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Episode Notes

Episode Title: Athena Lao on Harvard: Studying Classics, Teaching Abroad and Wanting to Make Things Better.

Episode summary introduction: The mere mention of “Harvard” is intriguing. A good fraction of the high school students have Harvard on their list of Colleges they aspire to.

Athena Lao is a graduate of Harvard University with a Bachelor’s degree in Classics.

In particular, we discuss the following with her:

  • Why Harvard?
  • The Academic and Campus Experience at Harvard
  • Advice to Aspiring Students

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • “Loved going to Harvard” [2:01]
  • Why Harvard? [5:26]
  • From Athens, Georgia to Harvard [13:15]
  • Incredible Academics! [16:40]
  • Amazing Peers! [19:07]
  • Choosing Classics as a Major [23:09]
  • Living in “Halls” and Brain Breaks [26:02]
  • Campus Activities [33:50]
  • Int’l Sojourns during Summers [36:32]
  • “Life Changing” Fulbright Grant [39:08]
  • Advice to Aspiring Students [43:30]
  • Forward Thinking Passion at Harvard [48:09]

Our Guest: Athena Lao is a graduate of Harvard University with a Bachelor’s degree in Classics. Athena then went on to get a Master’s degree in International Education Development Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Memorable Quote: Athena to aspiring Harvard applicants “Don’t want it so much.

Episode Transcript: Please visit Episode’s Transcript.

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Episode Transcript

Transcript of the episode’s audio.

Venkat  0:10 

The mere mention of “Harvard” is intriguing. A good fraction of the high school students have Harvard on their list of Colleges they aspire to. In fact, creating a parlor game on “What it takes to get into Harvard”, could prove to be lucrative!

Hi! Welcome to this episode of College Matters. Alma Matters.

Athena Lao is a graduate of Harvard University with a Bachelor’s degree in Classics.

During the summers at Harvard, Athena travelled to 7 continents to learn and teach. This global experience combined with the Harvard ethos of “Making things better” has shaped her career in International Education.

Athena joins us today and takes us through her years at Harvard, and shares insights from that journey.

Without further ado, let’s hear what Athena has to say!

Venkat  1:14  

Hi Athena, how are you?

Athena  1:15  

Hey, hey, I'm good. I was waiting. Because I know last time we said in unison...

Venkat  1:23  

And that turned out well, so...

Very good. So welcome, again to our podcast, College Matters. Alma Matters. And this time, we want to talk about your experiences at Harvard as an undergrad, and really looking forward to hearing about all your years there, and the experiences.

So, if it's all right, we should just jump right into it. And maybe we can start with sort of your overall takeaway from Harvard experience.

Athena  2:01  [“Loved going to Harvard”]

Sure. So I really loved going to Harvard, I will say there were some times that I hated it. And I think that's something everyone should know, when they're applying to university in general, that you're going to have some of the highest highs and the lowest lows when you go through school. And you take these different classes, and you figure out who you are. So to have that expectation going in, that there will be a lot of ups and downs, but that you'll be able to get through it.

I think that's, that's one thing that Harvard really taught me was that if you really are resilient, if you're persistent, if you really care about something, and you surround yourself with other people who have that same kind of mindset, you'll be able to accomplish a lot.

So I think if there was only one takeaway from Harvard, there were many, but I think if there was only one takeaway that was, I think, the most powerful one because that's something I've tried to carry with me throughout my life.

Venkat  3:04  

Sure, sure. So, um, any broad likes and dislikes, before we jump into more specifics?

Athena  3:14  

Yeah, yeah. So I think a lot of times when people are applying for college, they they hear when they asked this question people say merely, oh, it's the people, the people are the best thing about this university.

And I think that is true. But I, I think I want to expand on that a little bit since everyone says that. I think it's not only that there's such a diverse array of people at Harvard and many other great schools too. It's that they have a specific kind of mindset. I think this is what I was alluding to earlier, where they are both down to earth and more humble than I think society at large might give them credit for. 

There is this idea that, oh, you know, the arrogant Harvard graduate, they have this fancy degree, they think they're all that. And there are maybe a few of them there.

But most of the people I met, were on the whole, just so maybe self effacing that might be one way of putting it, but generally humble. I'm just really trying to think about how to do things in the best way possible. And so they would combine this, this quality with just really having a sharp mind. And, and really thinking, Okay, well, how can I make this situation better? How can I improve things? What's the, what's the big picture? And how can we get how can we all be on the same page?

