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Visitas Weekend has finally come! Every April, Harvard opens its gates to the admitted students for a jam-packed weekend full of diverse events, great food, and incredible conversations. This is an important weekend because the admitted students have to make the decision of where to spend their college careers. It’s an exciting time of college exploration and finding out if Harvard is right for you.

My favorite part about this weekend is meeting the Admitted Students- or as we call them at Harvard- the “Pre-Frosh.” Current students get the chance to host Pre-Frosh in their dorms during Visitas in order for a chance to see what it’s really like to go to Harvard. Hosts are also there to provide any kind of advice, guidance, or past experiences to help the Pre-Frosh make their decision. I signed up for 3 and I can’t wait to pick them up and show them around once they get here!

Another one of my favorite parts of this weekend is that Presencia Latina falls on the Friday of Visitas. Harvard’s Presencia Latina is a spectacular Latin Arts Showcase where groups from across the Harvard, Cambridge, and Boston communities can come together to celebrate the Latin culture. I really hope some of my Pre-Frosh can make it to the show! I was at Dress Rehearsal last night until the early morning so I know the show is going to be a great one, as always.

Another reason why this year is so special is because Presencia Latina has reached it’s 10th Year! That’s an entire decade of Latin Arts. I really appreciate that Harvard gives us the resources and space to celebrate a culture that means so much to me and I know that we’ll continue sharing this beautiful culture for years to come! That was one of my concerns about coming across the country to college- I thought I would lose my culture. Luckily, Harvard provides a ton of opportunities to celebrate the culture you grew up in as well as learn of the diverse set of cultures that make up Harvard’s student body. This weekend will be unforgettable.

To get a look in to what last year’s Presencia Latina looked like, check out this video!

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This past week was phenomenal. I can say this fairly because bad events occurred as well, but ‘tis life – nay – ‘tis a great life because I’m perfectly ecstatic with how things unfolded.

As I’ve stated (desperately) before, my well being was basically dependent on whether I go abroad this summer. At this point, I truly can’t think of any better way to improve my Spanish proficiency other than forcing myself to think, breathe, speak, and eat Spanish. I’m more than happy to report I’ll be doing all of the above for 8+ weeks this summer!

I’ve been scrambling to research and apply to many summer opportunities (including research and interning abroad) ever since my return to campus after J-term (January break/winter break) – so much so that it felt like a fifth class! Being a research assistant at the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory, which is more of a social science lab, has really made me miss wet labs (pipettes, microscopes, etc.). This isn’t to say I don’t like my job there because I definitely do and intend on working there for many more semesters! Seeing the economics/psychology behind so many common, daily tasks (such as first impressions) has truly propelled my curiosity. Nonetheless, wet labs were my focal exploration point throughout high school and this is an area I feel like I’ve been failing to pursue during my precious and fleeting time as an undergraduate. Therefore, I applied to various REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) programs at universities and companies as a Plan C.

Plan A and B were quickly formed after further investigation of the DRCLAS (pronounced Dr. Class, David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies) Summer Internship Program (SIP) as well as Sustainable Development Programs. I applied to work in Latin America and Mexico, and with luck on my side, I got accepted into both programs. My first choice is definitely interning in Latin America so that I can join my friends and teammates on Refresh Bolivia (a student run organization here at Harvard College) after my internship ends. Fun Fact: Refresh Bolivia was founded by a current senior who will be heading to Harvard Medical School this fall!! He’s been my friend since my freshman fall, but now I’m just star struck by him!!!!

Returning from my tangent, the real kicker is that my funding request was accepted as well! One of the main factors that initially attracted me to Harvard College was its incredibly generous financial support – both in and out of the classroom. Many have heard of Harvard’s renowned financial aid in the classroom, but during my first tour of the undergraduate campus, I was in shock that Harvard also financially supports its students in endeavors that make/keep us happy such as partying (safely of course!!!!) and working abroad!! I’m so beyond eternally grateful that my summer adventures will be partially funded so that I can avoid being an actual adult for that much longer by putting off organizing my finances.

