That’s a wrap!

I’m officially done with school for the foreseeable future! I took my last final last Thursday, after which I visited some friends in New York for a couple days.

Now that I’m back in my empty apartment—my roommates are away—I figured I would do my final review of the past semester.

  1. Spend my time deliberately. I think I did a pretty good job with this goal. I set aside time to finish different tasks, and I stayed committed to those plans.
  2. Listen to podcasts and read books. I started quite a few books but didn’t actually finish any of them unfortunately :/ My goal between now and commencement is to actually finish some of those half-read books.
  3. Hang out with friends. I was pretty successful at this goal, too. I grabbed meals with several friends throughout the semester, and even made trips to New York to visit my friends there.
  4. Make steady progress on and eventually complete my thesis! Sometimes I’m still amazed that I actually completed and submitted my thesis. I had days when I doubted myself, but in the end, everything came together 😅
  5. Exercise regularly. I lifted weights two days a week and played volleyball two days a week up until mid-May, which is pretty good for me. Volleyball was a blast, and I definitely felt like I was a part of the community this semester.
  6. Cook better (maybe). I’m still no master chef, but I did pick up a couple new recipes, including one for Chinese watercress soup with pork ribs. I made it twice, and in my opinion, it tasted just the way my mom makes it.
  7. Be an effective TA. Piazza was relatively quiet compared to last semester. There weren’t as many questions, which I think was a result of students being more relaxed this semester, and the problem sets having better scaffolding and clearer instructions.
  8. Speak up during seminar. The prison class that I took this semester was actually a different format than the inside-out class I took last year. Our role was more as observers in the classroom than as actual students. At the same time, I still learned a lot about the criminal justice system and various differences between the different security levels. Also, I learned how to approach teaching for a different audience than I’m used to.

All in all, I would say that this was a good semester to end my academic career. My classes were great; I finished my thesis; and I still had time to exercise and spend time with friends.

Onwards and upwards! 🤞

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I respectfully disagree

If you’ve ever met me in person, you’ll know that I’m a conflict-adverse person. Conflict makes me uncomfortable, so by nature, I tend to do whatever I can to diffuse tension and solve conflicts around me.

That being said, I am willing to speak up and defend a conflicting point of view if I feel strongly about it and think it’s worthwhile to share that point of view. This form of disagreement still makes me uncomfortable and because I don’t do it very often, it hasn’t become any less uncomfortable over time.

This semester, I am taking a class that visits a maximum security prison every week and observes a creative writing class for incarcerated men at the prison. Yesterday, I met up with a friend who knows someone—I’ll call her Alice—who observed the same creative writing class during a previous semester.

Now, I’ve personally found my experience observing the class to be a very positive one based on the in-classroom experience and based on what I’ve learned from the teacher during our weekly class debriefs. Alice, however, seemed to have a very different opinion about the class and the teacher’s effectiveness at teaching. She did not think the teacher was good nor did she think the incarcerated men were getting anything worthwhile out of the class.

I think this upset me for three reasons:

  1. I think very highly of the teacher and honestly believe that she cares a great deal about the work she does, and quite frankly I think she’s awesome at it.
  2. Within the past few weeks, I had already listened to 3+ hours of someone else making disparaging comments about not only the teacher but also the Director of Programming at the prison. I understand that there may be some prison employees who slack off at their jobs, but the two in question take their jobs extremely seriously based on how I’ve seen them act and what I’ve heard them say.
  3. It’s too easy for people to dismiss other people’s efforts, and for some reason, when it comes to working with the incarcerated population, there are a decent number of people who have a holier-than-thou attitude and believe that they alone can “save” the corrections system. I recognize that this is probably an exaggeration, but this is the aura that I sense from some people, and it frustrates me because the system is so broken that it will take the collective efforts of many people and organizations to change. It is counterproductive to dismiss the work of other people, especially if their motivation is also to improve how we treat incarcerated people. Coming across one person who handles their job poorly is not a reason to assume that everyone in the field is bad at their job.

Anyway, I got quite worked up about the matter and tried to defend the instructor and the class for 20 minutes. After that, I started feeling queasy because I very much did not enjoy disagreeing with my friend.

At the same time, however, I feel like I said what needed to be said, and I do not regret sharing my point of view, even though it differed from hers. Besides, at this point, she really only had two indirect accounts to base her opinion off of.

