At Orientation week, students kick off a school year like no other

Screenshot-What is Public Health
A screenshot from Sue Goldie's orientation course, Foundations of Public Health

August 28, 2020 – Fall orientation at Harvard Chan School this year featured the usual slate of events—there were presentations on fields of study and student organizations, sessions on financial aid and computing, and drop-in hours for the registrar.

But there was a big difference: Orientation this year took place virtually, as the School made the decision over the summer to hold all classes remotely this fall due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sue Goldie acknowledged the challenges of navigating teaching, learning, and connecting online during her orientation course Foundations of Public Health.

“Incredibly awkward year we are all in,” said Goldie, Roger Irving Lee Professor of Public Health, director of the Global Health Education and Learning Incubator at Harvard University, and director of the Center for Health Decision Science. “It’s awkward for me and it’s awkward for you. We are definitely going to struggle this year, but I definitely want you to feel my enthusiasm.”

Goldie, who has taught the course for six years and created an online version last year, introduced incoming students to concepts in public health with a hefty dose of enthusiasm and colorful, engaging graphics. She also offered students tips for remote learning, advising them to find suitable work spaces in their homes for study and to move around. “You can’t sit all day,” she said. “You’ve got to get up.”

Screenshot-Allison Hempenstall MPH '21
Allison Hempenstall, MPH ’21, tweeted about one of her orientation sessions

To make up for the lack of in-person interactions, the School launched an online program called CHANnels, which will provide virtual spaces to promote community-building and give students an alternative way to have the sorts of informal conversations and connections that would normally take place on campus. There will be about 30 CHANnels, each with roughly 40 students representing a range of interests and backgrounds, and two student leaders to help facilitate periodic gatherings. The CHANnels will enable students to form relationships with faculty, staff, academic appointees, alumni, and other students, said Leah Kane, director for Student Affairs.

“This year we had to figure out how to build the community, because it won’t be just sitting there waiting for students,” she said. “We had to create a space for the community to inhabit.”

Kane is also excited about the launch of a new online platform, Engage, which lets students search for upcoming events, connect with student organizations, keep up with the latest student news, and easily access campus resources.

In her welcome to students, Dean Michelle Williams told students, “Never lose sight of the need to take care of yourself. We are living in a time of tremendous uncertainty and that brings with it tremendous stress and anxiety and, in many ways, as public health students, you are at the epicenter of this pandemic crisis.”

She advised students to make time to go for a run, binge-watch Netflix, or have a scoop of ice cream. “I know that ice cream can do a tired body and a tired brain wonders,” she said.

Karen Feldscher