I think I found almost everybody had that sort of spirit. And it made a lot of things possible. When at other places you would, you know, someone said, this thing is impossible, You can't do it, A lot of times people would give up. At Harvard, that would just be an impetus to try even harder. Find a way around it. So I think that is something that is really admirable about people, they always find a way.

And I again, I've tried to incorporate that in my own thinking and approach to things as well.

Venkat  5:17  

So, so maybe let's talk about how you ended up there. Why did you choose Harvard, give us some background into what happened there?

Athena  5:26  [Why Harvard?]

Sure. I'll talk a little bit about where I grew up.

So I'm from Georgia. And so I'm from the south, a very, very sort of particular culture. People are very, very relaxed. Very polite, it's hot there. So you know, we don't move as quickly. Um, and it's just a different pace of life than in other, more crowded urban areas in the US.

So when I moved to Boston, and that was my first time living in the northeast. I was not used to the very cold weather during the winters, storms, all of that. And people there were also very different from what I expected.

I mean, I didn't really know much about the world at that time. They, you know, people were a bit more reserved and just just different from what I was used to.

So anyway, so before I was, I came to Harvard, my, my childhood was, I was born raised in Athens, Georgia. My family was Filipino immigrants. And they might my mom and dad, you know, they were, I would say, we were a low income family, they they worked really hard, but there wasn't always a lot of money around, but they just made sure that they could provide for me and, you know, their, their big goal was that, I would be able to get the education that I needed to lift myself up and you know, be able to lift up our family. At the end of it all, and hopefully I was able to do that.

But so anyway, so they really instilled in me a love of education, a love of learning things, a love of, you know, thinking no matter what situation or whatever community you're part of, you should try to make it better in some way. You shouldn't just leave it in the state that you found it. Just try to make it better. I'm sure.

So, yeah, I applied that to whatever I did. In high school. I did a lot of different things. I played piano, I played tennis, I did a lot of different volunteering activities. I was really into Latin. And I didn't really know how all of these things would relate to one another. They did, just like those things, but they encouraged me to keep going and to study hard.

And when I was thinking, you know, where do I want to go to college? I applied. I didn't apply to that many schools. I only applied to six schools. Actually. One of them was in my hometown. Athens, Georgia has the University of Georgia, which is our flagship public university, and has a lot of students. My mom said, If you stay here, I'll do your laundry every week. So that was very tempting.

But yeah, um, you know, I, when I thought, well, how can I really make the most of these next four years? How can I get this new experience and see and figure out who I am? Um, you know, I, I knew I wanted to go out of state. So the two Ivy League schools that I applied to were Yale and Harvard, and I will share a secret that I kind of really wanted to go to Yale for a long time. .

Sorry, to anyone from Harvard listening to this.

But I think after visiting both schools and just looking at the financial aid that I received, and I mean, it was great at both schools, but yeah, just thinking about, you know, what is the school that has not only all the resources and the networks and the unparalleled excellence in learning, and just, you know, has that name brand. Harvard did have all of those things. And it was a little bit stronger than Yale. And also, I knew my parents, they would they, they'd be happy too. It was a win-win for everybody.

Um, so yeah, I ended up, that's how I ended up there. And, you know, if you want me to talk more about what I did in high school, or kind of the journey of getting there, I can elaborate more.

Venkat  9:35  

Yeah, I mean, it'd be nice to get a little overview of what you think propelled you... The other you know, I appreciate the way you sort of described your decision.

So yeah, a little bit of background that would be good. And then we can sort of jump into Harvard after that.

Athena  9:52  

Sure. So yeah, I will say that I did not... I hope this is comforting when I say this, but I had no idea  what I was doing when I was in high school. So I hope that, um, that that's a sort of a sense of comfort that brings a sense of comfort to some of the listeners.

Um, but I mean, I say that I didn't know what I was doing and that I didn't know what I wanted to be. I didn't know what career I wanted to pursue, I was interested in a lot of different things. And so, the way that I dealt with that was just whatever I ended up doing, whatever I found myself just gravitating towards each week, I just kept going at that thing until I reached the level that I felt good about.

Um, so for example, piano, I've been playing that since I was a kid. I'm Filipino. And Filipinos are known for really being into music, into singing, into song, dance playing instrument, what have you. So that was my instrument of choice. I also played violin. And that was something where I would just find a way to practice no matter what, each week. And I would join state competitions and perform at all different kinds of venues on, even at the housing for the elderly, I would play for them I play for anyone who listened.

