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! 🤞

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!

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

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: 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. I 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 🙂 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 🙂
  • 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 😅
  • 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 to 😂