Monday, March 28, 2011
Guest Blogger: Mariesa, 2nd year SM2, SHHD
I started my degree at HSPH in fall of 2009, as a candidate in the Department of Human Society, Human Development, and Health--it seemed like the most logical fit given my background and interests. I tested people for HIV in the emergency room of a major Boston academic hospital and worked with Boston teenagers in an inner-city Boston neighborhood to urge them to think twice about drinking that soda with their meal, messing around 'just for the sake of it' without protection, and telling them why 'crack really is whack.'
All in all, my interests in reducing health disparities and understanding behavioral determinants of health landed me to where I am today. But while I've taken a number of amazing classes with some world-renowned professors at HSPH and at the other Harvard graduate schools, some of the most impactful moments of my academic career have taken place outside of lectures and seminars.
One thing about me is that I am a very social person, and I love bringing people together. One thing that lured me to Harvard was Harvard UNIVERSITY--that is, the greater aspect of Harvard outside of the Harvard School of Public Health. However, as I stepped onto campus, I was actually quite disappointed with how little the different schools interacted--there are so many students who couldn't even tell you the name of one person that goes to a grad school outside of their own. Sure, the Provost Office works closely with the Harvard Graduate Council to have events for all Harvard graduate students--I was actually one of HSPH reps last year. It was definitely a great way to meet some pretty amazing people from some of the other grad schools. But because there is such a quick turn-over for many degree programs (especially like the MPH'ers at HSPH!), it can be difficult to form sustainable relationships. While the different schools and departments may play a large role in helping to foster such interdisciplinary relationships, it is really up to students themselves to look for ways to reach out and plant the seeds to help foster a greater sense of community and build sustainable relationships.
At the Office of Diversity, one of my projects revolves around improving the quality of interaction among students at HSPH. We've hosted monthly mixers for different ethnic groups on campus as a way to get groups of students who otherwise may not collaborate on events to come together to meet each other over some refreshments. Based on the feedback we've gotten from the participants, the initiative has helped spur friendships among people who otherwise would never have had a chance to meet during their time as HSPH. Even at the bus stop the other day, I ran into a few of the students from the Harvard Club of Japan and we had a nice convo on the M2 ride to HSPH catching up about school life and expressing excitement that we would all be going to an upcoming school event together! Annnnnnd I got invited to more of the club's upcoming events :) One thing I do appreciate about HSPH is my very diverse group of friends--not even in undergrad did I have the opportunity to connect on a deeper level with so many amazing individuals from various walks of life. Guess when everyone's stressed and passionate about similar things, it can bring people together, eh? ;)
I also spearheaded an initiative called the Harvard Black Graduate Alliance, a consortium of the African-American affinity groups across Harvard University. Now, I went here for undergrad and because I've been around for so long, I've had the opportunity to stay in contact with some of my old friends from undergrad--who in turn invited me to various events their schools were hosting, kept me in the loop about what was going on in their own schools that might be of interest to me, and of course introduced me to a number of their own friends. Having this pipeline of information exchange and seeing how enriched my own experience at HSPH was by connecting with various students from other grad schools, I wanted to be able to offer a similar experience to other African-American students at Harvard. I was actually really surprised and disappointed when I became a graduate student at how very little the different black communities interacted with eachother. I'd been thinking about forming an overarching organization for some time--but then it really hit when I went to a minority-oriented mixer hosted by the Design School, HSPH, and HSGE and met some great people---only to realize realistically, I may never see them again! And many of the Design School prospects were worried about their school not having a sizeable amount of students of color for support.
Now, when times get rough, you often would like the ear or shoulder of someone who can more comprehensively understand where you are coming from. And so began the process of spearheading such efforts, recruiting "reps" from all of the different schools to serve, getting administrative support, and building a working model to create a meaningful organization that would bring together various African-American students across the Harvard graduate schools by bridging interests and increasing collaboration and interaction. In its first year, not going to lie, it has been a bit stressful spearheading such an effort and doing what you feel needs to get done so that the organization is accomplishing its goals and will become sustainable. At the very least, through a potluck, a party, small group dinners, and collaboration with the Harvard black Alumni Society (to name a few events), we've definitely helped improve communication of various events going on at the schools to be able to include students who might not otherwise know about such events.
But a major demonstration of how the community quickly banded together was in response to a racist incident that occurred in Boston back in November, where club managers denied entrance to Black Harvard and Yale graduate students, despite the fact that the venue had been paid for and appropriate arrangements made beforehand. The community came together and BGA worked to make sure that students and faculty were quickly made aware of the incident and internally decided the appropriate course of action to take against a blatant display of racism. Ultimately, various Harvard administrators wrote letters in support of the African-American students of Harvard and the community, a lawsuit was filed, and of course various students initiated their own responses. In the end, at least some form of justice prevailed in that besides receiving overwhelmingly negative publicity for a number of weeks, the club issued a public apology and was fined $30000, of which the money will be donated to groups that are oriented on higher education achievement for African American students. In the end, it was nice to see that various communities across Harvard could mobilize very quickly--and it was comforting to know that we had the support of various Harvard deans, administrators, and friends from all walks of the Harvard community.
My journey here is far from over, or at least I tell myself that as graduation looms near :p...stay tuned!