From Newborough High to Harvard

Brainiac: Lavalla teacher and Harvard graduate Rachel Van Der Koogh.



A DREAM to go to Harvard is one of many dreams towards making a change in the world, and for Lavalla teacher Rachel Van Der Koogh, her dream came true and she is now one step closer to her goal.

At Harvard, Ms Van Der Koogh studied a Masters in Educational Leadership, Organisation Development and Entrepreneurship over the last year, and came out a different person.

“I didn’t anticipate the intensity of the turnover of the assignments.” Ms Van Der Koogh said.

“It starts to change your thinking and that’s another thing. Harvard transforms who you are. I majored in literacy, in literacy development from early childhood (birth basically) right through to adulthood.

“I had to remind myself that learning is a struggle. Our culture seems to have diminished words, struggle and errors, mistakes. We see them as bad things but they are not bad things because that is where we learn.”

She mentioned that some of the experiences were about taking real life dilemmas and seeing where they went wrong, or what skills people needed to develop.

As well, these experiences included being able to have deep conversations with professors and other students about issues and ways to adapt to improve the education systems all over the world, so that students don’t have issues with ‘bouncing back’ and not being able to move forward; and to express ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking.

In her cohort, she was a part of the 40 per cent of 900 students that came from international countries for 2022 and 2023.

When in schools such as Harvard, Ms Van Der Koogh said, “You’re mixing with a very small percentage of people who all managed to get into this very exclusive school”.

“What I have observed is that people who couldn’t afford it, but fit the criteria, Harvard would move mountains to get you there,” she said.

When asked about whether people should consider international options for further study, she said, “Go for it, consider all options, do your research and branch out”.

“The only reason you won’t get it, is if you don’t apply; if you apply and don’t get in, okay. But if you don’t apply you definitely won’t get in,” she added.

Rachel highlighted, “It’s not impossible because a girl from Moe, who went to Newborough High School, got into Harvard”.

“When I started looking into going into Harvard, I did an awful lot of research on what was available. I didn’t apply to any other school, they actually ask you that on the admissions,” she said.

“‘Have you applied for other schools? Please list them.’ I didn’t apply for any other schools, it was Harvard or nothing for me.”

One of the many opportunities that Harvard offered to Ms Ms Van Der Koogh was auditing classes.

“Auditing is when you aren’t necessarily enrolled in the class, so you will not get credits, but you have emailed the professor and said, ‘I am really interested in the subject and I am requesting if I can sit in and audit your class’,” she said.

“I then was sitting in a conference, one-on-one with Gillien Todd at the Harvard Law School, and to be able to say ‘What happens in a negotiation when this and that happens?’ and she was just able to give you one-line gems.

“I kept two books, one of the content of what I was learning in class and another for the accidental learnings, and I headed that ‘Pearls of Wisdom’. She would say ‘Negotiation is not a conflict, it is a collaboration, you are going in and talking about each other’s needs. You are coming to an agreement or point where we can support each other’.”

“I wish I knew more about American culture. I wish I knew that I spoke a lot of slang. Some nations just don’t understand it. I wish I learned not to speak so quickly.

“The American people themselves are probably some of the most generous, hospitable and helpful people, supportive people. We would be working out the train system, so we would be standing before going into the train station and we would be looking at our phones to try and figure out whatever and this stranger, happened more than once, this stranger would be like ‘Can I help you?’.”

Now, Ms Van Der Koogh is heavily investing on sharing her findings – and more.

“I plan to work with teachers, I plan to work with principals, I want to train pre-service teachers and graduate teachers to support them,” she said.

“The true impact of COVID will just unfold from there on in. It has affected everybody. It’s affected our teachers, it’s affected our students from schools all over the world.

“COVID has and will continue to affect our kids, but the only way we can fully support our kids is to fully support our teachers. Because our teachers will be at a loss as well, we haven’t experienced this ever.

“I’m ready to go. I’m so excited to be going back into the workforce and to be and to be mixing into it.”