Catching Up with Jessica Edwards ’17

Catching Up with Jessica Edwards ’17

Catching Up with Jessica Edwards ’17


What does it mean to design artificial intelligence for social impact? Jessica Edwards can tell you.

That’s the name of the Harvard class she finished up right before hopping on our Zoom call. She’s sitting outside, enjoying the sun on the Radcliffe Quad in Cambridge, Mass., and detailing her classes for her senior spring semester.

“One of them is called Childhood in African America, and it’s about black childhood, and the history of that,” she tells me. “And another class is Introduction to Digital Fabrication, so it’s like 3-D models.” She’s also taking a course in the sociology department, called Student Leadership and Service in High Education: “We’re looking at student organizations on Harvard’s campus and looking at leadership opportunities, to try to improve our organizations.”

It’s a diverse course load, but it makes sense for someone whose interests and pursuits run the gamut from singing to volunteering to predicting wildfires in Madagascar. That last one is actually the topic of her final project for her artificial intelligence course—she’s building a model that can ultimately help everyone from farmers to state officials prepare for natural disasters. That’s the “social impact” part of the course, and Jessica says her experiences at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes helped put her on that path.

“I think having that drive for making a real-world impact with computer science skills definitely stemmed from taking technology classes at SSSAS,” says Jessica, who will graduate in a few months with a degree in computer science and a minor in education. She says she entered SSSAS in ninth grade with a strong interest in the STEM field, but her four years there cemented her love of computer science. She credits her Upper School teachers—especially Mr. Rho, who was head of the technology department during her tenure—for pushing her. “The math teachers are amazing,” she says. “And Mr. Rho was super supportive.”

But was Harvard, which accepts between 5 and 7 percent of undergrad applicants each year, on her mind? Not quite. “I definitely never would have imagined I would get into Harvard,” she laughs. “It’s wild.” But she says her SSSAS teachers and college counselors supported her through the application process, and since she stepped onto campus almost four years ago, she’s taken full advantage of being there.

At Harvard, Jessica sings as part of the Kuumba singers, which was founded half a century ago by Black students as a spiritual and cultural endeavor and is now the college’s largest multicultural organization. Between classes and rehearsals, Jessica also volunteers at Y2Y Harvard Square, a shelter for unhoused young adults in Cambridge. “That’s been super cool to be a part of, and the community is great there,” she says. If those activities weren’t enough to keep her busy, she’s also vice president of Harvard College Faith in Action, one of the largest Christian organizations on campus.

Jessica says thriving in a variety of extracurriculars is a skill she honed at SSSAS. “I learned, for better or for worse, that I liked staying busy,” she tells me. “I was in a bunch of different clubs.” She participated in the science club, the school’s diversity initiative, Girls Who Code, and a programming club which she helped found. And even if she wasn’t actually involved with a club, she’d pop into meetings with friends just to see what was up. She traveled on student service trips to Romania and to Haiti — for the latter, she applied right away because she wanted to learn more about the country her mom is from.

“So many things were available to me,” she says. “When I got to college I was used to being busy, and used to being exposed to a bunch of different people.”

“So many things were available to me. When I got to college I was used to being busy, and used to being exposed to a bunch of different people.”

– Jessica Edwards ’17

Busy describes her life these days pretty well. Jessica is back on campus this spring, even though her classes remain virtual. She said her mom was hesitant about her decision to leave Alexandria and return to Cambridge, but her dad encouraged her to. “He was like, go to Harvard! It’s your last semester!” she says—so she did. A core group of her friends is back on campus, too, and they are all navigating college life during a pandemic. Oh, and on top of seeing friends, doing schoolwork, and participating in a litany of activities—she’s also planning a wedding.

Jessica and her fiance, Josh, are slated to marry in July; that’s the hope, of course. “In the back of my mind, I’ve been like, is this refundable?” she says, sharing in the pain of all pandemic-era brides-to-be. But things are looking up for July, she tells me. She and Josh, who came to Harvard from Mississippi, met through mutual friends as freshmen and have been dating since the middle of their sophomore year. Both volunteer with the Y2Y homeless shelter and are part of the Faith in Action group, and the excitement in her voice when she talks about him is palpable. “It’s been awesome,” she says.

I warn her that as an almost-grad, she could be unsettled by my next question— what are her plans for the future? “That’s actually not triggering!” she assures me. I should have known it wouldn’t be— she already has a job lined up as software engineer at Microsoft’s Reston, Virginia campus. She’ll be close to family and live with Josh, who will be teaching with Teach for America in the Washington, D.C., area. Josh was recently accepted to Harvard Law School’s junior deferral program, which welcomes law students two years after they leave undergrad. So after his tenure as a teacher, the couple plans to move back to the Boston area. Jessica says she’s looking forward to being back in Cambridge at a “normal” time, one where COVID-19 is hopefully in the distant past. She wants to be involved with Kuumba, which historically has welcomed alumni back into its folds, and is considering graduate school in the future—though in what field, she’s not yet sure—it could be in computer science, or education.

Jessica says the one piece of advice she would give SSSAS students about college is to focus on the relationships and connections you make there. “You’ll be surrounded by so many interesting people with so many different and interesting perspectives,” she says. She thinks it’s easy to come to campus and get caught up in schoolwork, or get imposter syndrome and question whether you deserve to be there. “But if you can really focus on how amazing the people around you are, and how much you can learn from them, and just focus on learning and growing rather than just on finishing assignments or getting your stuff done,” she says, “that will be much more beneficial, and much more memorable.”