Articles by Punit Shah

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Last week, I helped launch a campaign for President of the United States. I’m a blogger and foreign policy advisor, and we already have a multitude of other advisors, a campaign manager, press secretary, and even an embedded reporter.

Okay, so this isn’t exactly a real campaign. Instead, it’s a simulated presidential election for a class I’m taking at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) on political communication. Instead of just learning how campaigns are run and how to deliver messages to voters, we actually give speeches, write press releases, and then help our candidate prepare for the debate that serves as the capstone to the course. Throughout, we’re receiving feedback and lectures by the professor, who is an active political consultant and manager on actual presidential campaigns.

Taking courses at Harvard’s graduate school is one of the lesser-used treasures of Harvard. If the 1000+ courses offered through the College and the Faculty of Arts and Science aren’t enough, there are 1000s of additional courses available through Harvard’s graduate schools. Are you deeply interested in policy making and politics? Take a class at the Kennedy School. Want to revolutionize education? Try out the Graduate School of Education (GSE). Interested in the legal issues surround tech companies? Cross register at Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. Cross registering is simple: just get permission of the professor, get a form signed, and then you’re in. Many concentrations (such as mine, Social Studies) even offer concentration credit for a number of the courses.

While I took the political communication class on a whim, having the Graduate School of Education has both inspired me to write on education for my senior thesis and learn more about my specific topic, education technology, before I begin my research this summer. I took the course “Education Policy Analysis and Research in Comparative Perspective” last semester where I learned to think about how to implement programs and policies in practice, considering economic, political, and physical constraints. While the College’s strength is in liberal arts, providing a strong foundation in theory, this shift in thought forced me to think in new ways.

Beyond the course, taking classes at the graduate schools also offers a number of prospectives from people outside of academia. The GSE course included a number of guest lectures from educational entrepreneurs, heads of international aid agencies, World Bank economists, and more. Through the Kennedy School course, I’ve even heard from one of Obama’s current speech writers. Having taken the courses, I have been able to meet the students at the respective graduate schools, who are experienced in their respective disciplines and can provide perspective on what it’s like to actually work in the field in the real world. Finally, you’re able to build out a network of professors in subjects you’d like to get to more involved in; in fact, my GSE professor is actually helping me with my thesis over the coming year.

While the College offers plenty of courses, exploring the graduate schools is yet another way to learn about subjects in greater depth and try something new!

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First off, congratulations to all of the newly admitted students! Students on campus are really eager to meet all of you for Visitas, Harvard’s prefrosh weekend.

There’s been a good amount of discussion around a recent article from US News & World Report (and a rebuttal published as a staff editorial in The Crimson representing the opinion of many students on campus). The debate surrounds the issue of student and faculty interaction at Harvard. I remember having questions on this myself before coming to Harvard, having heard both sides of the debate then. Thus, I thought I’d provide my perspective on the question, “Do Harvard students and faculty interact?”

The Good:

There are plenty of opportunities for student-faculty interaction, hands down. Just last night, six students and I invited the three professors of my Computer Science course on Privacy and Technology to my house’s faculty dinner: FAS Dean Michael Smith, Prof. James Waldo, and Prof. Latanya Sweeney. The course is just 30 students, and with three professors, we’ve been able to really get to know the professors and vice versa; in such a small setting, they get to know us by name. Over dinner, we talked about the work they’ve done in research and their career; for example, Prof. Waldo was involved in the creation of the Java programming language while Prof. Sweeney has been involved in a number breakthroughs in demonstrating holes and privacy issues surround common security practices in technology and biometrics. They also got to know us and our interests.

Beyond faculty dinners, there are also plenty of opportunities to get to know faculty members. We can take any faculty member to the dining hall at no charge for any meal. Almost all hold office hours just for students to get to know them. There are plenty of small classes after the introductory courses, which give you more opportunities to meet faculty; my research tutorial this semester has just ten students. Of course not all course are small, but there are plenty to choose from for those who are interests including plenty taught by senior faculty and about 130 Freshman Seminars just for first-years (mine was On the Origin of Morality, Rights, and Law with renowned Prof. Alan Dershowitz). Research and departmental jobs on campus also provide opportunities to interact with faculty in an alternate setting. And finally, every senior is offered the opportunity to write a thesis of original research (or creative work in some departments) under the close supervision of a faculty members; my concentration, Social Studies, actually requires this and is one reason why I’m excited for next year.

The Challenge:

I came from a small, nurturing high school. My largest class was about 20 students. It was hard not to get to know the faculty members just because of the close environment. Harvard, like any university of its size, is certainly different.

