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International Rhodes Scholar has global aspirations
While growing up on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, Mandela Patrick thought attending Harvard University was an unattainable dream. Now poised to graduate this spring, Patrick has achieved another once-remote academic aspiration—he earned the 2018 Commonwealth Caribbean Rhodes Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
Next year at Oxford, Patrick, A.B. ’18, a computer science concentrator at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), plans to pursue two master’s degrees -- in computer science and statistics -- with a focus on machine learning.
He hopes to utilize the advanced machine learning techniques he learns in the United Kingdom to bring personalized education tools to impoverished students in the Caribbean.
“What if we could use these machine learning tools to determine what kind of learner a person is, what material he or she is struggling with, or where he or she wants to be from an academic standpoint?” he said. “We could actually recommend educational content that is extremely specialized, helping someone progress to where they want to be.”
Patrick’s passion for education originated during his youth in Trinidad, the larger island of Trinidad and Tobago, a nation seven miles north of the Venezuelan coast. Seeking to escape the extreme poverty of his upbringing, Patrick’s father became the first in his family to attend high school, and went on to earn a chemical engineering degree at Penn State University. Patrick drew inspiration from his father’s drive to create a better life through education.
An interest in developing video games motivated Patrick to study computer science, and he graduated from high school as the top information technology student in the Caribbean. As he learned more about technology, his interests changed from making games to making a difference.
“Growing up with Google and Facebook, where I could basically have the knowledge web of the world at my fingertips, or keep in touch with friends from all over the world, was really magical for me,” he said. “I saw computer science as a way for me to make a worldly impact one day.”
He chose SEAS because of the welcoming nature of computer science and the opportunity to work alongside driven peers and brilliant professors. Soon after enrolling at Harvard, he began using his skills to make an impact by volunteering with the Digital Literacy Project. Through the student-run initiative, Patrick taught programming and computer science fundamentals to underprivileged middle school students.
Those classroom experiences emphasized how instant gratification from a successful computer science project can ignite a spark in young students, Patrick said.
“For these kids to see someone who looks like them walk into class and teach them and inspire them is an extremely empowering thing for me,” said Patrick. “I want to bring that ‘ah-ha’ moment to kids in the Caribbean and around the world.”
While he thrived on making computer science accessible for others, his academic journey has not been without challenges. The biggest difficulty has been juggling a rigorous computer science course load while playing varsity squash.
Patrick has been enthusiastic about squash since childhood. His father played at the national level for Trinidad and trained with his sons every Friday night—often until well past midnight. But he couldn’t afford to send his sons to boarding school to train for squash at a higher level, so Patrick had to rely on the skills he developed during family scrimmages when he joined the extremely competitive Crimson team.
“Squash is the perfect mix of mental and physical abilities,” Patrick said. “I’m extremely quick—I can keep running after the ball all day and night—but being strong physically is not going to get me to the top. I have to be able to think tactically.”
Playing for number-two-ranked Harvard has pushed him to become a better squash player, and he earned the honor of representing Trinidad in the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia this spring.
The chance to play squash on an international stage, and the opportunity to study at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, are dreams come true for Patrick. They also instill in him a deep sense of gratitude and an even more fervent desire to pay it forward.
“I am not only lucky, but I am blessed to have parents and teachers and a support system that helped and encouraged me along the way. A lot of people don’t have those opportunities,” he said. “I’m in this position now to make an impact, and that is what drives me.”