Originally planning to study pre-med at Harvard College, Maria Zlatkova ’18 changed gears to computer science after taking CS50. Zlatkova discusses her time as an undergraduate at Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).
SEAS: What were some of the challenges of coming to Harvard from Bulgaria?
ZLATKOVA: Coming to Harvard from Bulgaria was a very big change both culturally and in terms of the environment I was used to. But there are a lot of support structures Harvard provides for international students. I joined the Woodbridge International Society, which was an awesome experience. International students participate in a freshman preorientation program where we have upperclassman mentors. We form “families” with two upperclassman students we can always turn to for help. It was the best way to transition into Harvard — meeting people from all over the world, but also knowing that others are going through the same things. I gained so much that I became a leader in that program in subsequent years. It was a really cool experience to welcome freshmen and show them everything Harvard has to offer.
SEAS: How did you decide to study computer science?
ZLATKOVA: I was set on coming to Harvard as pre-med and becoming a doctor. My parents are doctors, and I always admired their work and thought it was a very noble profession. But a lot of my peers were taking this class called “Introduction to Computer Science” (CS50); it was very popular, especially with international students. It was very challenging for me, coming in with barely any experience. But I ended up finding this amazing, supportive community that I didn’t encounter in the same way in most of my other classes. That’s what convinced me to consider switching gears into computer science. My first winter break, I remember going home and telling my parents that I didn’t know if I was good enough to do computer science. The community here, and having amazing mentor figures, convinced me that it doesn’t matter what kind of a background you come from as long as you put in the work.
SEAS: What appealed to you about computer science?
ZLATKOVA: The biggest appeal was the idea that you can combine these technical computer science skills with almost any other field to make an impact on problems you really care about. I realized that the skills that I’m getting are going to be worthwhile for whatever I want to do in the future.
SEAS: After taking CS50 as a freshman, you immediately took on a teaching role. What was that transition like?
ZLATKOVA: Jumping into a teaching role after never having done anything like that before was overwhelming and intimidating. I questioned myself a lot, feeling like an imposter in some ways, and wondered whether I would be effective enough as a teacher. But it was extremely empowering after my first section. Something in my head clicked, and I jumped into the material and told myself that I just need to communicate what I know. Since then, I’ve fully eliminated any anxious feelings going into teaching; it just feels like a natural role for me. I like helping people understand things and finding the best ways to communicate to people. The summer after my freshman year is when David Malan, [Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Computer Science,] approached me about potentially joining the heads team. I then went on to become involved with teaching even through my extracurricular activities when I became a seminar leader for the Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China (HSYLC), teaching high school students in Shanghai about musical theater and its history.
SEAS: What are some of the challenges of being on the heads team for an academic juggernaut like CS50?
ZLATKOVA: It is a big job, especially as a student when you’re trying to juggle your own classes. There’s a lot to try to manage both in terms of our 80-member staff and the 700 students who take the course each year. All of that coming together takes a certain level of planning. The most enjoyable moments have been interacting with students and staff. I’ve had a lot of “A-ha!” moments with students. It is amazing to watch them go from this state of mental block, where they see a problem and can’t even begin to think about how to solve it, to guiding them so they understand the lower-level aspects of the problem and can build their own reasoning.
SEAS: Tell us about your involvement with the Red Cross.
ZLATKOVA: I was inspired by a very defining moment for me. An eighth-grader at my high school passed away due to a cardiac emergency at the soccer field during a phys ed class. It was a tragic moment because nobody there was trained and could even try to perform this life-reviving procedure until medical help came. That was a big moment for me; I went from feeling incapacitated and angry that this tragedy happened to feeling like I have some responsibility to help prevent these things from happening. I became a CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] and AED [automated external defibrillator] instructor with the Red Cross. Teaching at Harvard and in the Cambridge community has been such a rewarding experience.
SEAS: Why has SEAS been a good fit for you?
ZLATKOVA: I’ve loved the emphasis that SEAS puts on entrepreneurship, design, and innovation. The School does that both with classes, but also with other activities that it offers its students. I’ve gotten to meet and work with amazing professors who have turned around the way I think about the fields that I’m involved in, and taught me to be very conscious about the impact of the things that we do. There are so many unpredictable ways that the products we build may impact the world. If we don’t think about them and make our design intentional, that’s very problematic.
This article was originally published in May on the SEAS website. It has been lightly edited.