Instead of having teachers come to me, at Harvard I had to take the initiative to go seek out professors during their office hours or make a consorted effort to get to know them. As a freshman, this was certainly intimidating; it’s natural to question why someone who won a Nobel Prize or who worked as the President’s top economic adviser would want to take time to speak to an undergraduate who certainly knows very little on their subject of expertise. But once I realized that they’re at here in part because they want to work with students and it’s part of their job, it became easier. Last semester, I took a course on econometrics with about 200 students. I met the professor for lunch a few times, went to his office hours, asked for his advice on my post-graduation plans and on research, and by the end of the course felt we got to know each other. I would feel comfortable going to his office hours in the future to just chat, and I could say this for all the professors I’ve had for larger lecture courses where I made an effort to meet them outside of class and for all the professors I’ve had for smaller courses and seminars.

Certainly, it’s hard to meet every single one of of your professors between course work, extracurricular activities, and other time constraints; not all students necessarily see this as a priority amongst the other on-campus opportunities. However, if you make an effort to get to know at least one or two faculty members a semester as I was advised freshman year and have tried to do, you have the opportunity to see inside some of the brightest minds and gain access to ideas, opportunities, and friendship from a set of people who really care about students.

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One thing I didn’t expect coming to Harvard are the number of international opportunities, generally funded by the university or other means, that allow students to explore the world. This spring break, I traveled to Dubai for an academic, cultural, and social exchange conference through the Harvard College in Asia Program (HCAP). Over the week I saw and learned about the United Arab Emirates, but more importantly, I made a really close group of friends from both Harvard and abroad.

The HCAP experience is a set of seven conferences that take place at Harvard and across Asia with all expenses paid except airfare. Each February, nearly 50 students from the top universities in their country come to Harvard for a week-long conference Harvard students put on for them. After a few lectures in the morning, we show the students Boston and give them an introduction to American culture. Then, over spring break, approximately 70 Harvard students split into six groups to visit one of the six partner universities over spring break. We aim to make the conferences accessible to all by having all expenses covered while abroad and by helping students gain university funding for the flight if they are unable to pay. This year, we partnered with schools in Dubai, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Mumbai, Seoul, and Tokyo.

Participating in HCAP and this trip to Dubai have been experiences I could never have imaged I doing just three years ago as a high schooler. My trip to Dubai took myself and ten other Harvard students abroad. We visited with high profile speakers such as the US Consulate General to the UAE to a leader in the push for opening medical tourism facilities in Dubai in order to learn about healthcare in the the region, the theme of this year’s conference. But after the academic portion of the conference, the American University of Dubai students took us for sightseeing, to the beach, and to their favorite hang-out spots. From the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest man-made structure, to hidden gems like an Indian street food restaurant, we saw all aspects of Dubai and gained a thorough appreciation of the locals’ propensity for setting world records. The students were frank about life there, both about the  opportunities they’ve had in Dubai as well as the darker side of the city with workers living in harsh conditions to enable the emirate’s quick growth.

Spending nearly every waking hour with both my Harvard peers and having my life saved from crazy drivers by the Dubai students served as an effective formula to create strong bonds. Indeed, the relationships I built on previous HCAP trips I took to Singapore and Tokyo persist. I’ve received emails asking for a place to stay from my friends abroad, and I know if I ever travel through Asia, I  have a bed waiting for me. These bonds have become even stronger in the past; HCAP’s first president eventually married a student he met while at the conference abroad. While I may never have that strong of a bond with the students abroad or even see some of them again (except possibly through Facebook), they have challenged me to think deeper, question assumptions, and peer outside my American paradigm for viewing the world.

Here are some photos from the trip:

HCAP on Jumeirah Beach

Spelling HCAP on Jumeirah Beach


The view from the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest man-made structure

The view from the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest man-made structure

Taking a break from the desert safari through the sand dunes outside Dubai

Taking a break from the desert safari through the sand dunes outside Dubai

Taking a camel ride after the safari.

Taking a camel ride after the safari

Visiting the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which honors the popular founder of the UAE

Visiting the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the eighth largest mosque in the world, which honors the popular founder of the UAE

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Managing 350 performers for four sold-out performances of four hour each? I would have said this was impossible a month ago, but my job as producer for the past couple weeks has been to provide some organization to, Ghungroo, the largest student-run production on campus.

Ghungroo is an annual cultural show held in early March by the Harvard South Asian Association. For me, the show extends far beyond the dances, skits, and music acts that make up the show. Rather, the show is the largest moment where our student organization builds the community of students excited about South Asian culture, performance, and pushing the limits of what they thought they would be able to do. Over half of the students are of non-South Asian descent and the vast majority have never danced before. After the performance, many students stay close to their peers in their dances. On the final night of the performance, nearly a hundred alumni from the show’s generation-long history return to cheer on the current performances.