The plot twist (cue scary music here) is that my funding request was approved for the Mexico Sustainable Development program when I prefer Latin America. When I spoke to a few friends, they only worried me by emphasizing how inflexible the protocol for summer funding is. Thank goodness they set my expectations low because that only set me up for a higher rise after I spoke to the faculty in the DRCLAS and OIP (Office of International Programs) offices who are currently working so that my funding can be transferrable in between the two DRCLAS programs. Everyone affiliated with Harvard University has been so kind and helpful that I doubt I could ever be thankful or appreciative enough!

I’ll definitely update when my summer plans are set in stone. For now, I can happily enjoy the present. Spring was here last week with temperatures in the high 60s(?), but now Spring is just near as everyone busts out their puffy jackets with a pout once again.

Things I’m looking forward to: my best friend from home visiting me this weekend!, catching up on sleep and classes (I feel guilty when I’m so behind on lectures!), my sorority’s (Kappa Alpha Theta) Spring formal, YardFest, Relay for Life, PreFrosh weekend … DUDE I LOVE SPRING

Also, HAPPY BIRTHDAY to our very own Jesse Sanchez!!!

Double also, best of luck to everyone waiting on decisions tomorrow. My judgement day was April 1st (April Fools Day – which is pretty cruel) so consider yourself lucky! Know that the Admissions staff is really in an unenviable position because there are SO many qualified applicants! Keep your heads up and whatever happens, happens for a reason!

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Last week, I had a depressing blog about my experiences with the (unavoidable?) demon popularly termed Sophomore Slump. BUT! I’m back a week later to uplift your spirits, happily reporting that this week has taken a turn back to happy norms – or as happy as possible in the gloomy presence of midterms and deadlines. Although the workload conditions haven’t altered much, the difference is that I’m not hating existence and my professors are once again able to heighten my intrigue with binary numbers and Aspartic catalysts, can I get a WOOT WOOT?

I pinpointed the root of my slumpish nature as my anxiety revolving around my summer plans and the big possibility of not being immersed in the love of the people I spent my first 18 years of life with; the alternative would be a cultural and/or scientific immersion. So the moral of the story is: I’m a brat. Clearly, I don’t have much to say on this topic because it happens so rarely ….… but having rough weeks is actually a great experience because I wouldn’t appreciate the good as much if it were good all the time.

There were two prominent things that helped me cope with my disaster week – one of them being my upperclassman house, Mather! (You can’t say it without an exclamation mark!) As I’ve said in previous posts, I’ve been feeling pretty stagnant with regards to my Spanish learning curve which has catalyzed my desire to study abroad. But since I’m a 20 year old brat who still gets homesick, I’d never be able to stick it out as a foreigner for a semester, so I’d ideally like to go somewhere this summer where I can think, speak, live, breathe and blink Spanish. My resident tutor (freshmen here call it proctor, but it’s more widely known as RA: Resident Adviser, basically someone older/wiser who lives in the dorm and repels chaos) and current Spanish 50 class TF (Teaching Fellow) holds a “Spanish Table” every Wednesday during dinner time and last Wednesday was my first (but definitely not last) partake. Spanish Table gives students a chance to have a meal over Spanish conversation. All levels are welcomed and encouraged. The atmosphere is really chill and not intimidating at all! Thinking and speaking Spanish outside of the classroom, in a casual setting, really refueled my excitement about the possibilities of going abroad! Southern California, I’ll thank you endlessly for literally being one of the most influential factors for shaping who I am – from the way I dress, think and speak – but I’ll be okay if we don’t see much of each other this summer.

Studying at a college so far away from home and with seemingly endless possibilities has really made me feel like a globalized person – or maybe just a country-ized person? I’ll earn the term “globalized” if I do indeed go abroad this summer (I’m typing with my fingers crossed here). Harvard offers a plethora of opportunities I never thought existed and recently, its international opportunities have really caught my eye. Everything from Harvard offered programs to non-Harvard programs (campus organizations like OCS: Office of Career Services will work with you to apply and even transfer credit!) to professors who offer to connect you with organizations such as WHO: World Health Organization (my Bioethics professor, Dr. Daniel Wikler, offered to do so!) is just so extraordinarily unbelievable that I can’t wrap half my mind around it. Living and thriving in an environment with massive opportunity, filled with driven people is truly a humbling experience, which brings me back to the second thing that helped me during my disaster week: talking with my best friend from home.

