by Yuriko Nakamura
With the generous support of the Ito Foundation U.S.A. and Friends of UTokyo, Inc., I have had the privilege of studying at Harvard College as one of the sixty Visiting Undergraduate Students (VUS) for the Fall 2017 semester. VUS can take most courses and have access to most of the resources that are available to four-year Harvard College students. The majority of VUS, including myself, live in Harvard dorms, eat in dining halls, and join extracurricular activities at Harvard, even if it is just for a semester. While it is difficult to capture all of the academic and social opportunities that I have had over the past three months, I will give an overview and some highlights about my life at Harvard.
My primary goal for the semester has been to explore the impact of globalization on socioeconomic inequality and populism in developed countries from a variety of perspectives. To this end, I am taking Economics (“Growth, Technology, Inequality, and Education”), Sociology (“Introduction to Political Sociology”), and an interdisciplinary course (“Contemporary Developing Countries: Entrepreneurial Solutions to Intractable Problems”), and I am also auditing a course at Harvard Kennedy School (“Private Capital for Public Purpose: Impact Investing and Its Siblings”). The first three courses constitute of two 90-minute lectures and one 1-hour discussion (“section”) per week. The combination of lectures, sections, and assignments, as well as 200-300 pages of readings per week/class and weekly discussion posts online, enables students to not only understand new concepts but also think critically, form their own opinions supported by data, and argue those opinions through discourse or writing. The teaching methodologies are very different from those at UTokyo, yet professors and teaching fellows have provided me with much support through feedback and office hours; the collaborative environment among students has, moreover, helped me transition effectively.
One of the distinctive features of Harvard is the interdisciplinary nature of certain courses, and “Contemporary Developing Countries” is the epitome of such a course. Led by a Harvard Business School professor, the course welcomes more than 150 students, half of whom are undergraduates from various fields of study and the other half of whom are graduate students from various schools at Harvard, ranging from the Graduate School of Design to Graduate School of Education. We have examined case studies where entrepreneurial methods and lenses were employed to resolve complex problems in developing countries, and we have learned design-thinking, artistic, and system-wide approaches through lectures, discussions, and our semester-long group project. My group consists of two undergraduate students and two graduate students from Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Law School. We are tackling the lack of government accountability in disaster management in Ratnapura, a small inland city in Sri Lanka that is particularly prone to floods. The issue is seemingly far too complex to be effectively addressed by a semester-long project; each member brings, however, various insights from his/her discipline and personal experience while applying lessons learned in class to create innovative solutions (See photo attached for one of the brainstorming sessions).
3. Extracurricular Activities
At Harvard, I participate in Harvard College Impact Investing Group (HCIIG; learning about principles and career opportunities in impact investing through weekly speaker series and research), FoodLab (teaching middle school students every week at a youth center about nutrition, cooking, and chemistry as a volunteer), and Harvard Krav Maga (Israeli self-defense training). In HCIIG, I have also been selected as a fellow for a research project with Harvard Business School, where each team seeks to develop an impact investment index. I intend to be a part of the project for the whole year.
In the past three months, I have gained far more than I had initially expected in terms of academic and social life, thanks to the support provided by the professors, teaching fellows, academic advisors, and peers who have welcomed VUS like me. I am truly grateful to the Ito Foundation U.S.A. and Friends of UTokyo, Inc. for allowing me to be a part of this community.