At the end of the, the end of high school, that was an experience where I had a lot to talk about because it I just had spent so much time doing it, I just followed my love for that activity and let it and let that lead the way as opposed to trying to plan out so, um, in organically. What would happen with piano. Sure, um,

Um, and you know, that was the same with some of the other activities I did. So I played tennis, I ended up being the captain of my school's team by senior year. Mm hmm. I also I realized too, because in our county, it has the highest it had at the time the highest level of poverty per capita. I think it is. There's a very high poverty rate. Mm hmm. had a very high poverty rate.

So I felt like I needed to do something as someone who lived there who was named after the city, who really cared about what's going on, who felt like I was a member of that lower socio-economic status. So, along with some other students, we started an anti-poverty organization called young, Young People for a Prosperous Athens. And we held a concert to raise awareness about poverty and raised some funds.

So I would get involved in different things like that. I think I knew from what I'd read, and from what people told me that, you know, you have to make good grades, you have to try to be a leader, you have to do your best at a lot of things. But aside from those principles, it was a matter of just, again, letting what I loved lead the way and just aiming to be, aiming for excellence and whatever I ended up doing at that time.

And so you know, By the time I got to senior year and had these applications to fill out, it did not feel like such a struggle to to write about the things I've been involved in and cared about and did my best in.

Venkat  13:15  [From Athens, Georgia to Harvard]

Okay, so, transitioning now to Boston, Cambridge. Now you arrive at Harvard. So how is that transition from high school to college?

Athena  13:29  

Yeah, it was a very, it was a very challenging transition. I will be honest, not because my high school didn't prepare me It did prepare me academically for Harvard.

But I think what sometimes doesn't get a lot of attention is the fact that some of the people who go to Harvard and actually maybe many, so that number are coming from backgrounds from, from prep school, from elite prep schools, private schools, where many of their students go to Harvard each year. From my public high school, I was the first student in many years to get into Harvard, so there wasn't that there wasn't really a pipeline, like other places.

And what I saw in my, my first year of studies was that, the students who had had these backgrounds had a more intimate understanding of how to navigate the system of resources, they felt more confident in the way they presented themselves in class, and in talking to professors, and feeling that they could just ask questions, and there weren't consequences for the question.

Um, so understanding that, seeing that and not being intimidated, intimidated by that, you know what they call that imposter syndrome. We all, everyone feels that way when they get to Harvard, even if they don't show it, but it was something that I definitely needed to overcome first year, and, you know, I have to learn, okay, maybe now that I'm here, maybe the things that I thought I liked in high school, they might be changing, and that's okay. The things that I thought I wanted to do after college, that's also changing, that's okay. And I, myself as a human being, I'm growing, I'm learning and evolving. And this uncertainty that is sort of within me and around me, I need to accept that and say, Okay, now that I've accepted that, how can I create ground rules? How can I create a sort of structure for myself, so I'm not overwhelmed? And how can I be competent in what I have to bring to the table, so that this evolution can keep going and get me to the place that I need to go?

So I mean, that, those are, that's a description of the story that I think now as an adult, I can look back and say like, yes, that's what's happening. But I think when you're 18 and it's your first time away from home, and you're around people that seem to know what they're doing, although, as I just said, they can fit in either. So it's okay. You know, it feels very daunting, but everyone gets through it. So it's just something that's part of the process. It's part of the ups and downs that are that come with going to a place like Harvard.

Venkat  16:24

Sure.

Venkat  16:28  

How would the actual academics? how's the, How did you feel the first year at least getting into this while you are sort of adjusting to the environment?

Athena  16:40  [Incredible Academics!]

Yeah, yeah. I mean, the academics at Harvard are really incredible. They are worth the hype. Yeah, um, but I think also, sometimes I think there's this idea that when you get there, you know, just by virtue of being there, you'll absorb all of the knowledge and you You just become this very brilliant person, if you're not already.

But of course, like anywhere else the resources are there, but you need to take advantage of them and need to know that, you know, you have to go to the office hours to talk to the, to the, you know, these hot shot professors, you have all these accolades.

I mean, yes, it's one thing to see them standing in front of the lecture hall, and, you know, giving an engaging lecture about whatever topic you could think of, but it's another thing to really say, Okay, well, now that I have that, I want to ask them more, and I can ask them more that is within my right as a student to do that. So I'm going to take advantage of that opportunity.

Um, and then, you know, there would be all of these different ways to get involved outside of class. And just learn more about a topic sometimes. Well, I mean, for every class for most classes, maybe you'll have a large lecture with a lot of students big lecture hall.

And then you'll have sections So that will be led by a graduate student who, it'll be a smaller class discussion or lab or something like this to apply what you've learned in the lecture. So a lot of classes have this format. And then as you get older you are as you advance in your course of study then, you might be taking these smaller classes that are really discussion based and you know, just a very, very advanced level.

