A Conversation with 2018 Commonwealth Caribbean Rhodes Scholar, Mandela Patrick

A Conversation with 2018 Commonwealth Caribbean Rhodes Scholar, Mandela Patrick

Harvard Varsity squash team member, Mandela Patrick is the recipient of the 2018 Commonwealth Carribean Rhodes Scholarship.

Harvard Varsity squash team member, Mandela Patrick is the recipient of the 2018 Commonwealth Carribean Rhodes Scholarship.

INFINITUM Squash founder, Chessin Gertler sat down with Mandela Patrick to talk to him about squash, college, and his plans for the Rhodes.

Chessin Gertler - Please introduce yourself.

Mandela Patrick - My name is Mandela Patrick; currently, a senior at Harvard in Currier House, studying computer science. From San Fernando in Trinidad and Tobago, interested in using technology to make education more accessible and personalized.

CG - Could you please explain the process you went through to apply for and ultimately win the Rhodes?

MP - First, you submit a personal statement, six recommendations, cv, and transcript. The deadline for this all was the end of September (2017). Then shortly after, if you’re accepted, the committee invites you for a final round interview. I was interviewing for the Caribbean Rhodes. So the interview was to be held in Barbados. It was the Monday and Tuesday after Harvard-Yale, so I missed the Harvard-Yale game...[laughs]

CG - Worth it?

MP - Missed my last Harvard-Yale but… yeah, worth it…[laughs]. So, I flew down to Barbados and the reception was that Monday night. Fun fact about this whole event is the last time that I was in Barbados was in 2009 when I won my first and only Caribbean Championships - and the squash courts were a couple of minutes away from the hotel that I was staying at during the trip. I actually hit with one of these veteran Caribbean squash players before the reception on that Monday afternoon.

After that, for the reception, you have dinner, cocktails and the committee gets to know you in a more social setting. You meet all the other interviewees and interviewers, important people in Barbados, and then they give you the order that you’re interviewing in; there were nine interviewees and I was number two so I was really happy - felt that I was in the perfect position.

CG -  Why?

MP - Because they’re not going to be tired, I’m not going to be tired, I’m not seeing everyone coming out and I’m not feeling anxious. First would have been too early but second or third I would have been happy with. It was totally random but it allowed me to go in there positive and thankful, like thinking “already everything is going in my favor.”

The interview was the next day at 9:00 am at the Governor General’s House in Barbados. We’re in this waiting area in a separate room and they called us out one-by-one. And I felt like the interview went very well. After that, there is a lunch break and then after, they invite all the interviewees back in the room and they announce the winner.

CG -  When and where did you start playing squash? How were you introduced to the game?

MP - My dad he started off life in extreme poverty. His dad died young and his mom didn’t have a high school education. My father ended up doing very well in high school and getting a scholarship to study at Penn State in the United States. He walked onto the soccer team and was introduced to squash when he was there. He enjoyed the sport and started playing competitively and made the Trinidad team in about five years. So he started out at the age of about 26 on the Trinidad team.

CG -  So, a serious athlete…

MP - Yeah... [laughs]. He retired from the national team when my brother and I were born but he was still playing squash pretty competitively at that point. He introduced my brother and me to squash when I was probably eight or nine years old and my brother was about seven - and we’d play every Friday night at the Pointe-a-Pierre squash courts courts in Trinidad, which is the more southern part of Trinidad. We would play twice a week and my brother and I improved pretty rapidly.

CG - So what do you love about squash? If you were to describe what it is that hooked you… You’ve played other sports. What is it about squash that made it stick with you?

MP - I think it’s probably the family aspect for me. Every Friday, my brother, dad, and I would play squash from about 10:00 pm to past midnight. We would always be competing against each other, pushing each other to be better. I really enjoyed one-on-one competition, which I didn’t get from the other sports that I was playing - like soccer and cricket. That feeling of playing with and against my dad and brother was so much fun. That’s actually what I really started to miss when I came to Harvard. It was a tough transition for me to college squash, which was a lot more intense and a lot more competitive.

CG - Was it a big adjustment process for you in joining the team here?

MP - Yeah, because I only used to train twice a week. It was more of a fun activity for me. My brother and I just happened to have a lot of natural talent. We were able to get by back home and around the Caribbean with that, but this was a total other level, more intense. My brother actually plays at Trinity, so he is the only one in the family with a national championship ring right now [laughs].

