Due to increasing cases of COVID-19, universities across the United States converted to an online curriculum in March, sending all their students off-campus. For seniors particularly, this would come as a huge shock with only a week to say their goodbyes.
Now, at the end of the school year, Catherine Yeo, a rising junior at Harvard University, majoring in Computer Science and minoring in English, recounts the “admirable job of the school to continue advanced learning” and her experience on campus in a new light.
According to Yeo, the professors were able to quickly adapt and post lectures and assignments online. In addition, she mentioned how Harvard was one of few universities to switch to a universal pass-fail grading system, to accommodate student needs amidst this time of transition and shock.
Despite the restrictions of an online setting, student leaders refused to let it stop annual Harvard traditions. After their first year, students at Harvard are split into 12 different houses, each with its own unique traditions and living styles.
“Every Spring we have something called the Goat Roast. In the past, that meant the house literally roasted a goat. Now, we have more of a Spring Carnival event,” Yeo, who joined the Dunster House, said. “Dunster also hosts library concerts, an opera and a Messiah sing-a-long in the winter. So yes, we have a lot of musical traditions.”
However, one of the most anticipated events of the year is Housing Day where the freshmen learn which house they have been sorted into. To hand out the news, upperclassmen would storm the freshmen dormitories, often with loud instruments and cheers, knock on their door and present them with a letter containing the name of their new house.
Without being on campus this year, physical dorm storming was missed, but that didn’t stop the upperclassmen from hosting a virtual dorm storming on Zoom. Other Dunster traditions were also converted to Zoom such as the Red Tie Dinner and Trivia Nights.
Yeo has also faced the reality of working on projects while in quarantine.
“But it’s been very different socially,” Yeo said. “It’s less spontaneous. Before I could just turn around in my chair to someone in the class and ask, ‘Hey, wanna meet up right now to work on our project?’ Now, I have to ask, ‘Are you free next Tuesday at this specific time?’”
As a computer scientist, Yeo has been working with a classmate on identifying and quantifying the fairness of natural language processors (artificial intelligence used to generate language). She noticed that these language processors were embedded with sexism, assigning words like “man” to “computer programmer” and “woman” to “homemaker.”
“Both my partner and I are interested in writing,” Yeo said. “She with poetry and me with fiction writing. And there’s been groundbreaking research into natural language processing. However, it’s important we quantify potential biases, and use these ideas to improve future models.”
According to Yeo, Harvard provides the resources to ensure ethics and technology go hand in hand. Embedded EthiCS, a program at Harvard lead by philosophers and computer scientists, aims to embed ethical reasoning into computer science courses. Harvard is also home to the Berkman Klein Center of Ethics and Technology.
Yeo, who has taken a tech ethics class, explained how it changed her perspective from a technical standpoint to a societal one whenever she views AI.
“You cannot only have computer scientists work on a problem and only philosophers work on a problem. It’s very important to intersect and collaborate across different disciplines to create and regulate technology that is fair and impactful,” she said.
Yeo values interdisciplinary subjects, her own research project was a cross-section of artificial intelligence, ethics and language. Thus, one of her favorite things about Harvard is the support they give to students with interdisciplinary interests. At Harvard, students are allowed to apply as a joint major and expected to write a thesis that combines their two interests.
“My friend is joint majoring in statistics and theater, and for his thesis, he plans to write a musical about statistics,” Yeo said.
Many professors also share this same passion for interdisciplinary thought. One of Yeo’s favorite conversations was one with Professor Zittrain through a program at Harvard called “Classroom to Table” in which students are invited to go out to an all-paid lunch with a professor.
Zittrain’s research interests integrate law and computer science, including topics such as digital property, the regulation of cryptography and the deployment of technology in education. To Yeo, this aspect of Harvard University is what makes her experience special.
However, Yeo encourages high schoolers interested in Harvard to reach out to present college students to find out if the university is really for them. She understands that many high schoolers do not have the opportunity to visit campuses, but encourages them to ask if their school has an alumni system or contact Harvard student ambassadors.
“Don’t be afraid of reaching out for help. The only way you can better know if a school is fit for you is by talking to students there. Everyone is willing to help,” she said.
Although many universities have not announced plans for the fate of the incoming 1st years or whether upperclassmen will be returning on campus, Yeo is optimistic for the future, knowing there are many online education problems that invite improvement.
“I do hope all universities, not just Harvard, use this summer to plan for better ways to strengthen the virtual ecosystems by integrating social interaction on top of the just lecture-style courses,” Yeo said.
She also noted inequities of online learning that she hopes schools will take into better consideration, such as students with low internet bandwidth, who cannot find a quiet room or do not have access to a computer and printer.
Mental health resources have become scarce as well.
Yeo wishes that as an institutional leader, Harvard will use these problems as an opportunity to improve the framework of online education for everyone.