It’s strange how, for me at least, the beginning of college came concomitant with living in a split dimension: your high school life vs. your college life. It’s easy to get caught up in your busy college life, but during sophomore slump weeks, you just want to escape and I accomplished that by catching up with my besties from middle/high school.

I’m pretty confident when I claim that the Sophomore Slump has been a nationwide epidemic because a handful of both friends from home and Harvard have had rough weeks recently. (I partially blame pre-Spring Break Fever) So my best friend from high school, Emily, and I were retrospectively examining our lives (some pretty profound stuff if I dare say so myself) and she mentioned how college is an incredibly humbling experience in the realm of grades which help you realize how smart you are not. I wholeheartedly agreed as I thought about all my premed classes and how students legitimately earn A’s without the curve – snaps AND kudos to everyone because one form of encouragement wouldn’t be enough. This makes it really easy for the majority of students to feel stupid and unworthy, but I’d like to point out that these two things are mutually exclusive. I’m not sure if that makes things better, BUT at least it’s true! I’d like to remedy this situation by telling myself (and you!) that college isn’t all about the grades – it’s about the experiences too. When I look back at college, I won’t remember the 100% I got on my organic chemistry final (not based on a true story), but what will indeed stand out is that time my roommates and I watched scary movie trailers all night for no reason.

My take-home message would be to relax! I feel like 149% of the prospective students I come into contact with (their parents representing the extra 49%) expect that Harvard students are the definition of perfection and that our records/transcripts/etc. should have their own exhibition in the Smithsonian, BUT this is so wrong! Your imperfections shape you just as much as your more admirable qualities and admissions officers realize that you, buddy, are a package deal. Harvard students have their fair share of imperfections and rough weeks – and that’s perfectly fine.

 

Preemptively striking, Housing Day – the epic day that freshmen find out which upperclassmen house they’ll be residing in for their remaining years as an undergraduate – is in just one week! See for yourself why Mather! can’t be said, but only exclaimed!

*props to Scott for helping me share Mather! Love

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Remember in elementary school when venn diagrams were all the rage? Let’s get back into that mentality.

1. Southern California trumps wherever you are – similarity

Sorry I’m not sorry for being born and raised in the best place on this and any other alternate universe. I may no longer technically live there or spend much time there, but I’ll always identify with its casual culture. And with regards to its endlessly sunny weather, ignorance is bliss. C’mon, where else can you surf to school?

Here’s a snapshot of my man Kobe at the Vietnam airport: another not so subtle reminder that SoCal runs the world.

2. Priorities – similarity

When it comes to the three C’s, you know …

Cosmetics, Chocolate, & …

…Coffee!

the States and Vietnam have seriously got them on lock. The coffee is actually special coffee. It was one of those times when I was really glad my parents withheld information until after I tried and liked it! I hate to be living evidence that college catalyzes a caffeine addiction, but my affectionate feelings for coffee began this past summer due to the delectable and exquisite taste of Trader Joe’s coffee – so it doesn’t technically count, right??

Vietnamese coffee is practically a brand of its own though. Its power ingredient is condensed milk and it’s infamous for being really strong. Ease into this gateway drug, kids!

3. All of the lights – similarity

Thanksgiving 2011 was the first time I was in New York City during the holiday season. I got to watch the Thanksgiving Parade live and leisurely roam the lengthy avenues at my pleasure. Even with all the hype and high expectations about the city lights, it surely did not disappoint with its meticulous detail and ornate décor. 

Vietnam rings in 2012 with Tet about a month after the US does although they do not hesitate to celebrate with the States with their New Year as well. Downtown Saigon is currently resplendent with its various main roads and roundabouts brightly decorated. The main mode of transportation here in the city is by motorcycles, or as the locals call

them, ‘Hondas.’ Between my sister and me, it took about a week to pressure my parents into driving us around in Hondas even though rules of these Vietnamese roads are highly questionable. It’s so much easier to appreciate the lights on the back of a motorcycle (compared to a taxi) and I find it way more culturally immersive to have my mom lean over to a nearby biker at a red light to ask for directions.

