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 šŸ™‚
  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 discussionsā€”maybe I was intimidated or somethingā€”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!

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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 asĀ punishmentĀ forĀ aĀ 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 hearā€”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 cocaineā€”largely used by blacks and latinosā€”were given much harsher sentences than people using powder cocaineā€”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 HortonĀ 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 mandatoryĀ minimums and the FederalĀ CrimeĀ BillĀ (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 prisonĀ industrialĀ 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 CentralĀ ParkĀ 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 theĀ yearsĀ they lostĀ inĀ 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 expensiveā€”not many companies are willing to sell these drugs to the US government, which means there is essentially a monopoly on the drugsā€”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 doā€”even outside the context of votingā€”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 roadmapā€”complete with sprints and story point estimatesā€”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 šŸ™‚
  • 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 practicesā€”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.Ā 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) thatĀ 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.Ā Through that process, they will also have learned skills they need to create positive social and political change in the Middle East.Ā Read more about my adventuresĀ here!
  • Yeomyung School: As part of theĀ 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.Ā This was probably one of the most challenging teaching experiences Iā€™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.Ā Read more about my adventuresĀ here!
  • CodeIt: During my four years at MIT, I was heavily involved with CodeIt, a program that teaches middle school girls how to code.Ā 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.Ā This program is like my babyā€”I poured my heart and soul into improving the program each semester, and Iā€™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 šŸ™‚
  • Scratch,Ā App Inventor, andĀ Khan Academy: Iā€™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 thatĀ empower people of all ages to build interactive games, animations, and mobile applications. Khan Academy is an online platform thatĀ makes a world-class education possible for anyone with an internet connection.
  • Prison Initiative: During my junior fall, I took a class titled ā€œNon-Violence as a way of lifeā€ 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,Ā I learned about the criminal justice system from a perspective that many people donā€™t often get to see. Taking this class sparked my interest in attending talks given by formerly incarcerated individuals and in volunteering with programs likeĀ Coders Beyond Bars.
  • Project Invent: I havenā€™t participated in Project Invent directly, but the founder of this non-profit, Connie Liu, is an MIT alum whom I really admire for startingĀ a non-profit that empowers high school students to solve real-world problems. Personally, I think thatā€™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,Ā going to MIT helped me realize that itā€™s not justĀ possibleĀ 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

End of semester reflection

I just finished my first semester as an MEng student! It’s been a whirlwind of a semester, so I figured now would be a good time to reflect on everything that has happened these past couple of months.

  • Thesis progress:Ā The new and improved App Inventor gallery is alive and well. The bare bones web app is mostly there, though there is much work to be done to make it production ready. Also, there are still several features from my original design that I still need/want to implement. Let’s hope that I can be super productive this January and crank out the remaining code prior to user testing.
  • TA for 6.00: My biggest time commitment/highest priority this semester has been doing work as a TA for the introductory programming class. IĀ love being a TA for this course. My responsibilities included holding office hours, drafting problem sets, and answering student questions on the Piazza Q+A forum. I’m very proud of my nearly 3000 contributions to the Piazza forum. Not to brag or anything, but I received a decent number of shoutouts on the MIT Confessions page, too šŸ™‚ It feels super rewarding to contribute to the learning of more than 500 students in the class.
  • Club volleyball: Joining the women’s club volleyball team was probably one of the best decisions I made this semester. I’ve met some super cool women on the court, and in general, playing a team sport is great motivation for me to exercise on a regular basis. I didn’t compete at any tournaments this semester, but I’m planning on competing next semester šŸ™‚
  • Clarinet: Unfortunately, clarinet playing fell to the sidelines this semester. I continued taking lessons from Tom every couple of weeks, but to be honest, I didn’t practice all that much between lessons. My excuse is that traveling between San Francisco and Boston nearly every week does not leave much time or energy to practice. At the very least, winter break and IAP will be a good chance for me to resume my clarinet practice habits.
  • Cooking: I am sorry to say that my cooking skills have not improved. In fact, I might go as far as to say that they have gotten worse since the summer after freshman year. It’s pretty hard to motivate myself to cook quality meals for myself, so my goal over IAP is to cook with my roommates more often. Fingers crossed that this helps me at least maintain my current weight šŸ˜…
  • Job search: Studying for software engineering interviews actually paid off! I ended up landing offers from way more companies than I thought I would, so I had the opportunity to choose from some fantastic options. Without going into too much detail, I will note that the job selection process ending up being much more hectic, stressful, and emotionally draining than I expected. Fortunately, all the drama is finally over, and now I can just look forward to starting my first full-time job in August!

