Alec MacMillen, Master of Science in Computational Analysis and Public Policy (MSCAPP) Class of 2020, writes about his experience transitioning to virtual learning at Harris just before graduation.

When I started at the Harris School of Public Policy in fall of 2018, I never could have imagined that I would be finishing my second year in the midst of a global pandemic. Everyone has needed to adapt to the “new normal,” but I feel very fortunate that I’m part of a resilient and supportive community that continues to thrive even under challenging conditions.

If I had written this blog post about “a day in the life” just a few months ago, I probably would’ve written about taking class in the Keller Center, doing homework and catching up with friends in the Harris Café booths, meeting with the professor for whom I’m working as a research assistant, catching a yoga class at Ratner, and biking to the Crerar Library to do Computer Science homework in the computer lab. Of course, things have changed.

My days are now spent at home, with Zoom calls taking up a good chunk of my day. On any given day of the week I might be taking class (Cloud Computing and Advanced Machine Learning are both challenging in the best way), hosting office hours for a class I’m TA’ing, or having impromptu virtual “happy hours” with friends. As a second year CAPP student, I also get to take advantage of great resources and remote events that the program staff puts on. We have ways of staying connected like weekly contests in Slack (for last week’s contest we all posted our baby pictures) and virtual movie nights, as well as solid programming like career Q&A lunches with alumni, and moderated panel discussions with fascinating guest speakers.

One of my courses is especially topical. I’m participating in a supervised research class led by Professor Anthony Fowler and Professor Christopher Berry studying the impacts of policy responses to COVID-19.

It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience to apply the data analytic skills I’ve developed over the last two years at Harris to such an immensely important and timely research topic.

We are gathering data, reading and responding to cutting-edge papers, and developing our own research questions in real time. I’ve taken plenty of classes that focus on real-world applications of policy analysis, but this class takes that to an entirely new level.

The quarter has flown by, and graduation is just around the corner. I’m disappointed that we won’t have an in-person ceremony this year, but ultimately I’m grateful that my family and friends are all safe and healthy—that’s what’s most important. Sometimes when I’m feeling isolated or restless in my apartment I’ll go for a jog and make a detour by a friend’s house, just to wave or chat for a few minutes through an open window. Social distancing is the name of the game right now, but I’ve found even physical separation hasn’t dampened the wonderfully special community I’ve found during my time at Harris.

To see how UChicago is addressing the pandemic, read UChicago’s Response to COVID-19.

You can also read the article about the supervised research class on COVID-19 with Professor Anthony Fowler and Professor Christopher Berry here: "COVID-19 pandemic inspires scholars to change course."