A Conversation with Minerva Student Tanha

Meet Tanha, a student in the Class of 2020 | Jan, 29, 2018

Quick Facts

Tanha Kate

Dhaka, Bangladesh


Major & Concentrations
Computational Sciences—Artificial Intelligence & Computer Science
Social Sciences


Why did you decide to attend Minerva rather than a traditional university program?
Minerva is the kind of school I dreamed about — one where I could challenge and deeply immerse myself in various topics of interest, and familiarize myself with different cultures. Most elite schools boast about their diversity but rely on a system based on target numbers to ensure a somewhat ethnically and racially mixed student population. On the other hand, Minerva attracts students from around the world and encourages the concept of “city as campus.” We are encouraged to learn from the diverse communities in which we live, as well as from each other. Through project-based assignments, we work to improve upon our competencies and develop authentic confidence in our ability to utilize them. Minerva also teaches students to boldly embrace failures, not only as learning opportunities but as a necessary component of the human experience.

Balancing academics, extracurricular activities, professional development, and a thriving social life is not an easy task, but students have the constant support of staff, faculty, friends, and classmates in their quest to succeed. Like Lusana in the Class of 2019 put it, ”Minerva is essentially a crash course in growing up. It’s Adult 101, but during college, rather than after graduation.”

Tell us about a co-curricular that has changed how you think.
We had a co-curricular exploring San Francisco’s Tenderloin District with a guide, Del Seymour. The Tenderloin is sandwiched between some of the most affluent neighborhoods in San Francisco but is home to thousands of low-income, working-class families and homeless residents. Del, who used to sell drugs on the streets of the Tenderloin, has since become a major civic leader, founding many initiatives to support the neighborhood’s homeless residents.

Learning to empathize with the struggles of being homeless definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone. In particular, I recall a conversation with Del where he told me that perfectly qualified individuals from the Tenderloin cannot find jobs because they don’t have a set of fresh clothes to make a positive impression during job interviews. To think that in an affluent country like the United States people are so systematically disadvantaged still shocks me.

What is one problem you would like to address in the world?
While I don’t have a specific problem that I’ve dedicated myself to yet, I spend a lot of time reading about how machines can help us think better or, alternatively, perpetuate human biases. Automation is growing in our lives; algorithms decide and dictate what we see in our news feed, who we should date, who gets hired for jobs, and where we should eat. Its reach and relevance is increased by personalizing content based on what has been clicked on in the past, which can fixate users in bubbles where they are exposed to only confirmatory information that reinforce existing beliefs.

I believe that technology can allow humans to make more informed decisions collectively, given that the algorithms we use do not automatically reflect our own prejudices. However, the current ethical and legal criteria for algorithms are unclear when it comes to issues of privacy and safety. I want to address such concerns as a computer scientist, and, perhaps, create an algorithm that ranks other algorithms according to their ethicality and/or interpretability. Behind the curtains, of course I’ll be working on my very own artificial general purpose intelligence system to take over the world (think skynet).

What are you doing right now to work toward that goal?
At this stage, I’m focused on learning as much as I can. I conduct research online, read books, take additional online courses, listen to podcasts, and engage my professors with questions after class and during office hours. San Francisco offers many resources in this regard; there is always a conference or a workshop happening, and organizers are very supportive of student participation. For instance, in October, I received a diversity achievement scholarship to attend an artificial intelligence (AI) workshop where I got to meet engineers and researchers from Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. I also enjoy attending hackathons with my peers. I was recently at #100Hacks, where my team and I designed a mobile app to match Hurricane Maria survivors with service providers to generate optimized delivery routes.

Additionally, several of my peers and I have founded Minerva’s Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) student chapter. The ACM is the largest international computing society and is at the forefront of advancing computing as a science and a profession. The Minerva ACM student chapter organizes technical talks, workshops, field trips, and programming contests to promote computer science in our community and the larger communities to which we belong. At the start of the year, we plan to host multiple Hour of Code events at the San Francisco Public Library and conduct office visits to various companies, such as Twitter, which is conveniently located across from one of our residence halls. I love that Minerva is flexible and very supportive of student-led initiatives!

What are some of your other passions and interests?
I love reading books and scientific papers, watching foreign films — like Studio Ghibli and Ingmar Bergman — hiking, yoga, music (rock, jazz, and classical), thinking (and thinking about thinking), and contemplating possible world interventions in my spare time.

I also love teaching! During my internship the summer before Minerva, I taught mathematics and computer science to elementary schools students in a low-income community in Bangladesh. I worked with the faculty to introduce technology-based lessons in the classroom and incorporate effective learning techniques into the curriculum, inspired by how Minerva applies the principles of active learning. Furthermore, I designed a projected-driven syllabus centered around implementing Scratch, a free programming language community.

You took part in the World Youth Alliance (WYA) Internship. What was the most important lesson you learned during that time?
Primarily, WYA has illustrated the importance of valuing the dignity of every human being. I signed the WYA charter in 2016, and I regularly read the WYA monthly newsletter to keep myself updated on the different events and training programs. In the spirit of the principles upheld in the charter, I worked on an research project in partnership with a local non-governmental organization, Shomman, which aims to improve the lives of domestic workers in Dhaka who are legally and socially vulnerable despite protection by international labor laws. I was concerned about these workers because they are an integral part of the typical Bengali household but, nevertheless, remain at constant risk of having their human rights violated and being denied dignity. We completed the preliminary data collection and are continuing our analysis to help this marginalized community.

