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Commencement and Reunion Guide

Senior Standouts

A glimpse into the class of 2013

May-June 2013

Annie Ryu, Jenny Ye, and Dalumuzi Happy Mhlanga

Annie Ryu, Jenny Ye, and Dalumuzi Happy Mhlanga

Photograph by Stu Rosner

Sally Scopa and Ryan Christ

Sally Scopa and Ryan Christ

Photograph by Stu Rosner

Adam B. Kern and Ariel Kiyomi Lepon

Adam B. Kern and Ariel Kiyomi Lepon

Photograph by Stu Rosner

Each year, about 1,600 students graduate from Harvard College, entering the wider world with a mind-boggling range of individual talents and ambitions. Each will succeed on his or her own terms. Here, we introduce a mere seven members of the class of 2013—a snapshot of Harvard’s newest alums.

• • •

The “jack of all fruits”

Jackfruit is a large, oblong-shaped, greenish-yellow prickly product with a mighty tough peel. To some, its sticky ripe flesh tastes like a mix of banana, mango, and pineapple. Unripe, it’s more like chicken.

Annie Ryu sees jackfruit as a jackpot. She first tasted it (it’s virtually unheard of in the United States) at a street cart while traveling in Bangalore, India, and was impressed by its versatility and healthy attributes. “It’s super-abundant: one tree in southern India produces almost three tons of fruit a year,” she says, and “the majority of that now goes to waste.” Ryu is bent on changing that. Later this year, Whole Foods will begin carrying dried jackfruit that is grown, processed, and packaged through her fledgling company, Global Village Fruits.

Run from her dorm room for the last two years, the company has connected cooperative growers with a potentially lucrative market. Now she just needs to get people to buy it. “It’s a great source of potassium, magnesium, and fiber,” she points out. “The ripe ones have beta carotene.” In testing three dozen recipes, she found that it makes good cake, ice cream, and burgers—and the seeds can be used to make gluten-free flour. A Harvard lab is even researching jackfruit’s potential anticancer properties.

She encountered this potential “jack of all fruits” in 2011, while working on a separate organization she runs with her brother, Harvard medical student Alex Ryu. The nonprofit promotes healthcare by texting appointment reminders to more than 4,000 young mothers in rural India.

Ryu grew up in Rochester, Minnesota, home of the Mayo Clinic. At Harvard, she combined her pre-med studies with a concentration in social anthropology “after falling in love with the discipline” freshman year. She spent last summer immersed in St. Paul’s Hmong community for her senior thesis, which explored changing attitudes toward illness and American healthcare among the group’s young adults. (Traditionally, Hmong culture views sickness as the result of a soul leaving the body. One remedy is a soul-calling ceremony performed by a shaman.)

Ryu has deferred her Harvard Medical School acceptance. She plans to return to India with a Rockefeller Fellowship to work on agricultural-supply chains for jackfruit and other indigenous food products. “I do what it takes,” she explains, “to get the things I care about done.”

• • •

The “80 percent”

As a 15-year-old in Zimbabwe, Dalumuzi Happy Mhlanga stood before his mirror, mixing and matching the few clothes he had. On a scale of one to 10, he judged himself a three. “This really got to my sense of self-worth. As a teenager, clothes and how you look are very important,” says the social-studies concentrator. “Then I snapped out of it. I thought, ‘What are you doing? It was not up to you to be born into this family. Look into yourself.’ ”

The moment came “when I had to convince myself that my worth was based on my talents and what I can give the world,” he says. “And that was liberating.”

Seven years later, Mhlanga is the founder and chief executive officer of Lead Us Today (www.leadustoday.org), an organization that teaches leadership and entrepreneurial skills to more than 300 Zimbabwean high-schoolers annually. For his success in challenging students to create social change, he won the 2011 College Social Innovator Contest (sponsored by the Harvard Social Innovation Collaborative and Forbes.com). This fall, he will be at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

Mhlanga’s middle name is Happy. It’s not uncommon for Zimbabwean names to be adjectives, he points out, or even common nouns. “I think it’s because my mom was happy to have a son and she wanted me to be happy as well,” he says. “My sisters’ middle names are Grace, Faith, and Mercy. My mom is very religious.”

