How to Pass a Harvard Class

What it’s like to be a cross-registered student
APR 2019
Tomas
G.
Technology and Policy Program

Shopping Day is like speed dating for courses at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Herds of students filter in and out of classrooms. Nervous chatter splinters out across the students until the professor sweeps in and quiets the crowd. There I sat in a room, staring people in the eye that I had seen in the news. Samantha Powers, the former UN Ambassador, introduced the course she was teaching with her husband, Cass Sunstein, who was running late from the Law School Shopping Day. “Putting the syllabus together nearly led to a divorce” Powers said; Sunstein repeated the line when he arrived, “I already told them that, Cass” she quipped. Later that day, I saw Ash Carter, the former Secretary of Defense, present his course on technology and public policy. He was more jocular in person than I expected from a former Cabinet Member.

I had room in my schedule for only one class, however, and I chose the course on energy and climate change, taught by Professor John Holdren, Obama’s former White House Science Advisor. While all the classes were interesting, climate change is the issue I am dedicating myself to in my career and I decided that the information in the class, as well as the connections with my fellow students, would be more fruitful for my future. I was nervous to meet John Holdren, much less take a class with him—I felt like I could not possibly belong in a place like this.

Walking into class on the first day, I expected something akin to Legally Blonde’s “Harvard Variations,” a battle of intellectual one-upmanship as we go around the room and introduce ourselves. There was no awkward Elle Woods moment for me, though. Holdren’s no-nonsense teaching style grounded the class in the dire reality of the climate crisis.

Slowly, as the weeks wore on I started getting to know the people who sat around me. Many, like me, were not in the Kennedy School full time. I met two PhD students, one in Biology and the other in Physics, who wanted to learn about climate. Several students were also from MIT, one in the Science Journalism Program and others from the Sloan School of Business. A good portion of the class was in graduate school after working for several years—two of whom worked on biofuels in India, and one who worked for years as an FBI agent.

While no one boasted of their backgrounds, the rich diversity of experience was remarkable. That is why I was genuinely excited to start our group project. We were each assigned a topic of energy and climate policy and instructed to teach the class about it. My group worked on self-driving cars and how they would impact the emissions of the transportation sector. The subject was in the news, as Uber was expanding their fleet of autonomous vehicles. The topic turned out to be tricky because the technology’s impact on carbon emissions is highly uncertain; the effect on the climate relies on how humans will change what they do when they have a self-driving car. For example, will people live farther away and drive more if they are not the ones driving? As a group, we debated, researched, revised, and framed our topic. When the presentation came together, we rehearsed late into the night to make sure we were polished and precise with our language. We were to present last, and we had seen Holdren’s incisive eye pick apart mistakes that other groups made. As one of the three presenters for my seven-member group, I did not want to let anyone down.

On the Big Day, I arrived at the MIT subway station with about a half hour to spare so I could get to the Harvard campus with time to set up our slides. I jogged up, seeing the train at the station, but as I swiped my card, I realized that the train was stopped. About five minutes passed and the train still had not moved. I looked around at the growing crowd of passengers who were nervously shifting their feet and checking their phones. Five minutes turned into 15, and MBTA staff looked bewildered as they made calls and jogged down the platform. Lyft, I thought as I left the station, would be worth the price to make it on time.

The hard work had paid off. The three of us presenting for our group finished at the exact moment the timer went off, indicating our time was up. It was a surreal moment, standing in the middle of the room, fielding questions from my classmates—the same people I was so nervous to sit among and who I came to know over 14 weeks. Of course, Holdren had several observations, but they were mostly minor stylistic points.

As a whole, the class was a perfect addition to my semester. It was a good break from my more quantitative and technical classes, and I enjoyed the intermission in my day to see a different side of town. The course did not have demanding requirements; the assignments were short and manageable, and there were no exams. But like many things, the benefits are a function of your efforts—you get out what you put in. There were hours of readings for each class that I, in truth, did not always complete. However, I now have a deep set of resource materials to study the topic further when I need to.

The people I met and worked with were, by far, the most rewarding part of my Harvard experience. John Holdren peppered his lectures with stories from his Congressional testimonies and Presidential briefings. That first-hand insight is irreplaceable. My fellow students, by providing a perspective from their careers and education, deepened my understanding of fields I knew little about. And contrary to my biased expectations, the only overstated thing in the room was my trust in public transportation.