But what is more culturally immersive is driving a motorcycle on my own! What up Asia

The topic of motorcycles brings us to our first few differences.

4. Tomato, potato; living room, garage – difference

Like New York City, Saigon’s real estate is limited, causing architects to exploit the third dimension of height. Most of the houses I’ve visited in Saigon have at least three and up to five floors! They remind me of Harvard entryways (which are like normal dormitory floors, but vertical and connected by a staircase). Due to the low supply of land, houses here don’t have garages! The Vietnamese with cars/Hondas use what Americans would call a living room as a garage. People just drive into the first room of their houses!! Most restaurants have valet parking, but some restaurants will let you drive right into the restaurants, which is actually the best kind of security for your car (in my opinion) +1 Vietnam.

5. Road Safety prevents Road Kill? – difference

As mentioned above, most Vietnamese people get around via Honda motorcycles. This method is not only more gas efficient, but also uses space more efficiently – I haven’t seen parking spaces for cars as of yet, unless of course you park on the side of the road, close your eyes, and hope that the other Hondas dodge it. All of these efficiency advantages fall to their death,

however, when you factor in travelling with your family. Kids can be seen wedged in between adults, which naturally seems like the least dangerous option, but standing up?? Also, here, plastic bags don’t seem to be too much of a safety hazard. I understand that you’re much more vulnerable to toxic gas emissions on a Honda compared to an enclosed vehicle, but using a plastic bag over the head as a preventative measure seems like risky business. I admire the Vietnamese for fearlessly confronting death, but not enough to let Vietnam win this one…+1 United States.

6. The FDA: The Food-Death Argument – difference

Go big or go home: why just confront death on the road when you can confront it at meal times too? I won’t believe you if you tell me this isn’t a question that’s been forever lingering in the back of your mind.

During my first night in Vietnam, I freaked out about seeing lizards chilling on the walls of restaurants. Good thing my aunt reassured me early on that lizards are seen as a “good intruder.” Lizards apparently eat ants, mosquitoes, and other gross things that are categorized as “bad intruders.” Now my scientific side would +1 Vietnam because major snaps for being green and exploiting the ecosystem but my leniency regarding cleanliness only goes so far.

 

I’m going to turn the other cheek and just blindly believe that the green liquid in the plastic bottles is soap that will be used to wash these dishes. I applaud your transparency Vietnam, but I do like the letter A’s not only on my report card, but also on the front windows of my favorite restaurants. Thus, +1 America.

7. The Health vs. Taste Controversy – undefined

Viet BLT, hold the L&T anyone?

A "bo bia ngot" street vendor: wrapped sugar sticks, shredded coconut & sesame seeds

Now I’m a level-headed, young woman of the Y2K+12, so I’ll compromise some cleanliness in order to please my taste buds. I’m an advocate for the growing popularity of food trucks in America so I’ll be a faithful advocate of street vendors here in Vietnam. I’m pretty confident when I say street vendors give you more bang for your buck and belly, but my confidence dwindles with regards to your digestive tract because no amounts of deliciousness validates an icky sicky day. Let’s just say my father will pay my tuition with less hesitation after some UHS (Harvard University Health Services) travelling sickness pills – two months ago when I went in to get vaccines in preparation for Vietnam, they helped me make sure that all my bases were covered!

As with most controversies, no clear winner is apparent at the moment, but bonus +1 UHS!

8. You are what you eat – too many variables

My mother openly voices that I’m approximately 3 magnitudes uglier when I’m tan. My determined endeavors to soak up the sun may seem like residual teen rebellion, but this recurring clash is truly a cultural one. Throughout history, Vietnamese people have appreciated lighter skin tones because it symbolized wealth since reduced sun exposure most likely meant you didn’t have to go outside and work. I, however, have adapted the more mainstream American way of thought that tan lines represent a sporty and adventurous personality. Even though some people have resorted to artificial means to imitate tans, surprise still struck me when the soap aisle at the supermarket could have been called the bleach aisle.

Although the featured ingredients of aloe vera, milk, and licorice extract seem to compose of a balanced diet, they also apparently help brighten your skin. This has made me weary every time I use unidentified soap to wash my hands. If only I packed a month long supply of Purell…

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My first formal exposure to the Spanish language (not counting Dora the Explorer) was in 8th grade where Introductory Spanish was a 6-week course offered as part of the Exploratory Wheel elective. Spanish class soon became a year-long course for me every year since then – even now in college!