CG - That must burn you. Do you guys still play against each other competitively?

MP - Yeah, so my Sophomore year - his Freshman year - when Harvard played Trinity, we were both #9 on the team.

CG - Did the media pick up on that at all?

MP - No.

CG - Missed opportunity. So did you decide to focus on squash at one point or did you just kind of find your way into the sport on a college level?

MP - I didn’t get recruited to play squash at Harvard. I just really enjoyed playing the sport, competing, and traveling. The junior and senior Caribbean Championships is held in a different Caribbean country every summer. That would be the big tournament that I would look forward to and train for the entire year. I would look forward to that so much - to competing in a different Caribbean country, seeing all my Caribbean friends, having a good time. That was the big fun event for me. Every year, we would be in either Bermuda, or Jamaica, or the Cayman Islands - all of these different islands. You’d see all these friends that you grew up playing squash with.

College squash was something that I had heard about - quite a few caribbean squash players had played college squash like Chris Binnie - 4-time national champion at Trinity, James Bullock, great player who played for Harvard, Ryan Abraham at Harvard. Chris and Ryan encouraged me to consider playing college squash. I didn’t know anything about the recruiting process or anything along those lines. When I reached out to Mike and Hameed (Harvard Squash Coaches), they told me that it was actually too late to get recruited and I was like “oh, that’s actually a thing?” [laughs] but they encouraged me to just apply. So I did, and got in and walked onto the team.

CG - So you played varsity as a walk-on?

MP - Well, I was a starting member my Sophomore year. I ended the year with a winning record and won the Most Improved Player Award that year.

CG -  So you feel that your game improved a lot over the course of four years?

MP - Yeah, for sure. It was a point for me to make as well because I had the option to actually be recruited by a couple of other schools.

CG - How did you settle on Harvard as opposed to somewhere else?

MP - I wanted to go to either Harvard or MIT. MIT because I liked computer science, Harvard because of the squash and the computer science. So, I applied to those two and I got into both. Columbia was recruiting me; they had an extra recruiting spot and I fit the profile, but I really wanted to come to Harvard instead. I did my interview at Columbia then I did my Harvard interview a little while afterwards and I told them that I was considering Columbia for squash and the admissions office called me a couple weeks later and encouraged me to come to Harvard and sent me a letter mid-February. It was a very fortunate circumstance because I didn’t need to decline a school and wait to hear from a school that I wanted to go to more - I actually heard positively from Harvard and was able to choose about a month and a half before I was supposed to hear back and had to notify Columbia. A lot of people encouraged me to go to Columbia because they thought I would actually make the squash team there and wouldn’t at Harvard. So, actually starting my Sophomore year was amazing for me because it showed how much I could improve all-around in college as a player.

CG - So you trained with the JV or varsity team your Freshman year?

MP - I was able to train with the varsity team from the beginning. I was always hovering around the 10 spot or higher. I stayed around 9 or 10 my entire college career.

CG - Back to academics. Did you know what you were going to concentrate in at Harvard from the very beginning?

MP - Yeah. I always enjoyed computer science. I was the top computer science student in the caribbean.

CG - How did you find being an athlete in college, particularly in an especially intense and difficult concentration? Do you feel your academics competed or resonated with your athletic responsibilities? Was it a tough balancing act?

MP - It definitely wasn’t easy. It was a massive adjustment for me. I think I was more academically focused in high school. In high school, I was definitely focused on my academics and squash was more of a side thing that I did. I was only playing twice a week in high school - usually Friday and Sunday. So to come here and train 5 or 6 times a week was a total shift, and the whole system is completely different here compared to back home where we follow a British system. Back home, there’s a lot more end-of-term assessment rather than continuous assessment. You always have to be on top of your work here. Homework is something that was a massive shift for me when I came here; my coursework for computer science would be about 20 to 30 hours per week. So it hasn’t been easy… But I’m basically done. I’m through with my requirements and am going to be taking all electives for my last semester.

CG - How has your academic experience been at Harvard? Have you been happy with it? Are there things that you would have done differently looking back?