Um, so whatever your learning style is, you can find something, whatever topic you want to learn about, I will say that Harvard is the one place where whatever obscure topic you can think of, there's probably an expert on it at theUniversity.

So, um, I think, you know, it's understanding that everything is there at your disposal, but you have to take that stuff and, and say, Okay, I'm going to take that opportunity and really dive in deep as much as I can while I'm here for these very short four years.

Athena  19:07  [Amazing Peers!]

My first impressions were, a little bit of fear, nervousness, will these people like me? Will they all be smarter than me? Do I really deserve to be here?

But once you start talking to people and knowing that we're all in this together in some way we have this shared experience of, of not being sure. Then you realize how, how easy it is to get to know other people. And everyone has that same indomitable spirit of, again, wanting to make things better, of wanting to understand how things, why things are the way they are, and that and that's beautiful. There's a lot of really fantastic conversations that you end up having over, like in person, in the dining hall outside in class, even in our email listservs, I, I remember that there have been many controversial discussions where the email listserv will just you'll get an email notification every minute, even into the wee hours of the morning because that's how passionate students get about certain topics.

Um, so yeah, and I think as someone who was, who's kind, who still is, a kind of a night owl, and maybe the burst of creativity will come at more inconvenient times of the day. Harvard is a really great place for that, because everyone's everyone's quirky. Everyone has. Everyone has a really great story about where they're from, what they've been through, you know, what they care about, and that shows up in so many weird and interesting ways when you're on campus.

So my peers were amazing. I mean, I still have a lot of close friends from when I was in college.

Venkat  20:55  

Cool. And I think as far as the teaching and the process You already sort of talked about that. So anything more you want to add to what already said about, you know, about your professors, and anything, any special sort of vignette or something?

Athena  21:16  

Yeah, I think the most one of the best experiences, academic experience I had at Harvard was my senior thesis. And so that is, it's not required. It depends on your major and your willpower. But you can work with a professor closely over the course of a year, basically, from the end of your junior year until March of your senior year, let's say and you dive deep into a research project, that you work with a professor on it aside and it becomes your sort of original scholarship, your contribution to your field.

So remember, that was the first time that someone ever said to me that you know, Athena, You are a scholar. Don't say don't doubt yourself, don't say, Oh, I'm a student, I'm learning You are a scholar, you're creating this. And I don't know if it was true. But, that, that boost of confidence from someone who was such a distinguished person in their field as a distinguished scholar, academic and scholar in their field that was, I mean, that was incredible.

And so to know that you can have that kind of interaction with your professors. It's really motivating and it makes you want to finish those 70-80, hundred pages of writing and citations that you have to do as part of the senior thesis project.

So I think whatever University people, that you end up going to I highly recommend doing some sort of Capstone because it puts everything into focus and helps you remember why you're learning this topic in the first place.

Venkat  22:57  

Since you're talking about the thesis, How did you pick your major? And how did you? I mean, how did you end up Picking? I think it was Eastern Studies was your Major, right?

Athena  23:09  [Choosing Classics as a Major]

I studied classics at Harvard.. So this comprises the studies of Latin, ancient Greek, ancient history, ancient philosophy, anything ancient!

Venkat  23:21  

It had to be a few thousand years old!

Athena  23:28  

Yeah. And the reason I got into that was when I was a kid, when I was in middle school, elementary, middle school, I participated in spelling bees. And I didn't realize, well I learned in that experience from some of my fellow competitors that they had learned about, you know, the, the roots of different words, just by studying Latin, and I said, Oh, I want to study Latin too.

And my high school offered a Latin class, I ended up taking that class. The added advantage was that my teacher said when I finished my work I could take a nap in class. I didn't always take her up on, but that was, that was great. And so the more I studied Latin, the more I realized how wonderful it was to just to just read different words to try to. It feels like a puzzle when you're trying to translate Latin sentences and figure out which words are supposed to go in which order. And so I just decided to stick with it.

And when I went to college, I just wanted to keep going and see where that took me. I also started out pre med, I will say, um, but I think someone told me about 70% of people at Harvard, start out pre med and then drop it. So, um, you know, so it's, I was one of the 70% I guess.

Um, but the thing is, with classics, it was just, it was just so cool to to understand that, you know, in antiquity, you know, people were thinking about things in a certain way. They had all these different issues and a lot of those, those ways of thinking those issues they were grappling with.