I clearly remember the day in 8th grade when I became determined to acquire Spanish fluency. One of my good friends – endearingly nicknamed Briana Banana – raised her hand in the midst of silence during a writing exercise. She inquired about one of the new infinitives we just learned meaning “to play” which evoked an alarmed and confused countenance by the teacher who repeated back: “soufflé?!” It was one of those unexpected misunderstandings that provoked our endless giggling – we literally hysterically laughed about this for weeks. If I were to ever write a memoir, this moment wouldn’t only be noted as a randomly hilarious event, but also as a turning point when I decided it would be way more than awesome to be fluent in Spanish so that I could translate words like “soufflé.”

I’ve been learning Spanish for almost 5 years now (didn’t enroll in a Spanish class senior year of high school after taking AP Spanish my junior year, highly recommended class by the way!) and recently, I’ve been feeling that the steep slopes of my learning curve have started their inevitable plateau. This is not to say that Harvard language classes aren’t fulfilling – I definitely feel like I have more mastery with regards to grammatical points such as compound verb phrases and my most recent class (see description below) incorporated Spanish cinema which naturally gave me more of a sense of Spanish history and culture.

[Spanish 40: An advanced language and culture class that further develops linguistic competence using regions of the Hispanic world as a focus for class discussion, grammar review, and an introduction to Hispanic social contexts and texts. Course materials may also include films, interviews, painting, photography, music, selections from the press, as well as literary or historical readings. Frequent written and oral assignments, and a thorough review of grammar.]

I think my lack of complete satisfaction stems from the fact that my Spanish acquisition has been contained within the four walls of a classroom. Ever since high school, most of my time outside the classroom has been dedicated to furthering my scientific interests in order to narrow my future career path. However, I’m pretty confident that I need to either volunteer or study abroad in Spain, Latin America, or any other Spanish-speaking region so that my Spanish learning is concomitant to my personal growth (as corny as that may sound) because studying abroad offers a harmonious combination of formal learning in the classroom and informal learning via outdoor adventures and interpersonal interactions. My adventures in Vietnam this J-term have really cemented my desires to pursue being active abroad in the near future.

As a first generation Vietnamese-American, I simultaneously learned Vietnamese and English growing up. I’ve never received any formal Vietnamese instruction, but I can listen and speak just as well as I can butcher words when I read them. I couldn’t write Vietnamese if my life depended on it and my reading abilities are fairly limited to restaurant menus. Therefore, I depend on my listening comprehension and speaking skills for communication. My parents’ friends are generally impressed with my fluent façade because most Vietnamese kids born in the US have English-dominated language skills. I believe my bilingual language advantage stems from the fact that I grew up living with my grandparents so the demand for Vietnamese was higher. However, this advantage no longer applies in college where I no longer reside with anyone who pressures me to speak Vietnamese. My desire to maintain my Vietnamese in college led me to volunteer in Dorchester, a heavily Vietnamese populated community near Cambridge. These efforts haven’t been too helpful since the PBHA BRYE (Boston Refugee Youth Enrichment) program aims to tutor struggling Vietnamese teens in English. I’ve also sought out various ways to enhance the Vietnamese half of my Vietnamese-American identity such as participating in Len Duong Camp last summer and traveling to Vietnam this J-term.

I’ve been in Vietnam almost two weeks now and my parents who once use to mercilessly describe my Vietnamese abilities as pathetic, now just tell friends and relatives that I’m indeed capable of speaking Vietnamese. I’ve learned much more slang as well as new vocabulary – specifically for all the new fruits and cuisines that aren’t readily available in the United States.

LEMON Ritz…WHAT?!

I think the most convincing proof of my Vietnamese acquisition has been my improved abilities to make jokes and puns in Vietnamese!!

I’m not even sure if Charles Dickens has enough words to describe how fulfilling my first (and hopefully not last!) trip to Vietnam has been. Everything from meeting all the relatives who I have and haven’t heard about to seeing where my parents were married and where they use to hang out afterschool has not only been a culturally immersive experience, but also a personally fulfilling one.

