Finally back on campus

To address remote learning challenges, a hybrid program brings international students back for weekly in-person classes.

By Karen Feldscher

After working remotely from around the world during fall 2020, 35 first-year international students were happy to be in Boston and studying in person at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in spring 2021. Masked and socially distanced, they gathered once a week in the School’s Kresge cafeteria to learn from faculty experts about topics ranging from U.S. health policy to cancer epidemiology in a special hybrid program designed just for this cohort.

The international students had faced a number of challenges in attending remote classes from thousands of miles away, according to Nancy Turnbull, senior associate dean for educational programs, and Sarah Stillman, Office of Education course manager. The two helped lead the effort to develop the program after the pandemic forced all the School’s classes online in March 2020.

Classroom with desks spaced part, students seated with masks, listening to masked male professor speak
Professor David Canning teaches a session.

The program combined online courses with weekly in-person classes. Seated in chairs placed six feet apart, students wore headsets that enabled them to hear and speak with one another and with the professor without having to shout. They were required to mask and distance both on and off campus and take twice-a-week COVID-19 tests.

Apoorva Gomber, a physician from Delhi, India, and an MPH student in global health, said she was thrilled to finally meet faculty members and fellow students in person after only seeing them in “little boxes” on Zoom during the fall. “Now I see what I was missing all these months,” she said.

Margaret McConnell, associate professor of global health economics, who taught a session titled “Behavioral Insights and Public Health Policy,” had a similar experience. “The energy of being in the classroom, seeing students’ faces to know when they’re excited and interested—that organic energy is a huge part of what I love about teaching,” she said.

Sleeping All Day, Studying All Night

One of the main reasons for establishing the program was to ease students’ struggles around time zone differences. “Many of them were getting up in the middle of the night,” said Turnbull. “One student said he had basically turned himself into a vampire to attend school. He slept all day so that he could keep up with what was going on in class.” The students had the option to attend classes via recorded video at more convenient times, but doing so meant that they couldn’t take part in discussions or interact with other students.

Last fall, after hearing from a number of students about their difficulties, a Harvard Chan School team worked with colleagues from across the University to get the program off the ground. Faculty members from nearly every Harvard Chan School department volunteered to teach the in-person classes.

Turnbull and Stillman were key to the welcoming environment the students encountered during their time at the School. “They helped us in feeling at home from the beginning,” said Gomber.

Karen Feldscher is a senior writer at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Photo: Kent Dayton / Harvard Chan