I’ve calmed down since the heated discussion of yesterday, and I think my takeaway is that it’s okay to disagree with people, even if they are your friends. There is a reason why we have the phrase “respectfully disagree”, and it’s an important skill to have. The goal does not always have to be to make someone else agree with you. In fact, it’s quite valuable to have people around you who don’t necessarily agree with you on all issues. It’s a good way of escaping the trap of echo chambers.

Respectfully disagreeing is a skill that I personally have not practiced very much, but I guess yesterday counts as another learning experience to this end.

Final semester goals

Today marks my last first day of school ever! To honor this grand occasion, I figured I would set the tone of my last semester by setting some goals. In no particular order…

  1. Spend my time deliberately. Whether it’s spending time hanging out with friends or working on a problem set, I think it’s important to be conscientious about how I’m spending my time. Once I’ve decided to allocate my time to something, then I want to give my full attention to whatever task is at hand.
  2. Listen to podcasts and read books. I used to listen to podcasts pretty often when I was an undergrad, but for some reason I haven’t been keeping up with my podcasts this year. It’s a good use of time, especially when I end up walking a lot from building to building. It will also be nice to make a dent in my ever-growing list of books to read on my Goodreads.
  3. Hang out with friends. This one was somewhat harder in the fall because I was flying to San Francisco for interviews during much of the semester. However, because I’m actually going to be on campus this semester, I want to make a conscious effort to make plans with my friends, even if it’s just meeting up for lunch.
  4. Make steady progress on and eventually complete my thesis! This is pretty self-explanatory. Basically, I want to make sure that my thesis work doesn’t fall to the sidelines. I’m not a huge fan of last minute cramming near the deadline, so I need to make sure I stay on track early on.
  5. Exercise regularly. I’m planning on playing volleyball tournaments this semester, so that should be pretty exciting! Also, I started lifting with one of my friends over January, so I’ll do my best to keep that up. Another one of my friends asked me to exercise with her regularly to ensure that she keeps up with her routine, so that should also be good motivation for me 🙂
  6. Cook better (maybe). At some point I need to be able to cook, so I might try and start learning now.
  7. Be an effective TA. Being a TA for the intro to programming class was definitely one of the highlights of last semester. I really enjoyed working with students in office hours and answering Piazza questions, so I look forward to continuing that this semester. One thing to note, however, is that I may have gone a bit overboard with the Piazza obsession last semester. I think a good way of keeping that in check is to contribute more to pset preparation so that students are less confused to begin with.
  8. Speak up during seminar. I will be taking my second prison class at a maximum-security correction facility this semester. The topic is the criminal justice system, which I’ve grown increasingly interested in since taking my first prison class my senior fall. During the previous course, I didn’t contribute as much as I would have liked during class discussions—maybe I was intimidated or something—but I really hope to share more of my thoughts and insights with my peers this time around.

This is probably a decent number of goals to work with, so I’ll leave it at that. Onwards!

13th and The Central Park Five

The MIT Prison Education Initiative recently hosted showings of two documentaries, both of which I thought were very well-made and eye-opening.

I thought I’d jot down some of the notes I took, though be warned that my notes might not be super cohesive. Think of them more as interesting ideas that were brought forth by the documentaries.

13th

13th is a documentary directed by Ava DuVernay that discusses racial inequality in relation to the US prison system. In 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery, except as punishment for a crime.

When the 13th amendment was passed, the economy relied heavily on free slave labor. Once slavery itself was abolished, mass incarceration became the way in which cheap labor could still be acquired through convict leasing.

The 1915 film Birth of a Nation confirmed a story that many white people wanted to hear—the story that black people were a threat and were animalistic. This attitude toward black people was used to justify acts of physical terror that groups like the KKK carried out against blacks.

Eventually, physical terror was replaced by Jim Crow laws, which essentially used laws to justify criminalizing blacks. There was a transformation of criminality within the black community as something noble.

The 1970s marked the mass incarceration era. This was when the number of incarcerated people in the US began to skyrocket. Nixon used the term “law and order” to indicate the importance of cracking down on crime.

The War on Drugs was seen as a crime issue rather than a health issue. It was a way of criminalizing hippies and blacks legally. People who were found using crack cocaine—largely used by blacks and latinos—were given much harsher sentences than people using powder cocaine—largely used by whites.

The arrests of black and brown people were overrepresented through the media. The term “superpredator” became popular in reference to juvenile violent crime and contributed to the fear that made people accept prisons.