It's very similar to what we're experiencing today in the US, so just having that knowledge, and that understanding really broadened the way I thought about things and I just really enjoyed it. I think though, I realized after, you know, spending a lot of time in the libraries and translating, that maybe was something that I would enjoy now and I enjoyed in college, but maybe I'll try something different after, after college.

So yeah, that's that's how I decided what to major in. And I'm still very thankful that I have that framework to this day.

Venkat  25:50  

So let's get out of the classroom now, and talk about campus life. Let's start with the dorms, and you can go to social life then.

Athena  26:02  [Living in “Halls” and Brain Breaks]

Sure, uh, yeah. So I would say that Harvard, Harvard housing is incredible.

I, I think, um, I just had a lot of, I live in New York now. So I think, my, my dorm room is almost as big. My apartment in New York, I don't know what that says about New York. Anyway, um, but I think at Harvard, the housing tradition is really strong, and it's one of the best parts of the experience.

So as a freshman, you are assigned randomly to one of the halls as they call it in in the yard. So the yard is the central gathering place for everyone. I had a very special experience and because I lived in Massachusetts Hall, mass hall. And this and we are on the fourth floor above the main office of the president of Harvard. So there's a lot have lore around, you know, who lives in that hall? How are we chosen? Where we special? Are they even real?

I think I even remember two fellow freshmen once swiped into Mass Hall and climbed all the way up to the fourth floor, just to make sure that we actually existed. And so they were very surprised when we were having, you know, a dorm, a snack break in our dorm and they saw, you know, 14 very real people or what have you. Um, so that was really fun. Um, and then, one other really great tradition is Housing Day.

So after you're a freshman, you're assigned to one of Harvard's houses, and each of the houses has a delegation of sophomores, juniors, seniors, who dress up in crazy costumes representing you know, the house, the house mascots, sometimes or instruments. Sometimes, you know, there's There's all kinds of things they could do. And so I guess to simplify the process, you, you pick people, you pick people that you might that you're going to live in the same house with. And then you submit your name on to Harvard system. And then you get assigned to one of the houses.

And then on housing day, these house housing delegations bring you and your house in your blocking group, the letter, revealing which house you're going to be in, so you don't know. It's like, very exciting, like until you hear it and see the people you have no idea what's going to happen.

And also, a lot of, there's a lot of competition about which house is the best. So during my freshman year, we got placed in the Cabot House, which was one of the less popular houses because it was quote-unquote far away, meaning it was a 10 minute bus ride, which really wasn't that far. Yeah, but so we noticed that, you know, their delegation in comparison to some of the other houses’ delegations was, to be honest, a little bit sad. It was only four people, they kind of handed you the envelope and they're like, Okay, good luck.

Um, yeah. And so I mean, after that after we we lived in the house, we realized that we had one of the biggest dorm rooms. We had all of these, we had an amazing field that was in the middle of the house, so that you could just sit there and have a picnic whenever you wanted. We had a great, we had pianos, everywhere. We had unlimited storage. Basically, we had all these really fantastic things that we thought were being overlooked. And so our, our sophomore class that had moved into Cabot, we decided that for the next housing day, we want to make sure that the freshmen after us felt the spirit and the acity of our house.

And so I think I still have videos where you know, our year has been four people. So we brought, I think 50 people. Everyone had face paint on, we were all dressed up. We were, you know, we were very, very spirited. And that first year everyone was very surprised. They said, Oh, people from Cabot they're not supposed to be this excited.

But, uh, but in future years it became it became a tradition. So people recognize us. As for, for the greatness that Cabot house had, um, yeah, so I think housing day like all the traditions and the competitiveness and, you know, all all the traditions around housing, they are really fun.

Um, and I think just living on campus and living and, you know, studying in the dining hall with your friends. So much of social life is around that and it's really a beautiful thing.

Venkat  30:48  

So how many students to this house, mean each house had how many students roughly?

Athena  30:55  

I think I want to say 300 ish.

Venkat  30:58

Oh, wow. So it's biggish. It’s biggish.

Yeah, okay.

Athena  31:01  

Yeah, but that might be, Yeah, I think it depends on the house. I also, my math might be off, but that number sounds right.

Venkat  31:07  

Yeah, that's, that's fine. Just a general, it felt like 300 to you!

[Laughter]

Venkat  31:16  

Um, cool. So let's talk, so the food, the dining hall, how is the food? I mean, how did you guys eat out? Or it was a part of the dining plan? How did it work?