A man playing the recorder…with his nose!!

I intend on using this family trip to Vietnam as a catalyst for studying abroad because I am SO ready to collect some stamps in my passport!

A street sign in Saigon – I guess rockets are allowed on this street?? 😉

This restaurant had a special vomit section in the bathroom and we still ate there.

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After days of sleeping in, thoughts of school have once again drifted to mind. Perhaps because the upcoming semester is my last, but I find myself eager to begin my pre-term planning for my last set of classes.

 

One of the courses I have to take this semester is a Philosophy Tutorial, the last class I have to take to complete my secondary (aka. minor) in philosophy. The department offers a choice of four subjects courses to complete the tutorial: Environmental Ethic, What is Life?, Rationality & Emotions, and Human Nature. Based on my previous study in political theory and moral philosophy, I’m currently leaning towards the Environmental Ethic course that includes such discussions as obligation to future generations, private property, and factory farming.

 

The other courses I plan to take include Government 99 (the second half of my year long thesis course), International Political Economy (as fulfillment for my Government International Relations requirement), and Accounting. The accounting course is a class I hope to cross-register for at M.I.T, a common occurrence between students of both universities and a class I hope to be useful for any future business endeavor.

 

One of the courses I’m most excited for though is the International Political Economy class, a subject I find quite relatable to my current thesis research on the World Trade Organization. The Harvard student-based review system, the Cue Guide, suggests the class is riveting if not quite challenging.

 

As with each plan we make though, surprise is inevitable and no course is set in stone. I’ll keep you updated on the process as I continue to search and start the semester-based shopping period. From the suburbs of California, I hope the winter months are treating you well!

 

~Natalie

 

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November is probably the most crowded month for Harvard kids.  We start referring to our iCals with growing frequency, trying to fit every single activity (including eating and sleeping) into a 24-hour matrix that feels far too small.  I mean, Free Time is never a readily available commodity on campus, but it goes completely out of stock in November.  The shelves of Free Time are empty, and the Free Time vendors just shrug their shoulders and say, “Come back next month, and we might have more in stock.”  So I’ve learned that sometimes, during the most crammed weeks of the semester, you’ve gotta steal your Free Time – seize any hours of freedom that you can find!

In that spirit, I rode the T into Boston on Thursday night, to see the Blue Scholars perform at the Paradise Rock Club.  The Blue Scholars are a dynamic musical duo from Seattle, makin’ smart folk hip-hop since 2002.  Sabzi is an Iranian DJ/producer, and Geologic is a Filipino rapper – and together, the dudes are pure magic.  The Blue Scholars use their music to treat relevant societal/generational issues, and I admire the intentionality manifest in their art.  Here’s one of my favorite songs by them, Cinemetropolis, the title track from their new LP:

 

I was lucky enough to attend another nourishing event this weekend (one that filled my tummy and my heart).  On Saturday, the Harvard African Students Association held its annual Fall Feast, which is always one of the best events of the semester.  Students and groups of various African affiliations lend their time and talents to recreate classic dishes from their home countries.   The array was stunning – jollof rice, stews, curries, shawarma, corn-mush, chicken, samosas, plantains – and by the time we got halfway down the line, our plates were spilling over with African delicacies.  We had to go finish our first plates before we could sample the second half of the buffet.  It was a true celebration, and everyone jokingly heralded their hometown food as “the winning dish.”  All the proceeds from the event went to buy food for Somali refugee camps, so they were selling these sweet T-shirts:

I felt kind of weird buying a shirt that said “Fight the Famine” while surrounded by such bounty.  But I think that’s the strange tension that many of us live with, especially as Americans.  We should still enjoy and appreciate things like parties and good food, knowing that they’re undeserved riches; but at the same time, we gotta stay keenly aware of the areas of great need that are sometimes starkly juxtaposed to our own comfortable situations.  It’s a complicated dynamic, and one that I haven’t totally come to terms with yet.  I could only be grateful for my blessings while I chowed down on hometown chapatis for the second time this month.  In honor of that unlikely statistic, here’s the official Chapati song by the Kenyan artist Man Ingwe:

 

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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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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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