After the Willie Horton incident in 1987, there was a shift in the Democratic stand against crime. Instead of the liberal stance that supported weekend furlough programs, both Republicans and Democrats pushed to do more against crime. Policies like mandatory minimums and the Federal Crime Bill (1994) may have been introduced with good intentions but in actuality, prevented judges from making decisions and provided perverse incentives for law enforcement.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a political lobbying group that advocates various policies. Because of their relationship with companies like CoreCivic, previously known as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), many of the policies they put forward incentivize maintaining a high prison occupancy. The new movement of housing detained immigrants has been given a new term: crimmigration.

One of the people that was interviewed on behalf of ALEC mentioned a new policy of sending juveniles home with GPS trackers so that they can be perpetually surveilled instead of having to stay at juvenile hall. To him, these GPS trackers allowed kids more “freedom” when in fact, it seemed very much a ploy to earn more money for the companies that produce the GPS trackers. My number one issue with this person’s stance was his assumption that sending kids home with GPS trackers would solve behavioral problems. It didn’t seem to occur to him that perhaps the problem stems from a lack of family support because either the family is poor or one or more parents is incarcerated.

The prison industrial complex results from the government relying on private prison companies and businesses to run prisons. Because of the incentive structure that prioritizes making a profit, prisons are faced with issues like inflated prices to make phone calls and poor food quality. Long contracts with private corporations disincentivizes them from providing better service.

In my opinion, the most powerful scene in the documentary was a side-by-side comparison of a black person being harassed by a large group of whites in the early 1900s and just a few years ago at a Trump rally. It’s clear that there is a lot of work to be done moving forward to achieve fairness and equality in the US, especially in the context of the criminal justice system.

The Central Park Five

The Central Park Five is a Ken Burns documentary covering the Central Park jogger case from 1989. It highlights the stories of the five teenage boys who were incorrectly convicted of assaulting a raping Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old female who was jogging in Central Park one evening. I don’t feel the need to recount the entire documentary here, so I’ll just say that it was very disturbing to see how many things went wrong during the wrongful convictions of the five teenagers. They each served at least seven years in prison, and even though they were ultimately rewarded with money after suing New York City for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress, no amount of money can ever make up for the years they lost in prison.

Impromptu criminal justice discussion

The other day, the Prison Education Initiative held an event to show the documentary The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, but unfortunately, some technical difficulties kept us from actually being able to watch it. Instead, about ten of us moved to a nearby classroom and had an impromptu discussion about the criminal justice system. I’ve grown to really enjoy and appreciate happenstance discussions like this one, especially when they are with people I don’t know and on topics that I care about.

Here are some of the things we talked about that I thought were especially interesting:

  • Someone observed that the United States seems to try harder to keep prisons hidden and isolated from the rest of the population in comparison to other countries. This might not be the best comparison, but she also observed that even Auschwitz Concentration Camp was located in the midst of the hustle and bustle of everyday town life.
  • We discussed the ethical concerns raised when architecture and design firms elect to design and build prisons. For example, how do they determine how many solitary confinement cells to build? What should the target occupancy be? What is the motivation for building more prisons in the first place?
  • It is actually cheaper to imprison inmates for life than it is to put them on death row. Two reasons why executing criminals is so costly are (1) lethal injection drugs are very expensive—not many companies are willing to sell these drugs to the US government, which means there is essentially a monopoly on the drugs—and (2) every person sentenced to death row automatically has their case appealed.
  • The Norfolk Prison Debating Society, which Malcolm X was part of back when he was incarcerated at MCI Norfolk has been revived and is very much thriving. In recent years, the prison’s debate team has competed against schools like MIT and Harvard.
  • Back in 2016, some folks at the MCI Norfolk prison held a mock election. To be quite honest, the inmates seemed way more knowledgeable and opinionated about ballot issues than I was. The results of the mock election were actually quite close to the real results in Massachusetts.
  • It was interesting to discuss how different states handle voting rights for inmates and formerly incarcerated individuals, especially because those living in states where felons lose their right to vote permanently may also lose their incentive to contribute meaningfully to society. They might feel like what they do—even outside the context of voting—does not matter because their voice will not be heard anyway.
  • When inmates are released from prison, they are not supposed to have any interactions with people they met while in prison. This includes volunteers they may have met, professors they had while in prison, and fellow inmates who have also been released. Basically, they are supposed to sever all ties with people connected to their time in prison. Even if an inmate built a support network while in prison, they have to give it all up when they leave, which is unfortunate, especially because many of them don’t have people they can turn to post-release.

Even though it was kind of sad that we weren’t able to watch the prison documentary, I’m very grateful that we were able to use that time to talk more in person about various aspects of the criminal justice system. Lots of book recommendations were thrown around, so I have some new additions to my reading list that I’m looking forward to reading!