Athena  31:29  

Yeah. So, um, when you buy the meal plan, I think everyone if you live in the house, you have to buy the meal plan and ... it's for 14 meal. It's based on a price of 14 weekly meals. Anyway, I mean, you could eat all of the meals you wanted to in, in the dining hall. Um, some people had complaints. I found it great. I mean, it was a buffet and they had these really interesting, different components.

So for example, I think you or a parent could submit a recipe, and then the dining hall would try to, try to make that, that day. So and then they would put it you know, like, here's who it's from, here's what's in the recipe, etc. So they wouldn't, they would have interesting home touches like that.

Um, we also had the Veritaffles, so they had these waffle makers with Harvard, the Harvard insignia on it, and so you would just have waffles with, with Harvard, which is cool.

Um, and then we always have this thing called brain break. So whenever it's around 9pm it’s years ago, so but around 9pm, the dining hall staff would put out snacks to help you in your late night studying so it could be anything from cookies and chips to a whole cake or doughnuts. I think once they had a fondue station, it was Yeah, they had a lot on people definitely gained a few pounds. You could get food anywhere. Um, and I think, I think this might be more common now, but they would have text chains or email listservs where they would announce when events were happening and events always meant free food.

So you know, okay, I want pizza today I know where I can find it. So the food was it was very filling. And if you didn't want to eat on campus then I mean Harvard Square, Everything you wanted was in walking distance.

Venkat  33:31  

Sounds great.

Venkat  33:36  

So how was the, um, you know, the activities on campus. I mean, obviously, the cultural but also organizations and clubs and...

Athena  33:50  [Campus Activities]

Yeah, I would say that, I think someone joked once, at Harvard students are actually better at extracurriculars than academics, which maybe or may not be true.

But for sure, I think just the extra curricular presence was so vast. And I mean, if you it's almost speaking to again, the resources available at Harvard and the possibilities if you did not find a club that you want to join, you could invent it, and find the members and you had this club. And because you went to Harvard, and if you needed sort of, if you had this project in mind, and you want to involve outside donors or sponsors or what have you, it was possible. So yeah, the extra curricular system was just so expansive.

And I, it was one of the best parts of going there for sure. So if you wanted to do community service, you know, I had classmates who were running programs in Boston's Chinatown and other parts of Boston. And, you know, helping empower youth that way.  

I had classmates And actually participated in some of this, who set up exchange programs with universities in Asia and Africa. And so their schools would bring delegations to Harvard for a week. And then you would send a delegation to their schools for a week as well. So one of those was Harvard College in Asia program, which is still running. And then we had Harvard College in Africa, which is no longer running, but was also a fun experience.

Um, so those were some things that I was involved in. I was also involved in a lot of the cultural organizations on campus. So the Asian American Association, the Harvard Philippine forum, and, you know, we would have big shows where we would dance, we would have traditional dances from our different cultures and perform that for people delicious food all the time. It was a lot. It was great. Anything you wanted, you could you could find it at Harvard.

Venkat  35:53  

Sounds great. Sounds great. So, So you had a rich, sort of extracurricular experience though?

Athena  35:58  

Yeah, yeah, for sure. You really learn how to organize things on your own. And I think I because I manage education programs now a lot of the skills that I bring to my job are from these extracurricular projects and clubs that I was involved in, because you have to figure out the logistics and the funding and how to reach out to people and publicize events and annoy people.

Yeah, I still use to this day.

Venkat  36:32  [Int’l Sojourns during Summers]

Okay, so moving forward, then. How, what did you do during your summers? I mean, internships, courses, research, what kind of things did you do?

Athena  36:43  

Yeah, I discovered my love for international education while I was at Harvard, for sure. This is I'm very thankful for this. Because I, I didn't even realize that it was a career path until I had this range of international experiences thanks to Harvard.

And I think that's also one of the most powerful parts of going there too is that you realize, you know, I went from, from being someone who had never had a passport in her life, to traveling to all seven continents while I was in college.

And so, during my summers, after my freshman year, I did an archeological dig in Greece. After my sophomore year, I taught English in Ecuador with WorldTeach. We have a partnership with the WorldTeach.

My, after junior year, I taught, I was a teaching assistant at a school in Botswana a few months. So yeah, I had a really, really, really cool, really, really cool experiences.

Um, and I think, from the archaeological dig, I mean, I had never done that before. I learned that, you know, while I love classics and thought archaeology was interesting, it was good to know that actually, I didn't want to do that later on in life, and Greece itself was an incredible country to explore.

And then with Ecuador, that was my first time going to a developing country. And, you know, I didn't really speak Spanish when I went there. So I had to learn how to speak Spanish and how to get around. And I, that was my first time just teaching. I was teaching at a church in Montanita, which is a coastal city and Ecuador.

