When Carlos González Sierra, a graduate student at Harvard studying law and public policy, was elected president of the Harvard Graduate Council, it marked the first time the council had been led by a Latinx student. 

González Sierra arrived at Harvard as an undocumented student and has made his way to the forefront of Harvard graduate students as their representative, all while obtaining a law degree. “When I graduate next spring, I’ll get a JD [Juris Doctor] and an MPP [Master in Public Policy] from the law school and the Kennedy School of Government,” he shared with mitú over Zoom. “Right now I’m in D.C. doing a legal internship.”

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The Harvard Graduate Council, he explains, “Is the student government organization that represents the 12 Harvard graduate and professional schools. I was elected by the representatives of the individual schools last spring.”

González Sierra is the official student representative that communicates with the school’s administration. “My job is to advocate for student issue,” he says. 

It’s no small feat for a student of color to operate in a leadership role normally occupied by a white student. A recent tally by College Factual reports that of the roughly 13,000 students in a Harvard graduate program, only 7% are Hispanic or Latino, representing just over 1,000 total students. 

Courtesy of Carlos González Sierra

Because of this, González Sierra knows that it’s his responsibility to increase visibility across the board and champion more diversity on the council. “In addition to advocacy, I drive forward different initiatives that aim to bring students together, build community on campus, and support students in their efforts to improve the campus in different ways,” he says. “That was one of the motivators for me to want to run: to increase representation.” González Sierra hopes to ensure a more diverse representation of Harvard’s student body, as well as an increased participation in student affairs.

González Sierra is also one of the few graduate students in a four-year program, giving him more time on campus to see his initiatives through. For González Sierra, increasing visibility also means involving students who may only be at Harvard for one or two years.

“By the time they realize the work of the council and what it is, their time at Harvard is over,” he tells mitú. “One of the goals would be to increase the visibility of the council on campus. And not only increase visibility but increase opportunities for first-year and one-year graduate students to be able to get involved with the council.”

As the elected student representative, González Sierra’s approach is one based on outreach. He mentions the council’s periodic meetings, which take place regularly at each one of the 12 graduate schools. “We also revamped our board last semester and created more openings focused on student engagement,” he explains. “Now, in the fall when we have elections, there are more opportunities for incoming students to get involved with the council on the board.” 

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Reflecting on what it means to be a first-generation student, especially at a university as prestigious as Harvard, the council president reveals, “I think it’s a lot of learning through doing.”

Initially, González Sierra wasn’t even interested in law as a career path. “I was always interested in government policy,” he says, “and I had done a lot of work in the public sector before law school. I worked on some political campaigns. I worked in a congressional office for some time.” 

González Sierra then went abroad and returned to his home state of Pennsylvania, where he worked in the field of immigrant rights. He worked “with community-serving organizations and legal service providers to increase access to legal services in immigrant communities,” he says. “We would fund collaborations between nonprofit legal providers and community-based organizations.”

Courtesy of Carlos González Sierra

That work, especially in his interactions with lawyers involved with those organizations, inspired González Sierra to reconsider his career path. “Seeing the work that they did,” he explains, “that it was very client-focused, it was so intellectually challenging, and it was so significant for the people they were working with. I began to think maybe that was the right move for me, to go to law school.”

González Sierra faced some challenges while applying — the same ones he faced while applying as an undergrad — namely, being able to pay for school. “Thankfully, Harvard is one of the few schools in the U.S. that make it possible for undocumented DACA recipients or undocumented students to attend,” he describes, “either through need-based aid or a combination of need-based aid and loans without needing a co-signer.” 

Today, he’s one of Harvard’s most valuable students; someone who is creating a legacy for generations of Latinx students to come. “I was fortunate to get admitted to Harvard and be able to commit and realize my dreams of going in there and getting a great education.”