12 of the most impressive students at Harvard right now

Javier Aranzales HarvardCourtesy of Javier AranzalesSenior Javier Aranzales danced professionally in his native Colombia.

Counting household names like Sheryl Sandberg, Barack Obama, and Natalie Portman among its celebrated alumni, Harvard consistently remains one of the top colleges in the country.

But while the school continues to churn out impressive graduates, current students hold their own as well.

We tracked down 12 of Harvard’s most remarkable undergraduates who go above and beyond, from developing new techniques for 3D printing prosthetics to becoming an officer in the Marines to promoting social activism through music.

Read on to meet 12 of the most impressive students at Harvard right now.

Alex Yang designed a way to 3D print customised prosthetics for under $5.

Courtesy of Alex Yang
Yang with his first patient in Cambodia.

Class of 2017

Hometown: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Major: Biomedical engineering

When Alex Yang gets frustrated, he doesn't just forget about it and move on -- he finds a way to change things. One of Yang's biggest frustrations was the egregious cost of medical devices and prosthetics, especially in developing countries, which led him to develop an affordable method of manufacturing and fitting prosthetics for amputees.

Yang's method allows doctors to use any camera -- including mobile phones -- to capture about 100 photos of an amputee's residual limb, which are then stitched together to create a model. His software builds a socket that fits the limb, which can be 3D printed in only a few hours for about $5 worth of materials.

Last summer, Yang took his design to Cambodia, which has the highest incidence of amputees per capita due to land mines, where he worked in a clinic fitting patients with prosthetics. 'To put things into perspective, it was taking clinicians in Cambodia several weeks to make a poorly fitting prosthetic,' he says.

Yang also wants to make affordable technology available in classrooms. He won the 2015 Deutsche Bank Challenge for 'Klay,' a low-cost education platform launched in Peru where children learn basic quantitative, deductive reasoning, and STEM skills through Play-Doh 'games.'

Yang's still got another year of school ahead of him, but after Harvard he hopes to commercialize some of the medical devices he's designed. Beyond that, he plans to earn a combined MD/MBA and put it to use redesigning medical technology.

Carolyn Pushaw is an officer for the US Marines.

Courtesy of Carolyn Pushaw

Class of 2016

Hometown: Malibu, California

Major: Human evolutionary biology

Carolyn Pushaw not only challenges herself academically at Harvard, but as a newly-minted Marine, she knows how to push herself physically and mentally as well.

Pushaw started in the Navy ROTC her freshman year, but after observing the motivation and camaraderie of the Marines during a summer training session, she knew she wanted to switch. After years of early morning workouts, late nights in the field, and weekends spent training -- in addition to keeping up with a full course load -- Pushaw got the chance to complete Officer Candidates School last summer. Described as 'more demanding than any (training) you've experienced before,' OCS prepares its graduates to enter the Marines as officers.

When she's not studying or training, Pushaw works as an EMT-B with CrimsonEMS, a volunteer EMT group. She also participated in the Harvard College in Asia program, a cultural exchange program in which she hosted a Thai student at Harvard for a week and then spent a week in Bangkok herself.

Upon graduation in May, Pushaw will be commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marines. She'll spend six months at The Basic School for officer training, followed by up to two years of flight school in Florida before serving as a Marine for at least six years. 'I am really looking forward to having the opportunity to serve my country and hopefully make a positive difference in the lives of the Marines I will lead,' she says.

Harriet Kariuki provides Kenyan children with the supplies they need to succeed in school.

Courtesy of Harriet Kariuki

Class of 2016

Hometown: Kiang'ombe, Kenya

Major: Government

Growing up in Kenya, Harriet Kariuki had never even heard of Harvard before she applied. Neither of her parents went to high school, and she faced a choice: to work on the family tea farm or finish her education.

Kariuki chose education. But she never forgot the effort it took to get her there, including siphoning ink from a friend's pen so she could finish her schoolwork when she ran out of supplies. Her experiences inspired her to start Pens4Dreams alongside her roommate Shina Leboo. An outgrowth of her photography business, Kariuki Photography, Pens4Dreams provides school supplies to students in need in over 300 primary schools in Kenya. All the proceeds she earns from her photography go toward the initiative as well.

'These pens are not just pens but a source of motivation and something they can hold onto every time they lose hope in their pursuit to achieve their dreams,' she says.