So I learned, you know, what it's like to teach English as a second language, and how to use games and how to use these different active methods of learning when you're in when you're in the sort of after school classroom setting.

So yeah, that was that helped me realize that I could pursue a career that was related to international development and education and that that was the direction I wanted to keep going in.

So yeah, it's all my sort of future or my later travel experiences built on, on that time going into Ecuador.

Venkat  39:02  

That sounds fantastic.

Venkat  39:08  [“Life Changing” Fulbright Grant]

So, So now, tell us a little bit about the Fulbright grant that you got. Not sure if it was a consequence of all these things, but yeah, a little bit about that.

Athena  39:21  

Yeah, sure it. It definitely was related because I realized, from my time in college from when I was reflecting on how I spent my time, I realized I was most excited when I was planning something abroad, I guess, getting out of Harvard. I was planning something abroad. And when I was teaching people, so I had I had a few different jobs, part time jobs while I was in college, and the most fulfilling one was teaching at the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.

And so I was a grad graduate, I was a teaching assistant for a course for graduate students for international graduate students, to help them work on communication skills on presentation skills and just learning about American culture in general.

And that experience along with teaching abroad, as I mentioned before, and just I've also gone to different education conferences and other countries and done some winter some J terms, so January abroad programs as well. From all that, I said, Okay, well, what's a way that I can continue that and the Fulbright Program was perfect for that.

Actually, you know, because I wasn't sure if I would get it, I'd applied for a few different teaching fellowships, and I realized that you know, Fulbright is, at the very least it'll be one year in this view, unexplored terrain, this country I've never been to, and I will see if I really enjoy being in a classroom for you know, pretty much full time.

Um, so one year turned out to, to be three years. I spent three years just living in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria teaching at a foreign language High School. And I also ended up starting a nonprofit while I was there, that focuses on civic education through speech and debate for Bulgarian high school students.

And I, I mean, it was just I think that was after Harvard, another life changing experience for me. It really helped me understand who I am and what I care about and what and what kind of environments I succeed in. But yeah, I really put my heart on the table there when, when I was in Bulgaria and just tried to be the best teacher and Speech and Debate coach and nonprofit founder that I could be.

Venkat  41:42  

Sounds like a) you sort of gave back a lot. I mean, this was a wonderful way to sort of, uplift and teach the language to, in a new country. More than that, I mean, it must have been very fulfilling to, to sort of do this, right?

Athena  42:02  

Oh, for sure, for sure. I think that's something. I mean, thinking back to Harvard, that it that is what Harvard instilled in us. I mentioned that people have that sort of impulse when they select for, for students who have this impulse to want to make the world a better place.

But after going to Harvard, you gain a confidence born from the challenges you face, the ups and downs that you've gone through that you can do that thing. You can make the world a better place, even in some small way. You can do it. So I was able to bring that desire to succeed to help others find their best selves while I was on my Fulbright grant.

Venkat  42:50  

Yeah, and I guess you also found the tools to do that, right? I mean, yeah, obviously, not just the drive, but also the tools. Yeah, that's, that sounds really, really awesome.

Venkat  43:01

Let's sort of talk a little bit about, based on your experience and based on everything that you did at Howard. You know, I don't know how many 10s of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people or students out there want to get into Harvard or at least apply to Harvard.

So what, what would your advice be to all these aspiring students?

Athena  43:30  [Advice to Aspiring Students]

I would say three things.

I think the first is that I know a lot of people list Harvard as their dream school. But I would say, don't make it your dream. Don't want it so much. And what I mean is that if you're so focused on getting in, and so focused on this, Harvard is the only way that I'm going to achieve success. I must get there. I deserve it. I'm entitled to it almost. It's what it feels like it. It will be more disappointing when you don't get in. So, and most people are not going to get into Harvard. That's just the truth.

So, yeah, yeah, unfortunately. So when you focus on that, you lose sight of what the college application process in my opinion is really about, which is, you know, learning who you are as much as you can while you're in high school and learning what you stand for. Because if you're able to learn those two things about yourself, and explore that, while you're in high school, you'll be able to present the best version of yourself, and you'll be able to improve your chances of getting into Harvard. So that's why I say First things first, don't want it too much. Don't get so focused on that, that you lose sight of this longer term project of becoming the best person you can be.

