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From Harvard to Haiti: learning by teaching

Harvard sophomore Elisa Gonzalez ’19 has been a full-time volunteer teacher at a Haitian orphanage since August, and is also remotely mentoring Mayfield math students.

“The whole expedition to Haiti really began with my freshman year at Harvard being moved to virtual classes. Knowing that the following semester would also be virtual, I decided I wanted some time off to refocus and be able to tackle the challenges of online school in the spring. A fellow Harvard student and I decided to look into international experiences, and came across the Have Faith Haiti (HFH) Mission, a Christian school and orphanage led by writer and philanthropist Mitch Albom.
My classmate, who actually went to Polytechnic, had visited HFH when he was younger and said that it was an amazing experience he wanted to revisit, thus piquing my intrigue. It also just so happened that HFH was in need of teachers, because the COVID-19 lockdown meant fewer of their teaching staff were able to be on-site. So, we organized coming down to Haiti and living at the mission as teachers and mentors beyond the classroom. 

At HFH, I am teaching literature, reading, math, writing, newspaper and Spanish each weekday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. I particularly enjoy helping students explicate poetry (skills that I very much remember from my Mayfield education) and formulate good essays (particularly with the TPR strategy I learned at Mayfield to create a good thesis). Aside from that, I teach a math elective with the oldest students, where I have designed a curriculum to cover Algebra 1 and 2 in the four months I will be at the mission. As a native Spanish speaker, I teach beginner and advanced classes that cover reading comprehension and the language itself. 

It has certainly been a completely different experience living in the Western hemisphere’s poorest country. It does not have the basic amenities I took for granted in the States, even with the luxuries on the mission—no hot water, no consistent power, cockroaches, centipedes and mice everywhere, which, to my surprise, I have actually become quite skilled at dealing with. It also is a very interesting country to be a woman in. Most women get married very young and lack education. That being said, it also has exposed me to children that have overcome what most people I have met in my life fortunately will never experience. Many come to the mission without parents or from abusive, impoverished homes, yet, despite their own histories, are very astute, optimistic, and enthusiastic learners. 

This past year at Harvard I have become fully immersed in the possibilities of mathematics, leading to my decision to pursue applied math. I believe the initial inspiration for this decision honestly came from the M3 challenge math competition I participated in at Mayfield my senior year. When Mrs. Tighe reached out about becoming a mentor, I was so excited because I think the challenge really aligns with applying knowledge, even rudimentary skills, to solving and modeling contemporary global issues. As the mentor, I have covered topics like linear regressions, or line best-fit using coding in Python, and probabilistic functions, or generating likelihoods based on given factors like age, socioeconomic status, etc. I hope to continue to cover skills that will be needed for the competition, but more so I believe the premise of the M3 challenge helps high school students understand how a mathematical mindset is versatile and useful in even solving day to day problems. If it was up to me, I would completely recommend that every student studying math gets the opportunity to see where their y=x^2 parabolic function can actually be useful in optimizing obstacles everyone encounters. 

As for applied math, out of college I want to work in finance. I’m not totally sure what division yet, but I am interning this summer in wealth management. In the later future I hope to start my own business, no clue in what regard yet though!”
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.