The Beginning and End of Harvard

Yesterday evening was a historic night for students at the School of Public Health. You wouldn’t have ever guessed though, because if you peered into the Countway Library of Medicine at 4 pm you would have seen me dozing off in a chair. My professor didn’t warn me that our reading assignment entitled “Health Systems” is basically a written lullaby. Its enchantment caught me by surprise at a vulnerable moment. Fortunately, I wasn’t representative of the student sample. There were plenty of other students in the library who were more disciplined than I was.

Five hours later we quarantined ourselves in the upper room of a local bar to unwind through dancing and libations. We had much to celebrate, from surviving our first week of graduate classes to successfully (but inefficiently) navigating Boston streets. Truthfully, there is no efficient way to navigate Boston unless you use your bike. If you do choose to cycle, remember to leave a signed will at your residence before you depart.

Another tip for outsiders: if you visit Boston and you would like to take the train around the city, call it the T. If you refer to this train as the metro or the subway or the underground or the tube or ANY word other than the letter T, worry not. You will only make this mistake once. A local will correct you before you can finish the second syllable of me-tro with a tone of voice that I’ve only ever heard from a parent correcting the derogatory language of a middle-schooler. “It’s the T. We don’t call it the metro.” We, of course, includes not only the locals, but also you, even if you haven’t yet conceded. They are conceding on your behalf. Any person who demonstrates defiance will be drawn and quartered on the Boston Commons.*

I haven’t encountered many locals in my program at Harvard. There are a couple from the state of Massachusetts, but none that I can think of from the city of Boston. There are people from over fifty countries in my program. At any given moment I am surrounded by friends from far and wide. In this way, the environment reminds me of Mercy Ships.

Beautiful, joy-filled friends: Monica (Indonesia), Mariam (Egypt), and Isaac (Ghana)

In no way does the environment remind me of western Michigan. Yesterday in a class of eighty students I counted only four people with blond hair. Todo, I turned to my imaginary dog, we’re not in Grand Rapids/Calvin/Holland anymore! HallelujahI love the rich diversity at this school and the perspectives and experiences each student shares. (I also love the aforementioned communities. The love is not mutually exclusive).

Speaking of Grand Rapids, yesterday a peer told me that it’s obvious that I am from the Midwest.

“Really? How?” I pressed.

“Unabashed friendliness.”

Apparently common courtesy is called “unabashed friendliness” everywhere else. Because there are worse reputations for which one could be remembered, you won’t hear me complaining about this.

The only complaint I have is that my program is only nine months long. The program is just beginning and yet we are already preparing for the end. Each decision we make now is impacting our education and careers in some way.

An overwhelming amount of opportunities exists at this school. A professor worded the situation perfectly. He said, “It’s as if you were invited to a lavish banquet and were told you can only eat two items.” We are limited to 27.5 credits each semester; a portion of those can be audited or taken pass/fail instead of a letter grade. We are juggling work applications, practicum ideas, classes, career workshops, social engagements, and professional talks from renowned writers and speakers. I feel as if I have been making decisions constantly since I stepped foot onto campus. If you know me at all, you know that I tend to change my mind.

A change that I’ve made in the past week is that I have added a concentration in Humanitarian Studies, Ethics, and Human Rights (HuSEHR). The focus on Disaster Response and Emergency Preparedness falls under this umbrella. Originally, I wasn’t thinking of pursuing my MPH for this career path, but let’s be real: I gravitate towards crises and emergencies. Adrenaline should have been my middle name.

One of my required courses this autumn is Societal Response to Disaster. I am also taking classes in Economics, Critical Thinking for Public Health Professionals, Ethics, Fundamentals of Global Health, and Biostats/Epidemiology. Economics was a bit of a melter until I remembered that I have a Canadian relative who was a renowned Economist in the mid-twentieth century. Innis College at the University of Toronto was named after Harold Adams Innis. I encourage my befuddled mind by repeating to myself, you can do this! It’s in your genes!

I know that I am not the only one befuddled and surprised  by all that Harvard has to offer. One of my friends is a dentist from Indonesia. She has spent some time in the USA but this is her first time living here. She told me that she noticed a plastic case in the bathroom labeled “Dental Dam.” Curiosity got the best of her. What kind of dental products are in the bathrooms at the school?  she wondered. One glance taught her everything–and more than–she wanted to know.

Needless to say, Harvard is more than I could have imagined. I will struggle as I transition again to a new place, new home, and new role as a student. I appreciate the loving and encouraging phone calls and texts from each one of you. Thank you for your support!

*I may have exaggerated about the punishment.

Addendum: My parents visited Boston in August. We completed the tourist checklist: freedom walking trail, Paul Revere’s house, Boston Commons, Boston Public Garden, Cape Cod, Harvard Walking Tour, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Tea Party Museum and the Boston Duck Tour. They were CHAMPS. Leighanne Sturgis (a Boston native) met us in the Public Gardens and snapped some family photos. Her magic is below:


(featured image and family photos taken by Leighanne Sturgis)