Harvard also sparked Kariuki's interest in language and travel. She currently speaks five languages -- Korean, Japanese, Swahili, Kikuyu and English -- and has studied abroad in Japan, Korea, and China.

After graduation, Kariuki will head back to China to pursue a master's in public policy and international relations at Peking University through the Yenching Fellowship, with a focus on Sino-African relations. In the long-term, she eventually wants to return to Kenya and change it for the better.

Javier Aranzales danced professionally in Colombia.

Courtesy of Javier Aranzales

Class of 2016

Hometown: Bogotá, Colombia, and Miami, Florida

Major: Government

While home in Colombia for the summer, Javier Aranzales came across a listing for the country's inaugural national professional dance company. On the heels of a three-week intensive at the American Ballet Theatre, he applied. Several weeks of auditions later, Aranzales accepted an offer to become one of Compania Colombiana de Danza's founding members.

After pursuing his dream of dancing professionally for a semester, however, Aranzales returned to Harvard ready to tackle the arts from another perspective. 'I realised that I see myself more at the forefront of arts policy and the advancement of the arts than on the stage because the communities that I am a part of need more people in government who stand up and support the power of the arts,' he says.

From there, Aranzales became a self-proclaimed ambassador for global arts education. He's taught a seminar on the history of ballet and modern dance in the US to high school students in China, worked with victims of child sex trafficking in the Philippines, helped implement an arts literacy program in Uganda, and gave a TED Talk about the power of art for international development through TEDxYouthMiami.

Aranzales credits art with helping him overcome difficult circumstances growing up and hopes to help it do the same for others. He's currently working on a project to connect underprivileged kids with cultural institutions through the Miami Initiative for Cultural Education. He's also studying the native languages of India, Kenya, and Tanzania and hopes to one day expand his work to these countries.

Jordan DeGraaf built a better barbecue smoker -- and turned it into a new business.

Courtesy of Jordan DeGraaf

Class of 2016, graduating May 2017

Hometown: Alamogordo, New Mexico

Major: Bioengineering

Given the number of well-known leaders Harvard produces, Jordan DeGraaf assumed students must go through formal leadership training. But upon arriving on campus freshman year, she realised that wasn't the case. In fact, little to no leadership programs existed. She enrolled in the closest thing Harvard College had: an eight-week leadership course called 'Leads.' And while she enjoyed it, DeGraaf still felt it was lacking.

So the next semester, she joined the team and helped bolster the program from a 10-person seminar into a thriving 50-person course that brings everyone from startup experts to CEOs to speak on campus.

DeGraaf didn't stop there. Together with two classmates, she turned an idea sparked in an engineering course into a promising new company. The business, Trignis, plans to sell redesigned barbecue smokers that promise to make the cooking process foolproof.

DeGraaf and her team gradually invested more and more time into the project to develop a business plan and marketing strategy, find advertisers, and build a network of future customers. The Trignis team tied for first in the Harvard Innovation i3 challenge, which comes with a $5,000 prize, and they plan to officially launch this summer.

After Harvard, DeGraaf plans to work on Trignis full-time -- but not forever. 'I would love to become a serial entrepreneur, spinning out ideas into companies that sell great products and provide happy and fulfilling work lives for employees,' she says.

Joshuah Campbell wants to make a difference through music.

Courtesy of Joshuah Campbell

Class of 2016

Hometown: Cheraw, South Carolina

Major: Music; French and Francophone studies

Joshuah Campbell's done it all -- or at least that's how his résumé reads. A singer, actor, and musician, Campbell never saw any of his performance skills as particularly viable before Harvard. But once he arrived on campus, he began taking advantage of every musical opportunity available.

Campbell performed in a show per semester with the Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club; did two productions and served on the board of the Harvard Black Community and Student Theatre Group; sang for two years with the Harvard Krokodiloes, an all-male a cappella group; spent two years in the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, a comedic theatre group; sang with Harvard VoxJazz, a six-part jazz a cappella group; joined the Harvard University Choir, which sings during Sunday services at Harvard's Memorial Church; and performed several one-off concerts, including a show for Renegade Magazine's Tiny Dorm series and a Stevie Wonder tribute concert with friends.

Campbell also uses his performance skills to affect change. One of his proudest moments was singing an original song at at a protest event supporting students at Yale, Mizzou, and other schools who encountered unrest earlier in the academic year.

