Saturday, September 14, 2013

Stop The Sag

Last week I mentioned that I am doing an internship as part of my course of study, but I didn't give much detail. My course-load for the Fall semester includes three "regular" classes: H-107 "Educational Neuroscience," H-250 "Developmental Psychology," and AT-133 "Examining Achievement."* In addition to these three classes, I'm doing a Field Experience Program (S-997)—otherwise known as an internship. The following post is adapted from my first writing assignment for this course, which requires me to keep a journal to reflect on the experience. I've taken out some small parts that would be redundant for readers of this blog, as well as other bits to avoid airing the dirty laundry of organizations where I've worked in the past. 


My decision to do the Field Experience Program, and my desire to do it with the YMCA of Greater Boston, is consistent with my focus on Youth Development programs. While I won’t be writing a thesis, I’m still designing my course of study in the Special Studies Program around a final project or product. My goal is to produce the first installment of a soccer-based curriculum for academic enrichment geared towards first-graders. In the spring semester, I plan to organize this work through an Independent Study (S-999), utilizing the resources of the Harvard Innovation Lab. My fall internship is an opportunity to embed myself at the senior level of a large Youth Development organization—the type of organization that might implement the curriculum I’m designing once it’s finished.

I have a lot of experience in Youth Development programs, including work in the non-profit, for-profit, and public sectors, both in the United States and abroad. I have worked in a management capacity in smaller organizations, and I have worked “on the ground” in larger organizations. What I lack is the experience of working at the senior planning level of a large YD organization. Specifically, I want to learn more about how large organizations design, select, implement and evaluate youth programs, particularly across multiple sites. Does a large organization like the YMCA start from scratch and design all of their own programs? Or, do they work with a third party to find or develop programs and curriculum to suit their needs and goals. The answers to this question will have an impact on how I “shop” my finished curriculum, and who I see as potential clients or beneficiaries.

(Out of Site Youth Arts Center - San Francisco, CA 2007)

(Informal Youth Development session - Sayulita, Mexico 2009)

In past experiences I have witnessed a disappointing disconnect between the espoused values of an organization, the fundamentals of a curriculum, and the implementation of that curriculum on the ground. In some cases, being embedded at one particular site hampered my ability to understand and examine the causes of theses breakdowns at an organizational level. I had my theories, but since I was removed from the workflow at the senior level, they were nothing more than theories. When approaching the YMCA, I made it clear that I was not interested in pursuing an internship where I would get bogged down with day-to-day site-level operations (i.e. playing with kids). While I love doing this work, and I learn something new each day that I do it, that scenario would not be a worthwhile Field Experience Program for me. Instead, my mentor is a Vice President of YMCA Greater Boston, who overseas all child development operations across 13 sites in the region. I will be well-positioned to learn more about how they address system-wide challenges, for example, the training of site leaders, or the demographic differences between sites. Ultimately, I want to understand their approach to large-scale quality control.

While I’ve done a ton of volunteer work, I haven’t been an intern since 2005, when I was an undergraduate student. All juniors in the Urban Studies Program at San Francisco State University are required to set up and complete an internship, very similar to the HGSE Field Experience Program. I worked as a Service-Learning Instructor at a local high school, The Urban School of San Francisco. I have a solid understanding of the challenges that come with being an unpaid, temporary member of a work team. As the saying goes, “sometimes free is too expensive.” With financial compensation removed from the equation, it becomes even more important for me to set clear expectations for what I want to get out of the experience. While most of my peers will be working for a paycheck (and for the love of children), they may not understand exactly what I’m doing there, and why I’m there. My meeting with my mentor on Tuesday will be an important step towards defining these goals. Likewise, I need a clear understanding of what the organization and my mentor expect from me. The good news is that I’m in a field that I love, and I am used to doing the work for free, for pennies, for pesos and for escudos. It won’t be hard for me to treat this experience like a “real job,” and that should facilitate my integration into the YMCA team.

Pura Vida,


* You might have noticed that I dropped A-608 "Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Education" in favor of H-250 "Developmental Psychology." I had my reasons.

Family Dinner Food Porn Pic of the Week

Sunday, September 8, 2013

My Teachers Are Teachers

Over the past few years I’ve developed a pretty effective strategy for life... at least, it’s been working out pretty well for me. Basically, it goes like this: “prepare to be unprepared.” Clearly, this strategy works well when you’re relocating to new countries—but what may be less obvious is that preparing to be unprepared can be an effective approach, whether you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer or a pre-school teacher.

That being said, I don’t get too worried about having all the answers. Uncertainty doesn’t freak me out—in fact, I kinda like it. A couple of weeks ago, my roommate’s friend was bombarding with questions about life in the Peace Corps because she is currently in the application process. One of the first things she told me was, “My leave date is January 2014 and I'm going to be stationed in blah blah blah.” My curt response was, “Yeah, no it’s not and no you won’t.” I tried to explain to her that if she could count on one thing, she could count on the Peace Corps to flip the script on her at least once between now and when she actually leaves. And really, she couldn’t even count on that. I submitted my application to the Peace Corps in January 2010 and I was on a plane for Cape Verde in July... of 2011.