Producing a show of this scale is a major feet. Apart from booking spaces, coordinating rehearsals, managing our technical and production staff with the help of our amazing directors Alethia, Jeff, and Sharmila, and selling over 1000 tickets, we’re maintaining a full course load and (ideally) still getting sleep and seeing our friends. But while we put in hundreds of hours over the month, I gained the confidence to mange people and play a critical part in creating something far larger than what I could do by myself. Harvard is great at showing its students that if they put their mind to something, it’s pretty tough to reach their limits; I have to say this definitely applies here. But as with any student activity, the best part is definitely meeting the other students and making friendships that far outlast the show.

Like any show, the most exciting day is the actual performance. Ghungroo is known for its colorful costumes, intricate set, and exorbitant energy:

The "Bollywood Oldies" dance

The "Bollywood Oldies" dance

The "Nepali" dance

The "Nepali" dance

The glow-in-the-dark moon seen on the set during a filler by a dancer wielding glow sticks.

The glow-in-the-dark moon seen on the set during a filler by a dancer wielding glow sticks.

Lastly, sorry for the my lull in writing. With Ghungroo now over, I should hopefully have more time to provide updates on the blog. Next up: an update on my spring break trip to Dubai with the Harvard College in Asia Program exchange conference.

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Living in New Mexico, it can be somewhat of a challenge to go back for every break – with no direct flights and the resulting expensive tickets, I’m usually stuck back East while nearly all my friends go visit friends and family in their hometowns. For every fear I had coming this far from college of never being able to visit home or of being isolated during the vacations, I’ve found friends who have been more than willing to open their homes and offer a place for me and the plenty of other students who come to our campus from across the nation and world.

This year, my friend Kristen ’12, a fellow Mather House resident, invited me to go stay with her and her family at their home. Days after Harvard-Yale Weekend, which my fellow bloggers have covered from all angles, I turned in a problem set, packed my bag, and took the next bus to Cape Cod with Kristen where her family lives. This was actually my first overnight trip in Massachusetts outside of the Boston area; I’m admittedly very often stuck in the Harvard Bubble where so many interesting events are going on, all my friends are, and a steady pile of schoolwork ensures I remain tied to my desk for much of the week. So needless to say, I was excited to get out and take a small vacation before finals period.

Encountering one of the less boisterous seagulls.

Encountering one of the less boisterous seagulls.

Over the few days, we visited the beach where I encountered the seagulls I only previously saw through postcards of Cape Cod, attended a high school football rivalry game, watched my first episode of Glee (I will admit, I judged this show before watching any of it), and joined Kristen’s extended family for Thanksgiving dinner. Coming from a family where we put hot spices into pretty much anything that hits the table, it was great to also experience the diversity of holiday traditions by visiting friends. The weather may have been cold – certainly a foreshadowing to what is to come in the winter – but the food and company were certainly warm. Joining Kristen and I was another friend from Mather House who was with her mother visiting from Manchester, UK.

Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving dinner!

Through Harvard’s House system through which upperclassman live, I’ve made many great friends. My only hope now is that they’ll visit my family as well out in New Mexico!

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With national elections just finishing, it’s time for the annual elections for President and Vice President of the Undergraduate Council (UC), Harvard College’s student government. Of course, being at this campus, the campaign is run by former student staffers from the Obama and McCain campaigns, so each side has it’s set of students serving as campaign and finance managers, in communications teams, on ground operations, and more.

Like any good political campaign, we started by building up our political base. I’m working on the Ebrahim|Cao campaign, where we’re working on, among other issues, to keep the momentum up on initiatives to improve student social life on campus. Led by Senan ’12 and Bonnie ’12, we built up a platform, worked out a messaging strategy, designed and developed a website, and gathered up students to fill all the positions on the campaign. As required by the UC’s Election Commission, a student-run body setup just to administer the rules for the elections, we gathered hundreds of signatures to get onto the ballot.

Senan '12 and Bonnie '12

Finally, once campaigning started last Monday, we tried to deliver our message to every student on campus. Personal and listserv emails. Yelling with a giant poster near the Science Center. Knocking on nearly every dorm room door in the College. Further, to validate out candidates platforms, we’ve tried to reach out to the wide diversity of student groups on campus. We sit down with the group – often in a debate with the other tickets – and then hope to get an endorsement from their group if they see our ticket as being the most effective way forward for their group and the student body. But regardless of how we push our message, it’s a lot of talking, meeting people, and getting psyched! Everyday through this period, we’re required to submit finance reports on our spending: all elections are funded by the UC  up to $400 minus any fines levied against the campaign for a wide variety of violations like forgetting to include voting information on campaign materials or talking to student groups a few days too early. All three of the tickets running have fines running against us – the Election Commission is strict!

