Putting Volunteer Skills to Work at Harvard

As he was carrying a box from the front of his new office at Harvard to the back of the office, a smile came across Arturo J. Real’s face. While performing this menial task, he experienced a flashback. He was transported back in time to his childhood when he would help his mother, an advocate for environmental causes, move boxes at events she organized. “Back then, it was just like, ‘Oh, this is all I do; I just carry boxes and help out my mom.’ Now I’m carrying boxes here with a smile on my face,” Real said. 
Real may not have realized it as a child, but while he was selflessly helping others, he was gaining the skills and experience that would lead him to a fellowship at Harvard. “Starting at such a young age and just networking and understanding what public relations are like and what communications are like and having that background…really helped make me excel,” Real said.  

“My goal as a kid trying to live up to the assumed expectations of my parents was that I wanted to make it to Harvard to make mom proud and to be at the best school.”
— Arturo J. Real

On June 6, he officially became a CS50 fellow, a preceptor in computer science. CS50 is Harvard’s introduction to computer science course, which Real took as a student at Miami Dade College (MDC) through a partnership between the college, the Knight Foundation, Harvard and LaunchCode. Real graduated in May with an associate’s degree.
Born in Venezuela, Real immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age eight. He attended TERRA Environmental Research Institute, a magnet high school in Miami, where he studied biotechnology and biomedicine. After enrolling in MDC, he gained an interest in political science and switched his major. Then the email that would change his life arrived in his inbox. It announced a unique computer-programing course called CS50x. “I had actually read about CS50x previously,” Real said. “I had heard about the class. It sounded very interesting, and I’ve had an interest for some time in computer science...Now that it is going to be offered in person, it’s a no brainer. It’s a Harvard class, it’s here at Miami Dade where I’m a student, so I’ll just have to go for it,” Real said.

Arturo J. Real

Arturo J. Real

Twenty Grueling Weeks

And go for it he did. CS50x is a grueling 20-week class delivered through edX, Harvard’s online learning destination and MOOC provider. The class leverages local expertise and LaunchCode’s deep roots in the employer ecosystem to create a unique classroom experience. With mentored support for instructors, teaching fellows and professional programmers, CS50x provides individuals who wish to pursue a career in computer programing a strong foundation in the field. 
Harvard delivers the first 14 weeks of the course as a MOOC through edX. MDC delivers the final six weeks on its campus. It’s during these final six weeks that students delve deeper into the three programing languages offered by the course. At the end of the course, students take an exam that qualifies them for certification in a computer language. “The class started out fairly simple, difficult for me, but something that I could grasp by devoting more time than I was used to devoting to any other course,” Real said. By week three, the course began to challenge Real, becoming progressively more difficult as the weeks passed. Not one to back down from a challenge, Real stuck with it.
Over the duration of the course Real witnessed a change in himself and in his cohort. They started showing up for all the available office hours, or coding hours, to work more closely with the teaching fellows. “We’d sit in the classroom for hours from 12 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and sometimes on Saturdays just reviewing the topics, subjects and concepts so that we could really grasp them on a really deep level (and understand) why they’re useful and how to use them,” Real said.

Arturo J. Real  Hispanic OUtlook in Higher education magazine

Getting to Harvard

Attending Harvard had been a dream of Real’s since he was a youngster. “My goal as a kid trying to live up to the assumed expectations of my parents was that I wanted to make it to Harvard to make mom proud and to be at the best school,” Real said. But his path to Harvard was somewhat different than most students’.
While attending a hackathon event at MDC, he met David Malan, the professor for the CS50 course at Harvard. “We just hit it off, and I told David that I was interested in bringing the course to the high school level,” Real said. Malan invited Real to Harvard’s hackathon. He accepted the invite and raised money for the trip using crowd funding. 
Once at Harvard’s hackathon, he drew upon the lessons he learned while helping his mother set up for her non-profit events. He assisted the hackathon organizers when he could to ensure that the event ran smoothly while witnessing the “way Harvard does things.” Real brought that knowledge back to MDC where he had already been running public relations and social media for CS50x. “I was so passionate about it, and I still am,” Real said.
Unbeknownst to Real, Sari Kulthm, the lead instructor for CS50x at MDC, had been singing Real’s praises to Malan about his work on the MDC campus. “David (Malan) called, and when I answered, he extended the offer. Of course I immediately said ‘yes,’” Real said.
Real’s fellowship will run a full year with an option for a second. His ultimate goal is to offer CS50 to high school students as an AP class. A number of CS50 workshops have been offered at high schools in San Diego, the District of Columbia and New York. Real said they have been received well. “It is the same version of the Harvard class extended over the entire high school year. It’s not a watered-down version of the course,” Real said.
As Real reflects on his accomplishments of the past year, he said not much has changed from that boy who helped his mother by carrying boxes to set up an event. “Now I’m doing it but here at Harvard. I just thought that was a bit funny,” Real said. •