After graduation, he hopes to head to New York City and continue performing. 'I perform to live,' he says. 'I don't know another way.'

Kevin Li ran an investment fund that's more successful than some of the ones on Wall Street.

Courtesy of Kevin Li

Class of 2016

Hometown: Fort Washington, Pennsylvania

Major: Economics; piano performance

Interested in both finance and music, Kevin Li couldn't choose which he'd rather pursue. So he didn't.

As part of the highly selective dual degree program with the New England Conservatory -- only half a dozen students are admitted per year -- Li studies both classical piano and economics.

In addition to piano performance, Li knows a thing or two about managing money. He served as CEO of Global Platinum Securities, an intercollegiate value investment fund with 50 student participants from Harvard, MIT, Wharton, Georgetown, the London School of Economics, and others. With GPS, Li oversaw an investor portfolio of roughly $250,000, generating and evaluating investment ideas for the fund. Despite being run entirely by undergraduate students, the fund holds its own on Wall Street and has beat the S&P 500 every year since 2008.

Li also served as president of the Harvard Financial Analysts Club, where he led a team of student researchers in managing a $30,000 portfolio for investors. In addition to running the fund, HFAC organizes a weekly education program that instructs about 100 students on the fundamentals of finance and accounting.

After graduating from Harvard in May, Li will join PJT Partners, a restructuring and reorganization group that recently spun off from private equity giant Blackstone, where he will put both his background in economics and his creative mind to work.

Kira Headrick interned at NASA and is one of 25 women chosen to complete pilot training for the US Air Force.

Courtesy of Kira Headrick

Class of 2017

Hometown: Boulder, Colorado

Major: Mechanical engineering

The path to becoming an Air Force pilot isn't an easy one, which Kira Headrick has learned firsthand. After two years of intense ROTC training, Headrick was chosen to complete pilot training, a highly selective specialty that accepts a mere 14% of ROTC cadets. Not to mention, she was one of only 25 women selected.

The culmination of years of hard work on Headrick's part, the selection reflects her success in field training, sharp leadership skills, willingness to take initiative, and impressive test scores, all while completing a full engineering course load and maintaining a high GPA.

In addition to spending her summers completing ROTC field training, Headrick also spent the last two as a NASA intern with the MARTI program. She worked with a team of fellow students under a NASA engineer to design a new type of aircraft wing that's lighter and more efficient.

Never stopping to rest, Headrick spent spring break of both 2014 and 2015 building houses in Decatur, Alabama, with Habitat for Humanity. The mayor of the town was so moved by students who returned two years in a row that he awarded them -- Headrick included -- honorary citizenship and keys to the city.

She still has another year left at Harvard, but after school Headrick plans to graduate from pilot training and fly jets for the US Air Force. Eventually, she hopes to work in the space industry, either as an engineer or a pilot, but her ultimate dream job is to become an astronaut.

Laila Smith is an accomplished musician and activist.

Courtesy of Laila Smith

Class of 2017

Hometown: San Jose, California

Major: Social studies and studies of women, gender, and sexuality; jazz voice at the New England Conservatory

She's performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall to Grammy's after parties, but for Laila Smith, music is more than that: It's a way to promote social activism and effect change.

During her freshman year, Smith and her band released their first jazz album. They toured in the US, and Smith spent the summer touring Norway with the JM World Jazz Orchestra. Digging deeper into music, Smith travelled to Amsterdam during her sophomore year to collect oral histories of female Dutch jazz musicians, where she became involved in several activist communities.

Back at Harvard, she knew she couldn't stand idle. 'Regarding what it takes to be involved in activism on campus, it simply takes time and compassion,' she says. 'I spend nearly all my time in meetings about how we can make Harvard better in many different capacities. The trick is to remain optimistic.'

Smith now serves as her house representative on the Undergraduate Council where she advocates to establish ethnicity studies at Harvard, to affirm gender identity and sexuality, and to prevent sexual assault. She also works at the Office of BGLTQ Student Life to promote allyship for gender and sexuality diversity at Harvard.

This summer, Smith will conduct thesis research in Amsterdam and teach a social theory seminar in Greece. After Harvard, she plans to be both a professor and an artist. 'To me, research is such creative work,' she says. 'I want to empower students -- especially female Asian students such as myself -- to speak up about their academic interests in the humanities and not be afraid of social critique.'

