Farewell: Reflexions on Education
This semester I had the privilege of being in U.C. Berkeley in an undergraduate exchange program. It is one of the best educational institutions in the world, especially in Computer Science. Tomorrow I’m leaving, but I’ve been able to learn too much.
My name is Omar Sanseviero. I love to keep learning and teach. I’m an undergraduate student of Computer Science in Mexico City (I’m from Peru and I live in Mexico, but that’s another story). When I was in high school, I did a trip and came to California. During that trip, I was able to visit the Berkeley campus and fell in love with it. The buildings are so majestic and that day was so sunny (at least that day, this year was raining all the time).
I have two passions: Computer Science and Education. The latter has been a passion that I always had. I remember that I loved to teach how to play chess when I was 7 years old. I’ve been able to keep this passion until today: Giving web development workshops, mentoring in Udacity, and participating in Hackathons both as student and as a mentor have become part of my daily routine.
I strongly believe that good education can solve all the problems we face. Corruption is a problem we need to deal in Mexico and in many of the countries in Latin America. Mediocracy is encouraged and good, constructive ambition is dismissed. All of these issues are reflexed in a closed, inflexible and broken education system.
I don’t mean that the education in the U.S. is perfect. There are many issues right now, especially the huge amounts of loans in which the students are being drowned. Nevertheless, there’s a reason that many of the most breath-taking scientific discoveries and astonishing companies come from here. Even if there are many problems and limitations with their system, it encourages creativeness, innovation and, even more important, that hunger to keep learning and creating things.
My home university is considered one of the best in Mexico. In the international ranks, it tends to be the best or the second best (in the national ranks, the story is different), and, compared to what I’ve been able to experience here, it is mediocre. I’ve talked with students from different universities, and the story seems to repeat. Few people like to study in a formal setting in Mexico. In the U.S., many students don’t like to study in a formal setting, but that is normally because they have willingness to go even further, economic constraints, or seek to pursue their own projects. In Mexico the students don’t want to study in a formal setting because it is broken.
This is what I consider many universities in the U.S. do that make a difference:
- Multidisciplinary approach: You don’t need to choose your major until your second year. This, added with some requirements from different fields, allow the students to have a holistic education. Many people plainly say that they are engineers, so they don’t need to read. Actually, some of the most interesting projects I’ve seen are from people who have done other things instead of being programming 18 hours a day. Why? Because you need to know the world! You can’t expect to be programming all the time, without seeing what kind of problems the people face in their daily basis, and create the next product that solves everything. The system in the U.S. allows you to try a little of everything: literature, history, chemistry, physics, engineering. In Mexico, when you apply to a university, you apply to a major. You’re forced from the last year of high school to start thinking a lot about this.
- Classes from the best: Another thing that is really important is having classes from people with great experience and good teaching skills, especially for computer science. In Berkeley, we have huge lectures of hundreds of people. This lecturers are normally people that have an incredible resume. For example, my Data Science teacher has a Master in Philosophy from Stanford and a PhD in CS from Berkeley, and he also was a senior research scientist in Google. There might be less interaction compared to a class of 20–30 students, like most of my classes in Mexico, but you’re learning from the best. Two things happen: He/she won’t waste his/her time just giving the basics (You can learn this in Youtube, so the pace of the course is much faster, hence, even if you take less C.S. classes, you learn the same); you feel encouraged when the lectures get to be so interested and you want to invest more time and learn more.
- Continuous support: Having huge classes doesn’t mean that you won’t have anyone to contact. Even if the lectures are huge, we also have discussion sessions and/or labs in which we’re a group of 10–30 students and can talk with the teacher assistants. The huge amount of TAs allowed us to have weekly labs, homework, and projects. The TAs can be students that already took the course. They could also be Master or PhD students. Thanks to this, you keep having a 1:1 education and somebody to contact if any problem appears.
- Real projects: An essential part of education is to connect what is being taught with real life. For our Data Science class, we kept using real data (wow!). For my Innovation and Entrepreneurship class, we kept reading articles, papers, and researches, and extrapolated that knowledge to real things like what has been happening to Uber in the last year or how Apple works.
- Independence: Another point that I really consider important is the independence. Recording lectures in a practice done in most of the C.S. classes. These videos are then uploaded to the class website, so, even if you don’t go to class, you still have access to the material. You’re not treated as a children anymore; you’re supposed to be in an university because you want to learn, not because you’re forced, so they treat you like that.
Berkeley is known for the huge amount of workloads. At the same time, it is a hub of concentrated intelligence and motivation. You can walk a Sunday in front of a cafe and will probably see a bunch of students working on an assignment. I’ve walked at night in front of Jacobs Hall, an institute for innovation where students have access to 3D printers and many other thing, and it was full. These people are willing to work really hard. If you think about all of this, it’s not surprising that so many things have been accomplished in this space.
Tomorrow I’m going back to Mexico, but it is not a sad good-bye. Even though I was conscious of all the problems that we face in the educational system back home, I was able to see what can be accomplished.
I have the hope that education will someday be accessible for everybody. I seek that day in which the country in which you live, your gender, your current skills, or your race don’t matter when you have the willingness to learn. I want a world in which studying in the university is not an obligation, but something to do because you still have that love to learn that so many lack right now.
Some might say I’m naive. I might. But I’m also an ambitious person, and I’ll put my 100% to accomplish that goal. Mexico, and many other countries, are full of smart persons with huge potential. I know that we can fix the education system. For now, I can only say thanks. I’ve been able to reflect about the status of the education in the world. I’ve learned what can and should be done.