectives to social problems. If you just have the same people from the same areas, continuously thinking about the same things, you often reproduce the same inequalities that always existed. But if you open pathways to different perspectives, you see the value of getting different insights and inputs and different life experiences. It benefits the institution.