Who inspired you in high school?
My fifth grade teacher, Najma Arif, has been a source of inspiration to me throughout my schooling. I often think of the influence she had on my life and how grateful I am for her support. During her classes, Miss Najma would always stress that “people with differences can also be right,” a message that is highly relevant in the diverse, international community represented at Minerva. When I was growing up, I struggled with constant feelings of incompetence, and academic scholarships and other opportunities only made it worse. I was afraid that I was a complete fraud, and that, very soon, people around me would find out. These feelings worsened in my last two years of high school, when I lead the Student Council and represented student voices to push for administrative changes. Somehow Miss Najma knew what I was going through; she would always remind me that I deserve all the happiness of the world.

In your opinion, how is Minerva shaping the future?
Statistical analysis of small world networks shows that open networks with multiple links between people from different clusters lead to greater relative performances in both professional and personal settings. Minerva taps into the benefits of such a network, where each student comes from vastly different social systems and shares their experiences and knowledge inside and outside the classroom. These multiple interaction formats expose us to information from diverse clusters, creating intellectual safety, empathy, and courage — all of which are instrumental in preparing for the future our generation will have to tackle.

Why did you decide to attend United World College (UWC) Mahindra summer program in high school?
During the summer of my sophomore year, I took part in a month-long leadership training program with the Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center. The curriculum was interdisciplinary and involved unconventional classroom settings, study material, and performance evaluation criteria. As part of the program, we worked with a team to install garbage cans in a local underserved school, educated the teachers and students about solid waste management, and designed a trash collection competition.

Because I enjoyed the experience so much, I wanted my next break to be just as impactful of a learning experience, and I felt ready to venture to India, Bangladesh’s next-door neighbor. The UWC program caught my interest because it offered experiential education with a strong focus on real-world issues (e.g., urbanization, human habitats, gender, educational equity, and disability in India). I also received a scholarship among numerous other international candidates, so I knew I had to go.

How did living away from home help shape you?
I think that global immersion is very important in fostering deep learning, especially in the 21st century where we live in a complex global network of interconnected, adapting entities. I had previously studied abroad for a semester in the U.S. as a Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study (YES) scholar and for summer school at UWC Mahindra. Both of these experiences were intellectually stimulating and brought all of my pre-held beliefs into question. Minerva continues to offer such opportunities for growth and personal development.

How are Minerva and UWC alike?
Both the Minerva and UWC communities are rooted in inclusivity. They don’t want to simply appear diverse in terms of ethnicity and gender composition; they strive to engender intellectual safety so that everyone feels like a valuable member of the community. Most of our sessions at UWC Mahindra were seminar-style Socratic sprints mixed with group problem solving, similar to my classes on the Active Learning Forum at Minerva. Additionally, faculty at both institutions are interested in student learning as opposed to establishing hierarchical power dynamics and creating an unapproachable demeanor. And, just as importantly, both schools teach students not just to find more detailed answers and solutions, but to ask better questions. I personally think Minerva is a perfect extension of the globally-conscious education for which UWC strives.

What do you aspire to do when you graduate?
Way too many things! I’m currently very interested in AI engineering and research. I’m also excited by data mining and analysis as well as software development. Because of the multitude of options I’d like to pursue, I instead think of my future aspirations in terms of skills. Already, I know that I want to further develop my critical thinking, mathematical, and programming skills, and learn how to collaborate effectively in groups. Hopefully, it will all come together once I graduate.

What would you tell another student who is considering Minerva?
The standard way we make decisions is by weighing costs and benefits — both are substantially important when it comes to choosing an institution, especially a new one like Minerva. I hope that as you decide, you will recall how you have changed in the last five years and contemplate the ways you might change in the next five. Know that your perceived costs and benefits will also change and understand that there is just so much out there, so many ways to grow.

I think back to a quote I heard in a film I once watched: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.” I don’t know a single institution that accomplishes this better than Minerva. The application process in itself is a learning experience, Minerva’s selectivity and multifaceted admissions process pushed me to reflect deeply about my past accomplishments and understand why, and whether, they mattered. So yes, just do it!

Why did you decide to pursue a Cambridge Upper Secondary and Advanced curriculum education?
A combination of higher quality of education, my mother’s determination, and scholarships helped me pursue a Cambridge curriculum, which is an internationally recognized qualification administered by the University of Cambridge. To help offset the tuition for the Cambridge curriculum, I applied for competitive scholarships to support me financially. My mother was adamant about giving me the best education possible, and I have always desired to look beyond my own society in order to maximize my potential. I realized an education with international characteristics would help me achieve this.

How did Cambridge prepare you for Minerva? What aspects are similar between the two schools?
The Cambridge curriculum offers a more in-depth and academically rigorous experience in science and mathematics, in comparison to the traditional academic curriculum in Bangladesh. It inculcates creative thinking ability and additional skills needed to implement knowledge gained from the classroom in real life. Additionally, although the syllabus is international, the teachers are also comprehensively trained by the British Council to ensure that the program is applicable to each relevant location where it is offered. Another benefit of this curriculum is that the Cambridge qualifications facilitates access to the world’s best universities, opening up global opportunities for students. This intentionality drives syllabus development to be a continuous review of study materials and creates an emphasis on key concepts, which is similar to Minerva’s pedagogy. By enabling students to gain a greater depth as well as breadth of subject knowledge, both Cambridge and Minerva illustrate how a subject’s content links to real-world research and development. They also both instill fluency when it comes to talking about the subjects and how the different topics connect to one another.

If you were inspired by Tanha’s story and are seeking a college experience that will teach you valuable pragmatic skills that will enable you to change the world, apply to join Minerva today.