The topic of his senior thesis is Zimbabwean identity: specifically, how members of the second-generation in families who had immigrated to Zimbabwe from Zambia and Malawi view themselves and their citizenship—and their quest for essential documents, such as birth certificates and passports—in light of a 2003 national law that revoked it. The law affected an estimated one million people, about 10 percent of the population. “The children were born in Zimbabwe, they knew nothing of the place their parents came from,” says Mhlanga, who has gone home every summer to run Lead Us Today. “To them, this law was nonsensical.”

With four full-time staffers and 16 mentors, Lead Us Today runs a year-long program that teaches teenagers the theories and skills needed to engage in tangible social-change projects (e.g., community gardens and a local night school). The organization is also trying address the economic future of “non-book-smart students,” he says, because there is 80 percent unemployment in Zimbabwe. “Only about 20 percent of high-school students pass the required national exam,” he reports, “and very few jobs exist even for them. What happens to the 80 percent?”

At Oxford, Mhlanga will focus on African studies; he hopes eventually to earn a doctorate in anthropology. Academia appeals: a two-year stint as a teaching assistant for courses on “exercising leadership” at the Harvard Kennedy School was rewarding. He likes spending time with older faculty members, he says, “because they put a lot into perspective.” Like what? “In life, there is no point of arrival,” he reports, without a blink. “At 22, you think you will arrive when you have a family, a house, a good job. But it never happens. You are always exploring, often confused. You are always growing, and seeing the world differently.”

Most of his Kennedy School students already have professional careers; some are even former government ministers. “It was most humbling to see such sophisticated people sitting down to listen to what I had to say,” he says, with a smile. With a Harvard degree and a Rhodes scholarship, it would be easy “to look to learn in a particular place from particular people and shut down to the rest of the world,” he adds. “I will be open.”

• • •

“People are engaged”

Growing up in New York City’s Chinatown, Jenny Ye learned firsthand about the politics of gentrification, multiculturalism, and affordable housing. Demographic changes in recent decades have fractured the neighborhood and resulted in evictions. She joined a tenant-rights group: “That’s when I first got excited about politics. It was interesting and local,” and, she says, “I was involved with people I cared about in something that shaped my own neighborhood.”

At Harvard, she has supported causes centered on inclusion, such as anti-punch campaigns (opposing exclusive student social groups) and the push to have the University’s capital campaign include funds for creating more student social space, especially for late-night gatherings and free events.

As student president of the Institute of Politics (IOP) in a presidential election year, Ye focused on “getting as many people excited about the election as possible and out to vote.” She worked with campus political clubs, organized debates, helped produce a night of comedy targeting politics, and promoted TurboVote (which facilitates voting by providing registration forms and deadline reminders online). “Election night,” she recalls, “was one of the most exciting nights of my college life.” The IOP conducted faculty and student radio interviews throughout the day; student volunteers at the polls called in reports. Former IOP fellows were tapped for observations from Washington, D.C. “I have found a lot of people are engaged in and organizing around different political issues,” she says. “Working on something you care about has always been satisfying to me.”

Ye is a computer-science concentrator, with a secondary focus on ethnic studies. Coding, causes, and community-building seem to go hand-in-hand for her. During her summers, she organized volunteer engineers to teach computer science to New York City children through a program called CodeEd. She taught a civics class to Cambridge fifth-graders (on computers and citizenship), and currently teaches coding to girls at the Community Charter School of Cambridge. “I love being in front of the classroom and preparing the material,” she says. “It’s important to get girls and women into computer science. I was lucky enough to have had an amazing CS teacher in high school.” The wider issue of women’s rights in the educational and political arena caught her attention when she was the IOP liaison for feminist Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. After graduation, Ye plans to move back to Chinatown, where her family still lives, and find a job that “applies technology to social justice issues”—“and be involved in New York City politics!”

• • •

 “Spaces falling into disuse”

This spring, Sally Scopa photographed the ins and outs of the College’s Linden Street art studios. The space, formerly squash courts, now holds undergraduate artists, the Harvard Wireless Club, and “stairways, tunnels, and intersecting passageways” that connect it to Adams House. “What I am trying to do is talk about the architecture of the building,” says Scopa, a visual and environmental studies (VES) concentrator, “but also create images that somehow confuse the architecture of the original space, that call attention to the distortion and flattening that occurs when we photograph the built environment.”