Rivka Hyland is a Rhodes Scholar who champions students affected by trauma and violence.

Class of 2016

Hometown: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Major: Near Eastern languages and civilizations

Last fall, Hyland was named a Rhodes Scholar, entering her into one of the most storied and competitive scholarship programs in the world, which selects only 32 Americans per year. With the prestigious scholarship, she'll spend the next two years pursuing a master's of philosophy in Christian theology at Oxford.

Throughout her time at Harvard, Hyland has studied the interactions of early Christians and Muslims, presenting her senior thesis on how the two groups influenced each other's intellectual traditions, both directly and indirectly. Her sophomore year, Hyland also earned Harvard's Jacob Wendell Scholarship Prize, which awarded her a $17,000 stipend -- the largest offered by Harvard -- to support research for three summers.

In addition to her academic pursuits, Hyland aims to fight trauma and violence and support those affected by it. She's the co-director of Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach (ECHO), one of Harvard's six undergraduate peer counseling numbers, and a hotline counselor for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. At ECHO, Hyland not only oversees daily operations, but she also implemented the line's first ECHO-specific suicide protocol and developed a new training system to help staff better address issues surrounding race, socioeconomic status, faith, and trauma.

After Rhodes, Hyland plans to continue her studies, going for another master's degree or straight to a PhD program. 'But who knows?' She says. 'Research and teaching are what speak to me most, but there are so many other applications of studying the past that I have not yet tried out.'

Sierra Katow performed on NBC's 'Last Comic Standing.'

Courtesy of Sierra Katow

Class of 2016

Hometown: La Cañada, California

Major: Computer science

Sierra Katow loves it when people laugh at her -- when she's on stage telling jokes, that is. A computer science major, Katow always pictured herself entering the 'glamourous' -- as she calls it -- tech world after graduation. But once she got to Harvard, Katow found herself gravitating toward her long-held interest in comedy.

She started doing stand-up at 16, performing in comedy clubs around Los Angeles, and landed an audition with NBC's 'Last Comic Standing' during her junior year of college. 'I grew up watching the show and never thought I'd ever be on it,' she says.

But she made it. The show filmed her around Boston and on campus, and she competed as one of 100 comics on the show's ninth season. Katow's stand-up has also been featured on 'Last Call with Carson Daly' and Fox's 'Laughs.'

Katow keeps the laughs rolling on campus as well. She writes for the Harvard Lampoon, a humour magazine, performs with the Harvard College Stand Up Comic Society, and produces a podcast called Sclarq + Skatow with Harvard alum Sam Clark that features jokes and interviews with fellow students.

After graduation, Katow plans to move back to LA and continue pursuing her comedy career. She has plans to tour US colleges with three other seasoned comedians and wants to continue following any leads that keep her involved in the world of comedy.

Taji Hutchins ran the Harvard National Model United Nations Latin America conference, which attracted 400 delegates from around the world.

Courtesy of Taji Hutchins

Class of 2016

Hometown: San Jose, California

Major: Government and ethnicity; migration and rights

Taji Hutchins has used her years at Harvard to fuse her interests in international relations, immigrant rights, and languages. In January, she ran the Harvard National Model United Nations Latin America conference in Mexico City, drawing 400 delegates from around the world to debate global dilemmas and negotiate solutions. At this year's HNMUM-LA conference, Hutchins supervised staff, managed the conference budget, published promotional material, maintained the website, and managed social media campaigns.

Hutchins also received the Harvard undergraduate government department chair's travelling fellowship for an eight-week summer internship at Centro de Liderança Pública in São Paulo, Brazil. While there, she institutionalized a case study writing program that's now used in master's programs offered by the organisation.

She speaks three languages -- English, Spanish, and Portuguese -- which she put to work in multiple internships by translating legal documents, assisting Spanish speakers with interviews, and assisting immigrant residents in Brazil with filling out housing forms.

'Coming from a family of Panamanian immigrants and African-Americans, I spent much of my time at Harvard unpacking what it means to me to be an Afro-Latina in the United States and how, in turn, I can use my identity to further advance and address the needs of immigrant and foreign populations,' she says.

After graduation, Hutchins will begin her career in New York City as legal practice assistant. She plans on eventually attending business and law school and one day holding public office.

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