The interesting thing is that the application process for joining the Peace Corps is excellent practice for life as a volunteer in the Peace Corps—the uncertainty, the constantly readjusted expectations, and the glacial speed of progress. Having survived all of that, I can honestly say that there wasn’t much about starting graduate school that truly freaked me out. Still, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have some huge questions about what my life would be like, both in the classroom and beyond.

The first question I pondered was whether or not I would actually have a "life." I am happy to report that I do, even if my social life looks and feels a lot different than it has for the past few years. For example, I have not danced until the sun came up. I have not spent an entire Saturday at a beachfront bar, eating french fries and watching back-to-back-to-back European soccer matches. I haven’t had a trago of aguardiente or grogue, or mug of Aguila Light or Strela—actually, I haven’t a sip of alcohol since I got on a plane headed for Boston.* Yet still, I have a life.

Last weekend I made a 24-hour trip to West Hollywood to see my Sands get married. It was a special night for so many reasons, including witnessing my first in-person group Wobble (no, the Wobble has not spread to South America yet). Getting to this wedding was another step in the process of reconnecting my brothers from Kappa Chi, the most thorough chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. on the planet. It started back in May when Demek came to Medellín for his bachelor party. Now, I'm joined by my "big" brother and fellow HGSE student, Al, who has been my right hand man... literally... he's sitting to my right studying in the library while I am not. At Demek's wedding I caught up with some of the "old" heads and met some of the younger ones from our chapter that crossed after I left D.C. in 2001.


Sure, I’m pressed for time, but I can still enjoy the finer things in life—like watching soccer. For example, on the way to the library today, I passed by the Harvard University Athletics Complex and decided to pop in to catch the second half of the Harvard vs. Davidson match. We looked good but we coughed up a late, well-taken to goal to lose the game 2-1.

 It was a tough loss, but not as tough as watching the USA get slapped by Costa Rica at Banshee Pub, the official Boston home of The American Outlaws. Sandwiched in between those losses was a great win for the Boys Varsity team at Cristo Rey High School. I was truly impressed, and I must they, their coach was very professional... and handsome too (cough, cough).

So, now I’m no longer “worried” about not having a life. I’m taking the regular 16 credits (including an internship at the YMCA of Greater Boston) and I’ve taken on a part-time job (see reference to handsome coach in previous paragraph). This is a heavy load—I’ve been told that each class requires about 12-15 hours of work per week, including time spent in class. So that adds up to 60-70 hours per week, before you account for my "life." This may sound crazy, but I take solace in the fact that decent parents around the world are putting in a similar shift, week in and week out. I got this.

My second “worry” was based on something you often hear about higher education: professors aren’t necessarily great teachers. This makes sense, in the same way that great soccer players don’t always make great coaches. Can you imagine Coach Cristiano Ronaldo, or Coach Luis Suárez (shiver)? We often hear horror stories about professors that care a whole lot about their research or the book they’re working on, but not so much about their students. Well, let me put that one to rest. My teachers are TEACHERS, and they are damn good at what they do. While writing this, it dawned on me that this might have something to do with the fact that I am in the school of EDUCATION! If I were a betting man, I would bet that on average, the faculty at HGSE are better at teaching than their equally-intelligent peers in the other schools at Harvard. But maybe I’m biased.

In my last post I included some golden quotes from the professor of my Educational Neuroscience course. I also forgot to mention the part where he said something along the lines of: I don’t require you to come to class—I don’t think it makes sense for me to penalize you automatically for not showing up to lectures. It’s my job to make the lectures interesting and productive so that they help you do well in the class. Like I said, this is my kind of teacher. My assignment for the first week was to watch a series of five short video lectures as an introduction to brain structure and function. To give you a taste of what I mean when I say, “damn good at what they do,” I’ve included a link to one of those videos, which you may or may not give a rat’s ass about.

My final “worry” about coming to grad school had to do with the culture of Harvard University. While I knew enough about Harvard to know that it's hardly one big Klan rally, I still couldn’t stop thinking about the part of Cornell West’s memoir where he talks about what it was like to be a professor here. If you haven’t read Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, please do. Thankfully, I haven’t had any eye-opening/heart-breaking run-ins with Larry Sommers.** Honestly, I’m happy to report that there’s nothing unwelcoming, stuffy or pretentious about my environment—so far. Again, I believe that has a lot to do with the fact that I’m in the School of Education, and not the Business School, the Law School, or the Kennedy School of Government. Ironically, I've found the average student at HGSE to be less offensive and self-righteous than a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers. Who woulda thunk it?

Signing Off,***


* Every year, I set aside a month to be completely sober. I'm three weeks into that month at the time of writing this... and I'm looking forward to next weekend.

** Lawrence "Larry" Sommers served as President of Harvard University from July 2001 until June 2006.

*** In light of the behavior of Costa Ricans over the past week, including their President, I have temporarily renounced my pseudo-Tico citizenship, and cannot "sign off" using the phrase that I normally would. Call it petty, but that's just how I'm feeling right now.