The project culminated in an April installation of panoramic black-and-white images stretching around the walls of the student-run Monday Gallery at the studios, at 6-8 Linden Street. The exhibit complements Scopa’s senior thesis, for which she shot art-making spaces, including darkrooms, and enlarged them to near life-size. Of all the old photography darkrooms across campus (every House had its own), none are maintained for regular use by today’s digital students, though some are cleaned out and reopened periodically. “Part of my interest is also in thinking about how these spaces are falling into disuse,” she says, “but still reflect their original purpose” in reincarnated forms.

At first, art seemed too narrow a focus at Harvard. An introductory painting course her freshman year changed that. Former VES professor Drew Beattie installed still lifes of found objects—drapery, old furniture scavenged from around the Carpenter Center—that took up the entire center of the studio where he taught. “We had to return to the same spot, many days in a row, and create a new painting each week,” Scopa notes. “It was extremely hard.” That class, coupled with courses that spanned film, art history, critical theory, and architecture, culminated in a broad and rigorous critical education outside the studio. She also wrote about art for The Crimson, studied Italian, and developed her interest in urban planning and the intersection of art, culture, and history. Hence she’s considering a move to Berlin after graduation. “It has a vibrant visual art scene and I am also fascinated by the city’s architectural landscape, which reflects a rich and complicated history,” she says. The overall cost of living there, for essentials, is also relatively low, compared to Boston. “I’d have the freedom and time to fully explore,” she adds, “and figure out what my next step might be.”

• • •

 “Live life more deliberately”

From a young age, Ryan Christ saw the tangible losses caused by disease. His family took care of his great-aunt when she had Alzheimer’s; later, his grandfather began losing his once-sharp mind to dementia, while his grandmother suffered for years with multiple sclerosis in a nursing home. “Biology naturally puts a cap on us with human mortality,” says Christ. “But you have this large contingent of people with Alzheimer’s who are losing their connection to memories and reality. It wipes away life without actually killing us.”

In 2011, he founded the Harvard Alzheimer’s Buddies Program (HACB), which pairs students with patients at Hebrew Senior Life Rehabilitation in Boston, based on common interests. (His classmates Anita Murrell and Jessica Zuo were also instrumental to the program.) Christ sees his own buddy, a retired physician, on Sundays; they talk about science and medicine. He always brings her flowers.

The lesson, he says, is that “we have to reach out for what is really valuable to us and live life more deliberately, in the transcendental sense.” Raised in the Episcopal Church, he adds, “For me, Christianity teaches us that our connections to other people are the most important currency and we need to live out those relationships every day.”

As a freshman, Christ (pronounced krist) studied the genetics of fruit flies. It meant countless hours spent teasing out microscopic bits of brain matter, and he became fascinated by the power of DNA sequencing to unravel the genetic pathways that underlie diseases. Pursuing this work as a career required deep training in math and statistical modeling.

Christ will graduate with two degrees: a bachelor’s in applied math and a master’s in statistics. In the fall, he plans to study population genetics through the University of Oxford’s MalariaGen Project, and earn a doctorate of philosophy in statistics at the end of three years. (Malaria caught his attention during a summer internship spent working on maternal health in Tanzania.) Christ says the unprecedented database of full-sequence DNA from malaria patients across the globe helps show, most immediately, how the disease is spreading, but, “in the long run, the algorithms piloted on these relatively small malaria genomes could be used to analyze the DNA of Alzheimer’s patients.”

After Oxford? Medical school in the United States. “I think God, or life, handed me this opportunity to enjoy statistics and medicine and people. The best way I can give back is to find my niche,” says the Delaware native. That’s not necessarily as the top statistician, or even best doctor. He will be a person who fosters critical communication between the fields of medicine and statistics, which will be “increasingly valuable in making new treatments possible,” he says. “Just knowing that I could play some role in unraveling Alzheimer’s pathogenesis would be simply exhilarating.”

• • •

 “Clear, pure, beauty”

Unlike worried, professionally focused students, Ariel Kiyomi Lepon has ranged widely at Harvard. She is a First-Year Outdoor Program leader who was so engaged by learning first aid that she went on to earn Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician certification. She is also a modern dancer, a peer-advising fellow, and, of late, a burgeoning scientist. She took biology and chemistry as a junior and senior and someday plans to go to medical school.