I think the second thing is that you have to, you have to develop strong opinions and how you feel about things. Or if you're if you don't have strong opinions, know how to express how you feel about a topic. Because you'll find that when you get to Harvard, I mean, even the students have, they have a mindset they have, they believe certain things about, you know, the way the world works, they'll be able to explain how they feel and go into detail about why they feel that way. There's not, there's no room for people who say, Oh, I don't really know, it's fine. It's up to you. Every students are really proactive and they have, they have an idea of what to do. And it might be, it might be changed, you know, based on the information they get the data that they receive, but you need to have that vision you need to come in with a vision. So as you're in high school, you know, put yourself in positions in you know, extracurricular activities and find opportunities where you are forced to say how you feel about certain things to share your opinion to present yourself in front of people. Because when you're under that pressure, and you don't feel as unnerved by it, when you get to Harvard, then you'll say, oh, okay, this is just a continuation of the ways that I, I've been practicing in high school. So it'll help with that transition.

And I think, finally developing that proactive spirit. So this is related, right? But it doesn't. So when I give all this advice, I don't mean to say that everyone needs to become the extroverted, you know, confident leader who's always center stage in every activity that he or she does, that is not what I mean. But whatever your personality type is, and however you sort of interface with the world, in your heart of hearts, you have to know that if, if you see something wrong in the world, that you're the kind of person who will try to fix it or contribute to making it better in some small way.

Or, you know, if you come into a space and you're asked to lead that you say Yes, and you try to lead, you try to answer that call to be responsible for something, and to do your part. Because that will, because that's what when you get to Harvard, you know, they, the idea is that you will be a future leader. Whatever field you go into whatever career you pursue whatever country you go back to afterwards. And to meet that moment, you need to have that proactive spirit. And then Harvard will give you the tools to build on that spirit. And, and to be able to do something even more incredible wherever you go next.

So I think if students are able to keep those three principles in mind, then they'll have a great chance of getting into Harvard, I hope, and when they get there, they'll be able to make the most of it.

Venkat  47:50  

So Athena, we are now getting to the end of our podcast but before we wind down here, anything else you Want to talk about your Harvard time? Any fun story or anything that we might have missed out or didn't touch on?

Athena  48:09  [Forward Thinking Passion at Harvard]

Oh, yeah. I mean, that. It's Yeah, I mean, I still remember that, um, back in 2008. This was when I was a freshman. I mean, there were just some incredible historical moments that took place around the same time.

So I mean, the night that President Barack Obama when he was elected President of the US, I, it was the first time that a black man had become president, right.

And so there's very historic, and I just remember that night, everyone, all of my classmates, everyone in the yard just rushed out onto Mass Ave. And I think people might have jumped on cars like, we're very excited and just, you know, very proud and happy and there's the sense of collective joy and enthusiasm about the possibilities of the future that I think has really stuck with me for a long time.

And it doesn't even necessarily have to do with politics. It was just a matter of like, Wow, look at everyone here feeling like there's something we can do something good we can do for the future. And, you know, it has to do again with that spirit that harbored instills in you all throughout your time there. And yeah, there's just an incredible amount of different traditions that I don't think we even talked about.

Well, there. Yeah, so people can look up on the internet, like the three things you're supposed to do at Harvard, or just look up Harvard traditions in general, and you'll find a very entertaining list of different different things.

Um, so it's a school that I think really mixes tradition with this really for forward thinking on passion. So I yeah, it was an incredible experience that I'm very thankful for the privilege of having gone there. And I hope I'm, I'm doing it justice and in whatever I do.

Athena  50:09  

know, this has been really incredible, to use your own words. I think it would be a great discussion. And thank you so much for sharing your experiences. You've been very generous with both the detail and the time.

So thank you again. And I wish you all the best. And stay safe and take care. I'll talk to you soon.

Athena  50:35

You too. Thanks again. Bye. Bye.

Venkat  50:42

Hi again!

Hope you enjoyed our podcast with Athena Lao.

Athena’s energy and passion for people and ideas are truly motivating. Her story should provide you further insight and a deeper understanding about being a student at Harvard.

Hope this fuels your college drive further.

For your questions or comments on this podcast, please email podcast at almamatters.io [podcast@almamatters.io].

Thank you so much for listening to our podcast today.

Transcripts for this podcast and previous podcasts are on almamatters.io forward slash podcasts [almamatters.io/podcasts].

To stay connected with us, Subscribe to Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify or visit anchor.fm forward slash almamatters [anchor.fm/almamatters] to check us out.

Till we meet again, take care and be safe.

Thank you!

Summary Keywords

Harvard University, Georgia, Athens Georgia, Massachusetts Hall, Classics, Ecuador, Greece, Fulbright Grant, Bulgaria,


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