January Goals

This is the first January I’m spending on campus since freshman year, so I figured I might as well set some goals for the month.

  • Thesis: Fall semester was a bit hectic, so I wasn’t able to dedicate as much time as I would have liked to my thesis. I created an agile roadmap—complete with sprints and story point estimates—for myself, so I have some confidence that I can get myself back on track. As long as I keep up, I should actually be able to graduate, which is always good 🙂
  • Exercise: My friend’s lifting buddy is gone for the January term, so I volunteered to lift with her instead! Today was my first day lifting, and I’m proud to say that I haven’t injured myself yet. It should be a fun way to supplement my bi-weekly volleyball practices—who knows, I might even get a little stronger.
  • Clarinet: My goal is to practice at least 30 minutes of clarinet four times a week in addition to my clarinet lessons. So far, so good! It helps that I’ve discovered that the music practice room in my dorm is usually unoccupied.
  • Spend time with friends and family: I’ve already met up with some friends this past week, and I plan on continuing to do so throughout January since everyone is generally less stressed out these days. My brother also moved into his dorm across the river! He’s probably much busier than I am with his social and perhaps his academic life, but I’ll try to check up on him at least once in January.
  • Cooking: I should probably be more deliberate about feeding myself. Right now, I have a decent amount of food stocked up, so I should be able to cook at least a couple good meals for myself. Fingers crossed!

How has MIT shaped your perspective of the world?

I spent a decent amount of time in high school working with kids, and I really enjoyed doing so. At the same time, though, I thought it was a phase that I would eventually grow out of. To be honest, I felt judged sometimes for spending my time teaching children instead of working on some snazzy project with the robotics team like many of my classmates. My experiences at MIT, however, showed me that there most definitely is a role for people with technical backgrounds to create a meaningful impact through education.

  • Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow (MEET): I spent January 2017 in Jerusalem and Nazareth teaching for a bi-national program (founded by former MIT students) that brings together Palestinian and Israeli high school students and teaches them computer science and entrepreneurship skills. By the end of the 3-year program, the students will have created a startup that addresses a problem faced by both communities. Through that process, they will also have learned skills they need to create positive social and political change in the Middle East. Read more about my adventures here!
  • Yeomyung School: As part of the MIT Global Teaching Labsprogram, I spent January 2018 teaching a 2-week hands-on STEM workshop alongside three other MIT students at Yeomyung School, an alternative school for North Korean defectors in Seoul, Korea. This was probably one of the most challenging teaching experiences I’ve had because of the language barrier, but it was also one of the most meaningful because I was able to connect with my students even though we came from very different backgrounds. Read more about my adventures here!
  • CodeIt: During my four years at MIT, I was heavily involved with CodeIt, a program that teaches middle school girls how to code. As students, many things we do, like take classes, really only benefit ourselves directly, but with CodeIt, we had the opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of young girls. This program is like my baby—I poured my heart and soul into improving the program each semester, and I’m so, so proud of how far CodeIt has come since it started my freshman year. An added bonus of being a part of CodeIt was meeting other individuals who also care deeply about education and technology 🙂
  • ScratchApp Inventor, and Khan Academy: I’m super lucky to have had the opportunity to contribute to all three of these educational technology platforms during my time as an MIT student. Scratch and App Inventor are block-based programming languages that empower people of all ages to build interactive games, animations, and mobile applications. Khan Academy is an online platform that makes a world-class education possible for anyone with an internet connection.
  • Prison Initiative: During my junior fall, I took a class titled “Non-Violence as a way of life” at MCI Norfolk, a medium-security prison. My classmates consisted of 15 MIT students and 15 inmates, and through our discussions on topics like forgiveness and restorative justice, I learned about the criminal justice system from a perspective that many people don’t often get to see. Taking this class sparked my interest in attending talks given by formerly incarcerated individuals and in volunteering with programs like Coders Beyond Bars.
  • Project Invent: I haven’t participated in Project Invent directly, but the founder of this non-profit, Connie Liu, is an MIT alum whom I really admire for starting a non-profit that empowers high school students to solve real-world problems. Personally, I think that’s one of the most important mindsets that we can teach students, and it makes me incredibly happy to know that there are people who are actually bringing that idea to life!

This answer ended up being much longer than I intended, but just to summarize, going to MIT helped me realize that it’s not just possible for someone with a technical background to contribute to the field of education, but rather, there are many, many ways in which technical people can make the world a better place through education.

Reproduced from my Quora answer