For now, she cannot imagine spending “all day at a desk and working regular hours. I want to move my body, and be outside.” After graduation, she will head to Colorado ski country for a summer job as leadership programs director at the Keystone Science School. After that, she hopes to be a full-time ski patroller, and jokes, “I don’t know how many Harvard grads are applying for jobs whose descriptions require use of a chain saw and explosives in all forms of weather.”

The ski-patrol post would put her on the mountain from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., clearing trails and ministering to the lost and/or injured. “While I am young and can lift heavy equipment, ski every day, and use my WEMT certificate, this is an opportunity I should take,” she declares. Medical school and other careers will still be an option in five years. “Having people who are more mature and who have had other life experiences besides school is a very good thing,” she adds, “especially with the daily dilemmas and moral questions you face every day as a doctor.”

Lepon has a special interest in how the fields of medicine and education come together in studying and treating autism. The social-studies concentrator’s senior thesis explores how the role and identity of parents of autistic children have changed historically. The topic stems from her high-school experiences with families with autistic children, when she was trained to be a paraprofessional therapist. “In elementary school I was paired with an autistic child” as a buddy, she explains. Later, the boy was killed by his father, who then took his own life. “I felt there was so much injustice in the world, I wanted to do something,” she says of her high-school efforts.

Lepon used to go by Ariel, “lion of God.” At Harvard, she switched to Kiyomi, her Japanese middle name. (Her mother is third-generation Japanese-American and grew up in Hawaii, she says, “and my father is Jewish and from Ohio.”) Kiyomi means “clear, pure, beauty,” she adds. “It’s the way I try to live every day, in a graceful way, the way I want to see others live, too.”

Dance has always been a part of her life. This spring she worked on choreography with student dancers at Cambridge’s public high school. “There isn’t really a modern dance company in Keystone,” she acknowledges. “But if I am skiing every day, that’s sort of like dancing with the mountain.”

• • •

 “Living proof of the concepts”

This spring, Adam B. Kern co-taught a course on the “philosophy of parenting” to inmates at Boston’s Suffolk County House of Correction. One topic was punishment. “How and when should we punish kids?” asked Kern in discussing an excerpt from The Moral Education Theory of Punishment, by Jean Hampton. “Should we hit them? Should we give them a time out, accompanied by telling them why? The interesting thing is you can use the why question to answer the how question. Hampton claims that we should punish people to teach them moral knowledge.”

Who is more viscerally versed in how and whys of punishment: the prisoners or the Ivy-educated Kern? But in two years of running philosophy seminars at the jail (on topics ranging from free will and ethics to politics), Kern has found his students are hungry for ideas, for ways to make meaning of their circumstances—and their existence. They also have the time to think things through. “They are enthusiastic. There are students who ask to start writing essays and who want extra readings,” he says. “I can teach the class Socratically and it’s easy because I ask them questions and they respond. It may not be the right answer or even a good one, but they don’t care. They are willing to give a first effort because they are fearless.”

One woman said the classes give her a sense of self-worth. A man came up after a 50-minute discussion on Kant and asked, “Do you all talk about these things in conversation at Harvard?” Kern told him, “‘Not ordinarily.’ And he said, ‘Because every night after class I go back to my cellies and talk to them and it opens up whole new worlds.’”

If Kern has one aim, it is to make sophisticated ideas accessible. Philosophical products now fall into two groups, he explains: one for academics and one “for the rest of the folks.” The material for lay readers is simplified to the point of being trite. The former group is complex, precise, and uses its own language: “If you approach it with no background, it is completely baffling,” he says, and adds, “I am acutely aware of this because I’ve done it.”

What’s needed is a replication of “that feeling of interacting with a professor,” he says, “of coming out with your first big questions and then getting help breaking them down into precise inquiry.” Media technology and interactivity play a huge role, as do visualizations. Kern joined an MIT student to develop “LOGOS,” which models ideas as images of 3-D buildings. One features Kantian philosophy; another being developed will depict a set of experiments and inferences discussed in Phil 151z: “The Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics” (taught by professor of philosophy Edward J. Hall).

Kern, who hails from Indiana, will continue his inquiries through the Von Clemm Fellowship at Oxford in the fall. “I love thinking things through and writing and research, but I don’t think that’s a complete life,” he notes. Any future as a professor would also encompass politics and law, and make room for a wide reach beyond books and the classroom, “to engage in living proof of the concepts.” In the end, “inquiry does not have to presuppose that we get to some final, conclusive truth,” he adds. “We just need to get to better and better answers.” 

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