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Kennedy School Students Grapple with Remote Learning Challenges in the Fall Semester

Harvard Kennedy School students reacted to the first weeks of their online-only semester.
Harvard Kennedy School students reacted to the first weeks of their online-only semester. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Raquel Coronell Uribe, Crimson Staff Writer

Following Harvard Kennedy School’s decision to conduct an entirely online fall semester, students at the school are navigating novel challenges ranging from faraway time zones to childcare.

For some students, the decision to enroll this fall was a difficult one given HKS programs' often short timespan and students’ expectations of a Harvard education.

Allan D. Franklin, an international student enrolled in the Kennedy School’s mid-career Master in Public Administration program, said moving online was an “off-putting” prospect.

“When I heard I got accepted to Harvard, you kind of get an image in your head, being on campus, doing all the types of campus things, seeing people going to buildings, going to classes, meeting people, in person,” Franklin said. “So up until maybe, I don't know, mid-June that’s the image I had in my head. So now, just being here and stuck in front of my computer is a little bit off-putting to say the least.”

Franklin — who is currently residing in Barbados — is participating in a one-year program. He may never get the chance to be on Harvard's campus.

“A number of the persons associated with the program are like ‘We will see you in spring,’” Franklin said. “But my survival mechanism, I can't think of a spring at Harvard. I don’t want to build up my hopes because there's still a very real chance it may not come true.”

For other students, the decision to have the fall entirely online has been an unforeseen advantage in their studies. Danielle A. Callaway, who is also enrolled in the Kennedy School’s mid-career MPA program, said taking classes from her home country of Kenya has allowed her to have a more steady work-life balance, as she has more widely available childcare back home.

“It's possible to have either a live-in or kind of full-time nanny,” she said.

“It's been very easy for me in terms of juggling, childcare, and school, and definitely much easier than if I were in Cambridge,” Callaway added.

Callaway — who has to deal with a seven-hour time difference — said her professors have been very accommodating and that most of her courses are taught during her waking hours. The professors of courses that happen during odd hours have allowed her to take classes on her own time, she added.

Callaway is not alone in facing the challenge of balancing parenting with being a full-time student at the Kennedy School. For students like Allison M. Agsten, whose children’s instruction is entirely online, facilitating their classwork as well as succeeding in her own courses has posed a new challenge.

Still, Agsten said she has been able to adjust her courseload to “manage that moment.” The Kennedy School has offered alternate schedules for courses in order to accommodate students. Agsten, who is from California, has had to make adjustments in order to accommodate her children’s school, even taking classes as early as 4:30 a.m.

“I have skewed my schedule towards the very early morning. My classes start between 4:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.,” Agsten said. “But I'm done mid-morning, and that way I'm able to help facilitate my kids’ distance learning as needed and then be available when they're done at the end of the day to help with homework or anything they might want to go over in their day.”

“It's a lot,” she added. “It's much more difficult than if my children were in school during the day, and we had some physical separation from one another.”

Kennedy School student Yaneth J. “Joana” Ortiz, had to manage health and personal challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ortiz said that the death of a close relative forced her to leave her residence to spend time with family.

Ortiz, a member of the school’s Latinx Caucus, said she is a first-generation of “pretty much anything you can think of” and that her relative’s death demonstrates the disparate ways the pandemic has affected Harvard students.

“We're a Latino family in Texas. We are a statistic. We’ve added numbers to the disproportionate statistics. And so I, to be honest, felt kind of alone in that,” Ortiz said. “I'm not saying that others aren't dealing with the same thing, but the majority of my class aren’t dealing with this direct cause, just because of the accessibility of resources.”

Ortiz said this moment forced her to grapple with the lessons people can learn from the pandemic and who it is affecting.

“Something I’m reflecting on is, just what are the different levels of privilege?” she said. “What can we learn from this? And how can that impact and influence our learnings and how we take that into our careers in less than a year?”

Despite their distance, students have been able to connect with each other through technology and social media. The mid-career MPA program made a WhatsApp group for enrollees.

“To say that we have an active WhatsApp culture in my class would be an enormous understatement,” Agsten said.

Callaway said those who chose to enroll this year, even given the circumstances, call themselves the “Harvengers—like a Harvard Avengers.” She added that she thinks taking the risk to enroll despite the uncertainty makes them “superheroes in their own right.”

“Those who said yes [to enrolling] care less about the Harvard experience per se and more about changing the world when the world needs it most,” Agsten said. “Those are the kind of folks that I want to be around. So I'm glad I made the decision to come to HKS.”

—Staff writer Raquel Coronell Uribe can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @raquelco15.

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GSASHarvard Kennedy SchoolInternational Students