Harry Smith has seized every opportunity to learn—whether for personal growth or professional advancement—during his fifty-year career. Now, facing a life-changing cancer diagnosis, he turns to Coursera for joy, community, and a connection to the top-tier university experience he’s always dreamed of. Here’s Harry’s story:
I suppose everyone has a different way of dealing with a cancer diagnosis. But one thing that we almost certainly share is a desire to use our remaining time wisely. In my case, that means never missing a chance to learn and grow.
Throughout my fifty-year career, I took advantage of every training opportunity. If my employer offered in-house training, I signed up. If they didn’t offer their own training, I took advantage of tuition reimbursement. If they didn’t offer tuition reimbursement, I paid for evening classes at a local college myself.
Despite this dedication, I always thought I had missed out on the experience of attending a top-rated university. Neither my income nor my academic record had put me on the path to the Ivy League. What was it like to attend lectures by the person who wrote the “go to” book in their field? How did it feel to work on a project designed by a leading researcher? These and other experiences seemed beyond my grasp—even more so when, in my late fifties, I was diagnosed with kidney cancer. But then I discovered Coursera.
I started poking around the Coursera catalog because I couldn’t believe that anyone was offering a service of this quality. After completing a few courses, I realized that Coursera was the real thing. Leading experts were sharing their knowledge with me, and I could learn from the comfort and convenience of my own home.
Over time, I began to think of the Coursera community as an extended family. I watched computer networks lectures recorded by University of Washington Professor David Wetherall in his home study; from time to time, his daughter would offer us cupcakes in the background. I laughed when Duke University Professor Mohamed Noor consulted his bobblehead Darwin doll on evolutionary puzzles, and when UC San Diego Professors Pavel Pevzner and Phillip Compeau lectured on bioinformatics in crazy costumes. Princeton’s Bob Sedgewick and Kevin Wayne made algorithms so fascinating, I took both of their courses three times.
But as much as I enjoyed interacting with the teachers and TAs, my fellow students meant the most to me. When I struggled, someone always had a helpful hint. When I was sure I was that I had mastered a subject, someone always posed a new challenge. We joked, shared resources, and staged light-hearted competitions. Always we had fun.
Ultimately, this is what Coursera means to me. I don’t need new technical skills – I want to learn new things because that’s what brings joy to my life. And I want to interact with others who feel the same way. Coursera takes me to a place where there is no illness, no pain, no fear, and no frustration, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for a whole day. It is always time well spent.