I’m Marc Härkönen, the School of Science representative for the 2014 Stanford Summer International Honors Program (SSIHP). I’m a third year mathematics major in the Engineering Physics and Mathematics program, and currently I am on exchange in the University of Hong Kong. First of all, I would like to apologize for being so late with this blog post. These last six months have been very busy and action packed, involving me staring and finishing my bachelor’s thesis, being on exchange in two world class universities in two very different countries and about 32,000 kilometers of flights.
Everything started in January when I saw an ad for Aalto’s SSIHP scholarship. At the time I was preparing the paperwork for my exchange year in Asia, so I was not sure if I wanted to start with another application in the same year. But with a scholarship of about $13 000 as an incentive, and Stanford being Stanford, I decided to take the plunge. This decision ended up being one of the greatest decisions ever. I ended up being admitted to Stanford for the summer, and Hong Kong for the following academic year, with only three days to spare between the two trips.
Fast forward to late June. After a week long visit to New York City with two other Aalto students going to Stanford, Milla and Tuomas, we finally arrived to the Palo Alto railway station. Since it was a Saturday, when Stanford shuttle buses run very rarely, and we had just missed the previous one, we decided to walk all the way to our residence in Governor’s Corner. What looked like a pretty easy and short stroll though campus ended up taking close to 45 minutes. The campus is beautiful but huge, and it became quickly clear that we needed to get bikes ASAP.
When we finally arrived, we were assigned our rooms. All students in SSIHP were assigned to two of the Independent Houses in Governor’s Corner: Yost and Murray. Each housed about 60 students from around the world along with two american RA’s (Residential Assistant), one HD (House Director). Additionally each house had a separate wing for a Stanford faculty member and their family. I found it very strange to have a family with small kids living in the same building as students. To make things worse, the family living in the Murray House had just had a newborn child. As you might imagine, a building with paper thin walls and tens of international student is probably not the best environment for a newborn, and the family ended up complaining a few times about the noise.
About the courses. As a mathematics major I was hoping for some interesting math courses that weren’t offered in Aalto, but unfortunately all math courses offered in the summer were courses that I had already taken. I ended up taking courses related to my minor, Computational science and engineering. I chose CS161 Design and Analysis of Algorithm, CME108 Introduction to Scientific Computing, and since I still had one unit to spare, I chose ATHLETIC51 Golf: Beginner.
The Algorithms course was pretty interesting, but a bit too computer sciencey for my taste. The course took a very theoretical perspective on algorithms: all algorithms were proven rigorously and mathematically. We actually had only one assignment that required programming. The workload on that course was unfortunately way too high: 4 hours of lectures and the homework was expected to take 10-15 hours every week. Every homework assignment basically required us to design an algorithm, explain it in English, prove its correctness and analyze its runtime. That course was by far the most time consuming, and it cancelled quite a few weekend plans. Despite this, the lecturer was good and the slides were excellent; you could see that a lot of effort was put into making them.
I was pleasantly surprised with the Scientific Computing course. I was expecting the course to be very hands-on with lots of programming and little theory, but it turned out to be very mathematical and theoretical, which I liked. Again, the homework assignments took a long time to complete, but much less than the Algorithms homework. On that course I also got to do my first ever take home final exam, which was open book, open notes and open internet. The test however was brutally long: we were given 32 hours to complete it, and it took me about 20 hours. That’s doesn’t leave too much time to sleep, eat and take pauses, but the feeling of success when it was finally done is hard to put into words.
The final course was Golf, which was by far the easiest and most laid back of all my courses. We went through the basic swing with irons and drivers, chipping, putting and some sandplay. Since it was a beginner’s course, all that was done in the driving range next to our residence though Stanford students can go play on the Stanford golf courses for a very small fee. I really liked the course, and it was great to do something that didn’t involve too much thinking for a change. I mean seriously, what’s better than swinging a few golf balls in a beautiful location with perfect weather?
There are a few differences in the teaching style compared to Aalto. Once again Stanford got ranked number 1 university in the world for computer science, and you could definitely see it in the difficulty of the courses. Everything seemed to be much more thorough, the lecture notes and slides were excellent and the homework, despite the large amount of it, really helped to understand the fundamental concepts better. One key difference of Stanford is the lack of exercise sessions. Instead, the instructors and teaching assistants would have regular office hours, where you could do the homework assignments and ask about questions them or any other matter relating to the course subject. For example in the Algorithms course we had four office hours a week, two of which were accessible online via Google Hangouts.
Though Stanford is highly ranked academically, to me the best aspect of the Stanford experience was living in the dorms. I got assigned to a double room in Yost. My roommate was an awesome guy from Turkey. Roommates are usually hit-and-miss, but we got along so well that it definitely made the whole experience much better. The sense of community was really strong. There was always something to do, someone to talk to or someone to study with. We also had a brand new gym with a climbing wall and swimming pool about 200 metres from our residences. Other highlights of my summer were the 4th of July pool party, hiking in Yosemite and the SSIHP prom. Unfortunately I myself didn’t have the time to go on longer trips, but popular destinations were for example Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Hawaii.
When I was applying, I thought that this would be just a normal summer school, but it was so much more. I saw so many new places, met many new lifelong friends and experienced many things I could never have experienced back in Finland. I can safely say that this summer was the best summer ever. I am also very grateful to Aalto for providing the financing for the summer. Talking to different people made me realize how well Finland is perceived around the world, and how lucky we are to be Finns. If you are still on the edge about applying, I would say just go for it. Writing the application and motivation letter might feel a bit tedious, but the potential reward is definitely worth the time.
If you still have any questions, please contact me by email (firstname dot lastname @aalto.fi)