As thousands of Harvard students celebrate their graduation in grand style, the first graduating class from a project across the river will depart with little fanfare but immeasurable success.
Among today’s (June 4) College seniors are students who worked at the Harvard Allston Education Portal, an academic collaboration that connects families in Allston and Brighton with Harvard’s vast intellectual resources.
The portal, located in a bright section of the one-story building at 175 N. Harvard St. with a large open area and cluster of computers as well as individual meeting rooms, is a multiuse center of learning for community residents, offering a series of educational programs run in part by Harvard undergraduates.
“The mission of the portal is meant to be a very powerful reflection of current educational priorities at Harvard. It’s a way for the community to be a partner with us as we engage and profoundly rethink how we teach,” said Rob Lue, Education Portal faculty director, professor in the practice of molecular and cellular biology, and director of Life Sciences Education at Harvard.
The site opened last July with math and science programming for small groups of children and one-on-one mentoring sessions. Today it includes a faculty lecture series featuring professors from the University’s new General Education curriculum, a writing program, as well as a new public speaking course. It currently serves 86 children and is one of several new Harvard-sponsored community programs and neighborhood improvement projects under way in Allston.
With the new Ed Portal programming, “the idea was to bring Harvard’s General Education program and our latest thinking on how to teach issues of wide concern to the Ed Portal as well,” said Lue.
Lue selected the original group of mentors from a diverse pool of applicants. All six were students with a passion for math and science in addition to a proven record of outreach and service. They leave Harvard today enriched not only by their college education, but by their work at the Ed Portal as teachers and mentors. Below are profiles of three of these dedicated students.
Becoming a mentor was always part of the plan for Hannah Chung. As a young teen, the Austin, Texas, math wiz honed her skills at a regular summer math camp where she studied college-level material and developed important relationships with mentors.
“[At math camp] I looked up to all of these [student counselors] and it just really got ingrained in me that I wanted to do the same thing when I was older.”
Chung, a chemical and physical biology concentrator who graduates today with a secondary concentration in mathematical sciences, mentored students at the Ed Portal in math, chemistry, and physics. One of her most rewarding experiences was seeing one of her young mentees, who was struggling with math, bring in a school quiz with a perfect score.
“That was just so exciting,” said Chung, “to see that our work had a positive effect.”
Chung’s experience at the Ed Portal will have a positive impact on her summer plans. She leaves this month for Tanzania where she will work to educate people about HIV/AIDS. After that she is considering pursuing an M.D./Ph.D., possibly focusing on a career in public health.
“I definitely think that working with the portal has kept me in this frame of mind where I want to help other people develop, no matter what situation I find myself in.”
The chance to build bridges was a critical part of Jimmy Yang’s decision to work at the Ed Portal.
“I saw the description of the program and it just seemed so amazing,” said Yang, who welcomed the opportunity to reach out to local community members and develop a strong academic partnership with them. “I knew I had to be part of this special project.”
Yang, who leaves Harvard today only to return in the fall as a first-year student at the Harvard Medical School, was influenced early on by a mentor. It was a scientist, a friend of the family, who opened up the world of experimentation to the young Yang, further fueling his childhood obsession with botany. He recalled that one of his earliest experiments, conducted with the help of his mentor, was determining the antibacterial properties of certain herbs.
“[Realizing] that I could make scientific discoveries was the best thing ever.”
At the Ed Portal, Yang brought his enthusiasm for hands-on learning to his students, helping them explore the wonders of science with simple household products like vinegar and baking soda, which, when combined produce an interesting — and fun — chemical reaction.
“What I wanted to show my own mentees was … that you can really see science all around you,” he said.
Clinical work and research lie ahead for Yang, who is interested in transplantation surgery. But teaching is another goal for the biochemistry concentrator, whose desire to give back through education was shaped by his work at the Ed Portal.
“This experience has taught me that I can inspire other people [and] it really makes me want to pursue a career in teaching because it makes me realize I can actually make a difference in someone else’s life.”
An Ed Portal science experiment involving first- and second-graders grinding up cereal in a bowl, and then using a magnet to coax iron from its crushed flakes, made its mark on a 7-year-old participant, as well as mentor Bianca Calderon.
On a trip to the pediatrician, the young girl, her mother recounted, promptly informed the doctor that she had cereal every day because of its iron content and iron’s importance to the body.
“She actually understood the principles and she was only 7. … Hearing stories like that really makes it worth all the time you put into it,” said Calderon.
Calderon’s passion for science developed at a similarly early age, when she made her mother buy her a copy of a massive book with endless science experiments for kids.
“I wanted to learn everything about the natural world,” she recalled.
Calderon, who hails from Ohio, plans to work at the Cleveland Clinic on genetic research before heading to medical school and hopes to one day work as a reproductive endocrinologist, said her experience with the Ed Portal reminded her about the wonders of science and reinforced her own love of the discipline.
“To see the world through a child’s eyes, where everything is new to them and fascinating and exciting, … it makes you excited again, and I think it helps us remember why we chose to be scientists in the first place.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of the ongoing collaboration, said Lue, is the connection it fosters between Harvard and its surrounding community.
“It’s really an opportunity,” he said, “for the community to come face to face with the human side of academic Harvard. These are Harvard students, faculty, and staff, people that are doing this because they are committed to the idea of a relationship.”
Cathi Campbell, an Allston mother of two children who attended the Ed Portal for one-on-one mentoring and the science “club” program for first- and second-graders, couldn’t agree more.
“The mentors convey a sense of their love of learning — and their love of being at Harvard — to the children. They are serving as true models for these young children, helping them understand that if they work hard at school and really follow through with their educations, their futures are limitless.”