MP - I’ve always been interested in performing arts. I like to sing. I like to dance. I wish I had taken more advantage of those opportunities while I was here, but with balancing computer science and squash, I didn’t really have the opportunity for that. One thing that I always wanted to do though - which I was able to do even though it was a big time commitment - was to be a teaching assistant, which I did for CS 51 - our second level entry class. That was a lot of fun. In terms of my experience, I had the opportunity to go to MIT for computer science, to Princeton for computer science, and I don’t know how the experiences would have been there, but I’m happy I went to Harvard because the community here has been a major part of my experience. Everyone has been super helpful, dedicated to helping me when I was struggling, spending extra time with me to make sure that I understood components - from teaching assistants to peers in my class and professors. It’s been a huge part of my success here and a major part of what’s made my experience so rich.

CG - You talked about the process leading up to the Rhodes but I’m curious to learn about when you first started thinking about applying...

MP - I was at Facebook my freshman summer and one of my mentors there is head of diversity at Facebook - she’s Trinidadian - and she’s a Rhodes Scholar as well. She was the first person that told me about it. It seemed like a really exciting opportunity because it basically brings together some of the smartest, most driven people across the world to Oxford for two years. After she told me what an amazing experience it was for her, it was something that I had in the back of my mind and I felt that I would have been competitive for it given my profile and my background, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do any more studying immediately after graduation and also, just the combination of the fact that I needed six recommendations - four of an academic nature - and I wasn’t even sure that I could get those recommendations.

I was interning at Instagram this past summer and I was looking for a full time offer to go back. Before I ended up applying to the Rhodes, I went to South Africa with a couple of my computer science friends and on the way back from Johannesburg, I told my friend, Josh Meyer, that I was considering applying for the Rhodes but I wasn’t sure if I could get the recommendations and I also wasn’t sure what I wanted to study right after college and he was immediately like “you should do it. I know you’ll get the recommendations.” So that gave me the confidence to go for it and as soon as I got off the plane, I emailed five of my professors, four replied, and thought to myself, “okay, I’m going to give this a shot” because that was the major concern that I had. And as I went through this whole process, I started to realize that I really wanted it - that it was something very very special. So I put a lot of effort behind my application - my personal statement, my resume, etc… and then once I submitted, I felt pretty confident on my chances of getting an interview so I was like “okay, let’s say in the best case scenario I get an interview… I gotta prepare for this.” I knew the interview was going to be around mid-November, so I would do mock interviews pretty much every weekend with one of my tutors, Edwin to sharpen my skills.

Around September, I got that full-time Facebook offer, and I wasn’t sure whether I should apply to the Rhodes because I was going to be getting paid pretty well at Facebook - it was like one of the top jobs to get and I wonder whether I should even consider the opportunity that winning the Rhodes would present. Eventually, I just decided that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that I was going to at least try. I did a lot of reading, spoke with a lot of people, tried to become more knowledgeable and develop opinions about as much of what was going on in the world as I could. I read The Economist, listened to the news everyday, did mock interviews with friends and discussed as many ideas with them as I could. At this point, I knew I really wanted it and just dedicated as much of my time as possible to the pursuit. And on the day, everything just went really well and all that hard work really paid off. If I hadn’t got it in the end, I felt that I really did everything I could and it just wouldn’t have been meant to be.

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CG - It sounds like your squash, school, the Rhodes process… all the most successful pursuits you’ve had have been a community or family effort.

MP - [takes out a note on his phone] Throughout this whole process, I’ve been keeping track as best I can of the people who have helped me in some small way. I made this note on my phone of people who I wanted to thank if I did win - and this was made only in the last three months.

CG - We’re looking at about 30 or 40 names or so here.

MP - It was really incredible to engage with so many people who took a vested interest in preparing me for this opportunity. My professors, my home, my blockmates I lived with, computer science friends, mentors who were older than me, my advisors who helped me think about whether this was a good opportunity or not - the entire community helped me. I feel in some ways that if I hadn’t won, it would have hurt them more than it hurt me because of all the effort everyone was making for me. It was a long list of me thanking everyone after I won but it was such an incredible feeling when it happened.

CG - You talked about your ambitions in terms of equal access to education, but what are your plans specifically for the two years of the Rhodes and then your plans beyond - understanding that they will of course evolve.

