• Leyla Zhaksybek

My Online Summer at Tufts

When I applied to the Leadership for Social Change program at Tufts University, I was unsure if I was going to enjoy it. I was introduced to the program near the middle of May, during the long period of quarantine, very near the due date of the application -- May 21. There was no time to do any long thinking, so after one session of research, I found that I liked what the program was teaching. Social change is not only an important and large concept but one that I have been passionate about for a long time, especially with the uprising BLM movement and economical inequality shown in the pandemic: I was more interested in the topic than ever before. Even so, I was still unsure if the program would be as great as it seemed. It would be harder to not only concentrate but to take in the information since it would be fully on-screen. I had previously attended two different summer programs, one at Princeton and one at Stanford, so I was also worried that it would also be hard to form meaningful connections with the other students, staff, and professors -- one of my favorite aspects of summer programs. Even in the age of digital media, being divided by a screen could be a major setback, and I was just not sure if participating in an online program would allow me to learn and make connections or just cause unnecessary stress and be a waste of time. I worried about this on the first day of the program but from the very first day, I was very pleasantly surprised. 

(Photo is from the Tufts Pre-College Facebook page.)


Although there were a lot of changes to the usual program, compared to the regular on-campus program, most changes did not affect the experience and learning progress too greatly. Compared to the programs I have previously attended, the academic day was much shorter and there was much more freedom due to the online aspect. The student body was also split into three separate groups, rather than staying completely together like in the previous programs I had attended. The groups were the early morning group, the afternoon group, and the late group. All the groups followed the same class schedule but came on at different times, which would help with the time difference. I was part of the early morning group, which meant I came on at 9 am Eastern time or 3 pm in my time zone. This was done to allow students from across the world to participate in the program without tormenting their sleep schedule -- which was one of my concerns before I started. Due to this split into three groups, the lectures that covered the general material were recorded so that the professors would not have to reteach the same material three times. To me, this was the only negative setback in the program. The recorded lectures made the class much less interactive. Even if the material was extremely engaging, it was still sometimes hard to concentrate. But it was a change they had to make!


Additionally, between these time blocks, the students were divided into smaller groups of around eight students and a TA (Teaching assistant). We discussed topics, asked questions, etc. The only time when the student body came fully together was during workshops/panels to which speakers and panelists were invited such as speakers, other professors, and speakers. These were held live, so they were more interactive and engaging. The students were also more trusted with the material than usual. Although everyone was expected to read the required material and submit the assignment, it was ultimately the student's responsibility to complete the work. Although all these changes, both big and small, made my experience at LCS different from previous years of summer programs, none of them took away from the program and -- in some ways -- even made the program more enjoyable. 


One of my favorite aspects of the whole program was the workshops/panels. I loved the interactive aspect and the sense of community I felt during each one. Each speaker was also incredible and had their unique topic, message, or lesson which they would share with us throughout the workshop. The very first speaker talked about identity and community, which made me think about more of the many aspects of myself and which aspects I could use to help my community. Another speaker was an immigration lawyer who talked about his experience with the brutality in immigration in America, which further pushed my interest in law. Another was a panel in which the speeches discussed budgeting our projects. All of these topics were interesting and allowed me to interact and learn from a professional. I would not usually be able to experience this!


I was also very impacted by a lot of the topics we were learning about in class, which not only allowed me to learn more about social issues in America and the world, but also made me recognize my privilege. As someone living a safe neighborhood in Europe, there were a lot of topics I was never aware of, like, for example, the impact of neighborhoods and neighborhood segregation in America. I had never realized how much growing up in a certain neighborhood affected a person, from housing, general health, education, and work opportunities. It also made me realize just how much unfairness and racism was present not even 50 years ago and how strongly it has impacted such a large number of people. It made me recognize just how lucky I am to be privileged to live in a neighborhood with not only a safe water supply and great healthcare, but also great job and education opportunities. It made me realize even more how much skin color has affected even the modern history of America. This is one of the largest topics that I would like to explore and focus on more in the future. Another major impactful topic was the topic of college admission, standardized testing, and the unfairness within the system. From factors such as tutoring and money to internet access and distance from school, the unfairness within the system is irrefutable. And I had never thought about it! It led me to think about the flaws of standardized testing that I experienced as a student and have seen in my school. This topic is one that I related to the most as a student, and is one where I believe I can take action.


Lastly, one of the biggest surprises in the program was the connection I was able to form with a lot of the other participants, as well as the staff, specifically in my small group. Before the program, I was worried that I would not be able to make any connections with anybody due to the online aspect and had convinced myself not to expect much. But I was more wrong than I could imagine. I met some amazing people with so many different experiences, perspectives, and opinions. With each discussion, I felt as if I knew more about each person in my group. There were so many inside jokes and experiences formed that by the end of the program that I forgot about the existence of the screen altogether. All the members of the staff were amazing too and I got to connect to them as well, sometimes even more, than with some of the staff at the summer programs I had previously attended. I had an amazing and supportive TA that was open to any question discussion and was very fun in general. The rest of the leaders were just as supportive and open, and they have all my respect for the amazing program they had put together and made happen. 


Overall, I enjoyed the program immensely and by the end of the two weeks, I was sad to leave it behind. I had an amazing time learning and connecting with others, and was inspired to take more action and bring social change. Even online this program was the highlight of my summer, and I would recommend it to any student.



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