We’ve finally transitioning into the GOTV (“Get out the Vote”) period where we’re emailing all of our friends individually – collectively reaching thousands of people – and getting them to cast their ballots online during the election period ending Thursday. That evening, we’ll all gather in a room and hopefully see the ideal result of our efforts: a personal visit from the Election Commission Chair and Harvard Glee Club.

We’ve got some worthy opponents this year: the Coe|Li and Jones|Davis tickets. The latter pair, running with the 90s-era website and slogan “Until we Run Out of Money, or Get Removed from Office,” has offered a campaign centered on direct democracy; they already held a vote on what to do with the remaining $20.10 of their campaign funds. The student body’s decision? Buy a small animal. They actually did it, buying a Cuban Tree Frog. Some have called them the “joke ticket” running for humor rather than votes. I’ll just call them inspiring.

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Eighteen one-on-one interviews in five days, a 2000-word essay (written in the 18 hours before it was due), and a final 45-minute interview to — quoting a few friends — “test how well you handle pressure.” This describes my the components of my experience in The Crimson‘s Turkey Shoot, a process by which our daily newspaper chooses its president and top leaders for the upcoming calender year.

I’m shooting for “Director of Web Strategy,” a new position on the publication that aims to bring a greater emphasis on our web product and blogs to ultimately improve our online experience and expand online revenue. It’s exciting because even while in college, I can make an impact on a site that reaches tens of thousands of people a day and helps keep our community informed. But the road to it is no simple ordeal. To shoot, I wrote a statement of purpose in a surprisingly constraining 2000-words after talking to the outgoing president, managers, and editors across our building. The following week, “shooters” as students like me are known interview one-on-one with each editor who would like to deliberate on the  new office-holder through a process affectionately and humorously known as “schmoozing.” Finally, there is that final interview where each of your deliberators sit together, keeping you on your toes for 45 minutes; for positions like President or Managing Editor, there can be 25 or more for more deliberators. Upon writing, I’m currently finishing up my 18 schmoozes.

Students here throw themselves into everything they do, extracurricular activities being no exception. With a talented set of peers, getting the opportunity to lead organizations can thus be a rigorous process. The Crimson‘s is by far the most intense I’ve seen; almost every small and large organization makes do with simple elections or applications. In the middle of it, “the Shoot” as it’s commonly known can seem a bit absurd just to figure out who’s going to lead our publication. It probably is Actually, it definitely is a bit absurd of a process, but by taking a moment as an organization to critically think about our long-term vision, there emerges a consistently amazing set of  leaders who edit and mange almost every part of the publication from content to advertising to even printing (we are one of a few papers in the nation that owns our own presses).

And so while the process is intense, it shown me the possibilities that exist upon bringing together motivated students and giving them a few resources. After hearing and reading about everyone’s ideas and talents over the past week, those possibilities seem almost endless.

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Whenever I go home, the typical conversation when I meet people goes something like:

“What are you majoring in?”

“Social studies!”

“What? Like that class I took in fourth grade?”

Yes, I’m in probably the worst-named concentration at Harvard, but also (in my opinion) the most interesting and flexible. I basically get to take any class in the social sciences and count it towards my concentration. Then, senior year, I write a thesis on a topic of interest after conducting research.

This past week, I just declared my focus field, the selection of classes that define what you choose to focus on within the social sciences. My focus field – “Political Economy, Technology, and the NGO-Government Complex” – looks at how new technologies and NGOs affect development and economic and political outcome in Latin America.

The story of my focus field originates a few thousand miles away in Argentina, where Harvard sent me this summer on a fellowship. Working at a microfinance NGO in La Plata, Argentina, I saw first hand how governments, foreign aid, NGOs, and technology can work together to give citizens new economic opportunities. In between meeting their loan recipients, I worked on implementing a new IT system for the organization as well as experiencing the World Cup (which they take really, really seriously, by the way). But I saw that for almost every client we spoke with form the bank, each was excited about how they wanted to use their profits to bring their children out of poverty through education. I also noticed that many countries like Uruguay were spending on programs like One Laptop per Child while there was still limited data on how this can actually help students come out of poverty despite the dreams of the international community.

What do you get combining a desire to go back again to Latin America on Harvard’s dime; an interest in economics, political science, and computer science; and the flexibility of Social Studies? For me, I got my focus field. I still have a lot to do, but I’m excited about what I’ll be able to find (and experience during my next trip to Latin America!).

Me with one of our bank’s clients

Me with one of our bank’s clients

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