During my time at Harvard, I have heard many conversations about learning. Most recently, I listened to professors at the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching symposium swap ideas on methods to foster student growth in the classroom.
Some professors told stories, others listened and asked questions and commented. How should courses be designed to captivate students? What makes students consume themselves in learning? How do we spark curiosity and passion in an age when all the information in the world is right at the student’s fingertips?
I am excited that conversations about learning are happening at Harvard, but to answer these questions we need to acknowledge that there are different types of learners. For many students, myself included, just as much learning happens outside of academic buildings as it does in lecture halls and seminar rooms. I spent many hours in my past three and a half years at Harvard volunteering off-campus. From Allston to Dorchester to New Orleans to the Navajo Nation, service has provided me with the opportunity to apply what I learn in the classroom to the world around me.
As a mentor for Strong Women Strong Girls, I may have learned more from my girls than they learned from me. I mentored in Cambridge and Allston, and my girls taught me about the struggles they face with their educations, and they showed me that profound inequality exists just miles away from one of the most renowned beacons of higher education in the world. Many of my mentees were caught between two worlds, trying to reconcile the cultures of their parents with their own identities. In this way, my mentees reminded me of my fifth-grade self, if my younger self had an iPhone and knew how to text.
My mentoring experience showed me firsthand how rapidly the world is changing, and how childhood and education have become vastly different in just one generation. I couldn’t really grasp how quickly the world was shifting until I realized how challenging it is to teach fifth-graders who are constantly distracted by the latest smartphone or tablet.
Through public service, I have also witnessed how the world has stagnated. Directing a trip for Alternative Spring Break gave me the opportunity to travel with a student team to New Orleans to tutor children and assist with legal paperwork for residents whose lives were damaged by Hurricane Katrina. For many residents, life is frozen just as it was in 2005. Children have massive gaps in their educations, and people are still waiting to receive government funding to repair their damaged residences. As a government concentrator, I study these public infrastructures, and I was taken aback by the tremendous damage caused when these systems fail or are plagued by inefficiencies.
I had witnessed injustices in society well before my time at Harvard, but my involvement in service has changed my perspective on the role that I can play in addressing these issues. For several years, I worked with inequity issues on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, and Harvard offered the chance to involve my peers in these efforts through starting an Alternative Break trip during J-Term. My peers and I worked in some of the most remote rural areas of the country, performing health screenings on students in Head Start day care centers and delivering firewood to elderly Navajo who could not leave their homes.
I oriented my career goals around working to alleviate health and education disparities like the ones I witnessed on the Navajo Nation. The level of disparity we witnessed between places like Cambridge and the rural parts of the Navajo Nation was equivalent to the disparity between developed and developing countries. The experience was provoking and shocking, but made me and many of my peers reconsider our conception of poverty in the United States.
While much of my learning happened outside of lecture halls, I am going to dedicate my next two years to teaching in the classroom, as a member of Teach For America in Boston. I believe that my life has benefited tremendously from my academic experience, but my path has been shaped by my experience with service. When we talk about improving learning, perhaps the most effective solution is to look beyond the classroom to supplement the learning done inside Harvard’s halls.
As students, we can’t Google an experience or Wikipedia how we feel when we see something firsthand. What if we tried to spark curiosity by allowing students to take in what they are studying from a source other than a PowerPoint slide? My service experience at Harvard did just that, and although my path has led me back into the classroom, I hope that my students will learn just as much from the world around them as they do from me.
If you’re an undergraduate or graduate student and have an essay to share about life at Harvard, please email your ideas to Jim Concannon, the Gazette’s news editor, at Jim_Concannon@harvard.edu.