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Summer 2020 Recap: Students Share Highlights from a Summer at SSP, Online

Harvard’s Seven-Week High School Program 2020 delivered on its ongoing promise of academic excellence and personal growth, despite COVID-19 restrictions.

10/29/2020 | Harvard Summer School, Featured | 11 minute read

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Written By:
Mary Sharp Emerson

"Enlightening. Inspiring. Eye Opening. Challenging. Unforgettable."

At the final online activity for summer 2020, SSP Summer Celebration, the 300+ attendees were asked to sum up their experience at Harvard's Secondary School Program (SSP). As just a few of the words they used show, students felt their experience was an outstanding—and perhaps unexpected—success. 

An "unforgettable" summer program was certainly not guaranteed in early March, when it became clear that a hallmark of the seven-week program—residence at Harvard—would not be possible for the first time in SSP's 55 years.

The challenge was transforming to a fully online program without compromising on the student experience of academic success, interpersonal connections, and personal growth.

"It was an incredibly successful summer. We had no idea what was going to happen. It was unprecedented. We didn't know how to do it, so we invented it as we went along. And we did it," said William Holinger, director of Harvard's Secondary School Program.

And as the responses in the final word cloud exercise show, students overwhelmingly agreed with Holinger's assessment: SSP online really did deliver the experience of a lifetime.

Interactive Online Classes Deliver Global Connections and Life Skills

The opportunity to take Harvard classes for college credit is one of the main reasons why students choose SSP. And with all 300 summer classes fully online, students could really focus on taking full advantage of that opportunity.

"The ability to focus on academics was one of the advantages of being wholly online. Students were home, they could concentrate on the classes. Academically, I think it was very successful,” said Holinger.

For many high school students, however, Harvard SSP 2020 presented more than just an opportunity to challenge themselves academically. 

For high school students Carolina Loayza, from Fort Myers, Florida, and Avinash Thakkar, from Baltimore, Maryland, SSP online presented their first opportunity to engage with instructors and students in a truly synchronous virtual format. 

In her Advanced Fiction Writing course, Loayza enjoyed the experience of hearing real-time feedback on her writing. 

"It was always a discussion. [The teacher and other students] would read our stories the day before class or before class started. And then they would give us feedback on what they liked and then what they think we could improve. And I always love that because I like hearing praise but I also like the criticism." 

Thakkar noted that he was surprised at the deeply interactive format of his Introduction to Political Philosophy class. 

"Given the pandemic, I expected the class to be less of a discussion, but more of a one-way lecture. I really was surprised that we were able to have a full-fledged discussion. We were engaging with everyone, we were engaging with the ideas, not scripted lectures. That's something I really enjoyed."

"Introduction to Political Philosophy really had a diverse, great Avinash Thakkar, Student at SSP 2020group of people. The class had people from all over the world: Spain, South Africa, Peru, Turkey, Jamaica. It offered a global approach to learning. I really appreciated being able to look at political philosophy from that global perspective." Avinash Thakkar, SSP 2020

And for Loayza, participating in a virtual class also reinforced the importance of staying organized and managing her time well, while giving her inspiration during what would otherwise have been a dull, uninspiring summer stuck at home.

"I've always loved writing short stories," Loayza said, "especially now, since I don't have much inspiration, stuck at home. The class helped a lot with what I could do at home without going outside."

Connecting and Learning Outside the Classroom

Academics weren't the whole story at SSP, however. Despite being entirely online, extracurricular activities played a huge role in the success of SSP 2020.

Thakkar said that each week he would receive an email from assistant dean Andréa Mayrose letting him know what workshops, seminars, and activities were coming up that week. "All the opportunities were really amazing!"

For both Thakkar and Loayza, language club was a particular highlight, for example. Loayza said that she attended every meeting of the Spanish Club, while Thakkar regularly participated in French Club. 

The opportunity to speak French with native speakers from around the world was a special experience for Thakkar. 

"French Club had a lot of people from different backgrounds, different environments, all communicating in French. I really enjoyed learning from other people, and of course hearing all the different French accents," Thakkar said.

Both students enjoyed panel discussions focused on current events. 

Thakkar appreciated the opportunity to hear the expertise and career suggestions from Harvard alumni. One panel he really liked, led by a Harvard economist, focused on the intersection of racial justice, economics, and the pandemic. 

But his favorite panel centered on his own hobby: gardening. 

"I was really fascinated by the discussion led by an alum who owns an orchard. He likes to garden and do work in agriculture. He turned that passion into a career, and ultimately used that for the benefit of others." 

"[SSP] was also great because we did a lot of Zoom meetingCarolina Loayza, Student at SSP 2020s with peers. And we still do them even after the whole event is finished. We still do, during the weekends, Zoom meeting with my friends. And we just talk a lot. 'Hey, how's it going? How's school?' It's really nice." Carolina Loayza, SSP 2020

Loayza enjoyed the lively debates between students at the "Forming Opinions" discussion group. 

"I attended two of them, and they were really fun. We were talking about a certain topic, and everyone had their different opinions. And we heard everyone's thoughts and had an awesome debate."

Loayza's favorite events, though, focused on the arts. She attended several Musical Theater Nights, for instance. 

"My favorite was definitely Art Night," she said, "I love to draw and I love to paint a lot, especially in the digital format. It was set up as this 'Bob Ross' tutorial, and everyone had to follow along. It was so much fun."

Planning for the Future: College Readiness Online 

For high school seniors like Loayza and Thakkar, college is just around the corner. College readiness activities at SSP really helped them plan for the upcoming college admissions process.

Thakkar felt he benefited most from the one-on-one guidance he received from dean Mayrose. He focused college readiness activities such as Q&A workshops on the admissions process with associate dean Keith Moon, a session with Harvard admissions personnel, and a panel on navigating admissions during COVID. 

"Learning and asking questions about the whole college process was really impactful," noted Thakkar. "It maybe made the whole process a little less intimidating, knowing that you have real humans, real people, on the other side who are thinking and caring about what happens to each student."

For SSP administrators, the three online College Selection Panels were a highlight of the entire program. 

According to Holinger, student participation was significantly higher compared to prior years' in-person college fairs. And because there were no venue limitations or travel requirements, the panels hosted representatives from many more institutions. 

"Holding these panels online was actually better for everybody. It was better for the participants, the students. It was better for the admissions officers. It worked very well," Holinger said. 

Best of all, Holinger pointed out, the online format allowed each student greater access to the representatives they wanted to contact. 

"You didn't have a crowd around each table like an in-person fair,” said Holinger. “Students weren't competing for the attention of one person. And when their turn came to ask a question, they could ask a question. You could use chat to exchange contact information. So I think it was easier for the college representatives to get student's contact information."

When asked to sum up SSP 2020, both Thakkar and Loayza agreed that it was, indeed, an unforgettable experience. 

Thakkar said, "I'm happy that I was able to make connections, and ultimately use what I've learned here for the life ahead, and the activities ahead."

Loayza was just a little more blunt: "I love Harvard Summer School. It was so great!" 

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