If I were to compare my undergraduate experience with the first semester of my master’s studies, I would say that while being an undergrad was extremely stressful due to academic and extracurricular demands, grad life has been more emotionally draining. In any case, I am more or less proud of what I’ve accomplished this past semester, though there are definitely things I’d like to continue working on next semester. Until then, I’m going to chill at home and hopefully catch up on all the books I wanted to read this past semester but never got toĀ šŸ˜‚

Objectifs pour le semestre

We’re already three weeks into the semester, but I figured it’s still worthwhile to go through and outline my goals for the semester.

  • Write a thesis proposal Iā€™m proud of and get everything up and running in time for evaluation in January. My thesis proposal draft is almost done! I’ll be working on redesigning and implementing a new standalone gallery for App Inventor that promotes project sharing and increases discoverability of shared projects. I’m super excited to be tackling this projectā€”I just hope I can finish everything in time.
  • Be an effective TA and help my students gain confidence in their ability to program. As a TA for the introductory computer programming class this semester, my number one goal is to help my students grow as programmers, whether they major in computer science or some other field that benefits from computing knowledge. It’s already been an exhilarating journey working with the course staff on designing psets and answering student questions on Piazza.
  • Exercise regularly with the volleyball team. It’s been a while since I played on my high school team, but I finally decided to return to the volleyball court! I figured it would be a neat way to meet more people and also to ensure that I get some exercise on a regular basis.
  • Learn a clarinet piece that Iā€™m excited about. I won’t go into too much detail, but I ended up not being able to play chamber music this semester, which means that I also won’t be doing the Emerson program. I contemplated taking an early retirement from clarinet, but part of me didn’t want to quit quite yet. So I decided to keep taking lessons with Tom, and for once, I chose a piece to work on! Rhapsody in Blue, here we go.
  • Practice problem solving and keep learning outside of classes.Ā I’m only taking one class this semester, so my stress levels are probably at an all-time low compared to the rest of my time here at MIT. At the same time, I’d like to treat this as an opportunity to learn outside the formal classroom. I’m trying real hard to get better at software engineering interviews, so spending time on HackerRank is definitely one of my priorities until I land a job offer. Also, I think there’s a lot I can learn about personal finance so that I can “adult” properly, especially post-graduation. Plus, my reading list on Goodreads has a ton of books that I should probably read.
  • Become a better cook. I’m no longer on the meal plan, which means that I have to fend for myself when it comes to food. It’s been a while since I cooked every meal with my friends the summer after freshman year, but I’m slowly getting back into the groove of things. Buying groceries is more annoying now that Star Market on Sidney Street is closed, but at least one of my roommates keeps me company during our weekly grocery shopping runs.
  • Be patient with life.Ā I got a crown for tooth #30 in January, but somehow, the nerve in that tooth ended up dying. As a result, I had to get a root canal yesterday, and to be honest, I wasn’t thrilled about it. Fortunately, the root canal itself was actually a pretty painless process, and I had a great dentist and dental assistant to thank for that. Unexpected situations like teeth emergencies get me riled up sometimes, but I just need to remember that these things happen, and that I need to be patient. Things will be okay.

I think I’ll leave things off with a Twitter post I found on my feed.

I’m about to embark on the oftentimes soul-crushing process of job searching, so I could really use a dose of positivity šŸ™‚ Fingers crossed…