Living a Dream: Hill Harper ’92


Hill Harper, HLS/KSG ’92, is a man living his dream. As a graduate of the Law School and Kennedy School, Harper could have had his pick of jobs in the legal profession or in government service. Instead, he currently has a starring role in the CBS series CSI: New York as Dr. Sheldon Hawkes and has been in various feature films and television programs, including City of Angels, Soul Food, and the Sopranos. As the guest speaker for the inaugural “Live Your Dream” event, Harper spoke to students about the path his life had taken, offered advice for navigating life after law school, and discussed one of his more recent productions, “Lackawanna Blues”, an HBO film that was screened as part of the event.

“There is a problem specific to students here…[it is the belief] that whatever you do you have to be really good at it,” said Harper at the Traphagen Distinguished Alumni Speakers Series dinner that kicked off the evening. Harper cautioned students however from feeling locked in to a career in law and urged instead that students be open to where their interests might take them.

“You never know where your success may come from,” noted Harper.

Harper was in the same entering class at HLS as Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) and Harper used Obama’s story as an example of how to follow one’s dreams. When Sen. Obama ran for Congress six years ago, he lost by double-digits. Though he was devastated, Obama ran again, this time for Senate, and won by double-digits. Harper believes that had Obama won the first time, he would not be the prominent national figure he is now. “The universe had a plan for him,” said Harper, and though he failed the first time out, his run for Congress exposed him to people who would help in his later run for Senate. Harper urged the audience to remember that even in failure can come something positive.

Harper also cautioned students against making decisions based solely on financial considerations. “If you’re making a decision solely based on money, it’s the wrong decision,” said Harper, acknowledging that money may play a factor but should never exist as the sole factor in a decision. Harper specifically warned of what he called “the golden handcuffs” which, according to Harper, can be anything that gets one stuck: “when you get caught doing something cause it looked like gold,” and “it keeps you attached to it,” then you have been ensnared by the golden handcuffs. It may be a job, a school, a relationship, etc. but Harper urged caution in getting too attached to things that could tie one down and prevent one from following their dreams.

“There’s no such thing as security,” Harper told the audience.

After the dinner followed a screening of “Lackawanna Blues” in which Harper starred. An autobiographical tale based on the critically acclaimed stage play by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Harper stars in the role of the author/narrator looking back on his childhood growing up in the town of Lackawanna, NY. A discussion followed the screening, moderated by Voltaire Sterling, 3L, with Harper and film critic Elvis Mitchell. During the post-film discussion, Hill continued some of the themes mentioned during the dinner, noting that the path to success is “about making sure that you’re staying absolutely present in your journey.” Hill also discussed with Mitchell the importance of black actors in film and the need to present positive portrayals of blacks in the media.

Voltaire Sterling, who moderated the panel, also helped organize the evening’s events. Sterling came up with the idea to host such an event to remind Harvard students of the opportunities that lie beyond the ivy walls. “[A]t one point or another, so many of us feel disillusioned here,” said Sterling. “I wanted to do something to encourage others and myself; to remind us of what we can potentially become in life, if we believe in the possibilities.”

Sterling hopes that Harper’s story will serve as inspiration to current and future HLS students. “Hill is,for me, the quintessential example of an HLS alumnus who has not limited himself to others’ expectations of who or what he should become in life,” said Sterling. “Instead, Hill took risks, defined and pursued his own passion. That’s powerful…..I hope that his story encourages students to live whatever may be their own dream(s).”

Sterling hopes that the Live Your Dream event will hopefully become a regular fixture of the Law School. Sterling believes it can serve as a reminder that the possibilities are endless as to where to go from here. “It’s easy to follow the pack at a place like HLS that is arguably full of type-A personalities. But it’s by beckoning Langston Hughes’ call and “hold[ing] fast to dreams” that we will really become successful in our lives.”

As was made clear throughout the evening, Harper is a man who follows his own advice. In his comments, Harper noted that one of his favorite sayings is “You only live once and, if you do it right, once is all you need.” Hill Harper has already lived his life to the fullest, and he still has many, many years to go.

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