MP - I’m really interested in the machine learning aspect of computer science. Basically machine learning is that you have this mass of data that you’re trying to get insights from. The technique is being used by Facebook to personalize ads. It’s being used by Google, Spotify for personalized playlists etc… This personalization has been a big shift in the tech industry - personalized ads, personalized playlists, items recommended specifically for you… I was doing personalized feed ranking for Instagram this past summer and the technology was really cool. I got really excited and was like “this is really dope”, but I thought to myself “what if we could do this same thing but for education? What if we could use data to figure out where a person is right now in his or her education. For instance, he or she understands X but he or she doesn’t understand Y... If he or she wants to get to the next level, how do you recommend content and the right format to get that person there?” That is the question that I have been really excited about. I know this type of software has been developed for very niche audiences, but is hasn’t been developed to reach that mass scale.

CG - The basic idea being that everyone’s access to education is different but also that everyone’s learning style is different?

MP - Also, it would consider one’s current background. In a classroom setting for instance, there are going to be kids who come in much more prepared than others. In a class of many students, there is only so much a teacher can do. Even if he or she had all the hours in the day, the teacher has a limited number of resources and can’t realistically help all the students in the class to the degree that they need. The thing is, what ends up happening is that the kids who have the parental support at home can afford to go to extra lessons and will end up doing fine, but the kids who don’t have that extra support like I had with my dad or who can’t afford the extra lessons, those are the ones who really get left behind. I see ed-tech as being a way to decrease that gap. I see a system where anyone can log on, go through some diagnostics and get an evaluation that says “you are deficient at X, you are proficient at Z. For this exam, you need to be at this level and this is what you, specifically, need to do to get to that level.” That would be based on a lot of machine learning techniques and my plan is to acquire and develop these skills at Oxford as best I can.

CG - You’re going to get your masters in computer science?

MP - Yes. And statistics. Which, together form the foundation of machine learning. I’m also considering a PhD.

CG - My last question - because this was supposed to be squash-based - is can you please describe from a basic perspective the role squash played in your getting the Rhodes? If I understand correctly, the Rhodes isn’t sport-specific but it’s often athletes that receive it?

MP - I wouldn’t say it’s often athletes but athletes definitely do receive it. The main criteria are academics and energy to use one’s talent to the full - which sports, music, leadership, community involvement all fall under. The scholars are supposed to be extremely well-rounded I think. Squash for me, played quite a few roles actually. Based on just the criteria of the sport alone, I play squash at a really high level, I represented Trinidad for 2-3 years of my life, am probably going to be representing my country next year at the Commonwealth Games in Australia… One question that I got on my interview was “What does squash mean to you?” and my response to that was I think key in my selection.

CG - How did you answer?

MP - I spoke about my family and how important they are to me and about the ability I have had to represent my country, which has been so important to me.

CG - Do you feel in any way like just the nature of the sport itself helped you with discipline or focus? Or that it was just a way for you to blow off steam? Because it’s different for everyone. For some people, it’s an opportunity to get away from everything, for some people it amplifies everything.

MP - For me, [pause] I miss squash back home. Playing with my brother and my dad. That was when I enjoyed squash the most. Now... [pause]

CG - The team experience is intense.

MP - It’s a lot more intense. I’ve grown a lot because of the entire process but honestly, the most enjoyable time of my squash career was when I was back home.

Beyond the fact that I played squash at a very high level, my community service was also a major factor in my selection. As Harvard Varsity team members, we have monthly sessions with Squashbusters, which I also talked about. And I also volunteered outside of the Harvard squash context as well. I spoke about that too.

CG - Anything else?

MP - I think a big part of my story is that I have been a minority in every activity I have done. I mentioned in my interview that I’m maybe one of two or three black squash players in the entire Ivy League - maybe the only one. Computer science is similar; I was one of two or three black interns at Facebook this past summer. I’m in a very improbable situation being a black computer science concentrator, a black squash player... I feel compelled to use my position as a platform to increase access to the opportunities and positions that I have had. Through Squashbusters for example, or through the Digital Literacy Project where I have volunteered to get underprivileged kids in Boston to code and be exposed to computer science for the first time.

Being a minority in two big projects in my life - squash and computer science - compels me to use my success as a platform to increase those types of opportunities for others.

Chessin Gertler