Recent graduate John Holland’s future is anchored in service.

Holland, S.B. ’17, a mechanical engineering concentrator at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, now a Navy ensign, was one of six graduating Harvard seniors to be commissioned into the Armed Forces.

For Holland, it was the culmination of an interest in Naval service going back to his childhood in Connecticut, where he was immersed in boating and nautical culture. The Naval Academy was the only college he applied to other than Harvard.

His interest in a broad educational path led him to the Ivy League, and Holland immediately joined the Navy ROTC program as a way to build leadership skills for his planned military career. The idea of pursuing engineering came naturally to him.

“I had always loved building things and working with my hands, so engineering seemed like the perfect fit for me,” he said. “When I found out the Navy was interested in recruiting engineers and STEM majors, that sealed the deal on my concentration.”

He quickly found that his ROTC training, which focused on physical skills, challenging Naval science classes, and leadership preparation, could also be applied to his engineering coursework.

Management and organization lessons proved especially beneficial when Holland took the reins of the then-floundering Harvard Undergraduate Robotics Club (HURC). When he signed on as a sophomore, the HURC roster had dwindled to five members and there were doubts about its ability to survive.

Drawing on his ROTC leadership training, Holland rose to president and breathed new life into HURC by broadening its focus to attract new members who had less robotics experience. He and club leaders created a more educational atmosphere by offering workshops and trainings so students could build practical skills.

“Instead of relying solely on students who were already very good at designing and building robotic systems, we worked to bring others up to speed,” he said. “That led to a huge shift in attitude that caused our members to become even more enthusiastic about their projects. We have continued to gain momentum ever since.”

Holland (center) and members of the Harvard Undergraduate Robotics Club stand by the maze they created for PAC-BOTS, the first student competition hosted by the organization.

Holland restructured the board of directors using a chain-of-command approach, which enabled simultaneous HURC projects to run smoothly. During his tenure as co-president, the club claimed first prize in two 2016 competitions, the Mech-Warfare Contest at Shepherd University and the Micromouse Competition at the Brown University Robotics Olympiad. 

Membership has ballooned to more than 100 students and HURC has taken on several new projects, including a Mars Rover contest set for next year. In addition, the organization hosted its first competition this spring, featuring maze-running robots chasing illuminated dots in the style of the arcade classic PAC-MAN.

While Holland was shepherding HURC, he was also training for a Navy career. He spent summers working on a ballistic missile submarine (from which he realized that spending months at sea in extremely tight quarters is not for him), and serving with a Navy helicopter squadron.

“That aviation experience reaffirmed that I wanted to fly more than anything else,” he said. “I’ve always been a bit of a thrill seeker. I’ve looked for opportunities to try new things and have different experiences.”

Holland will soon head to Navy flight school in Pensacola, Fla., where he will train to be a fighter jet pilot. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Holland said he looks forward to the opportunity to make an impact.

“I really like the idea of working in a group and helping people achieve their fullest potential,” he said. “There is also a patriotic aspect to serving in the Navy. I love my country and I am honored to be able to serve and help maintain America’s place in the world.” 

Serving with a Navy helicopter squadron during one of his Harvard summer breaks reaffirmed Holland's passion for aviation.