Four Goshen College students spent the first three weeks of January studying public health at Harvard University.  

The January term, which ended last week, was mostly remote due to concerns over COVID-19, but the students still traveled to Boston.  

The program was brought into fruition by Brianne Brenneman, assistant professor of public health at Goshen College along with William Hsiao, a Harvard professor of emeritus, and Winnie Yip, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“I have been looking for ways to create opportunities for my students to learn from people other than just me,” said Brenneman. “I know that students appreciate when they can learn from people that not only look like them but have similar life experiences, especially for my students of color.”

Brenneman and Hsiao connected in the fall of 2021. With the help of Yip, they formed the J-term course: the Ruth Yu Hsiao Discovery Program, named in memory of Hsiao’s late wife. 

“When William presented it to me, it was ‘can we figure out a way to get Goshen College students to study at Harvard,’” said Brenneman. We started brainstorming…and talking about what… students we would want to recruit for this project.”

Hsiao financed a stipend for each student, covering necessities like food and living expenses and any lost wages, and the students were excused from their classes at GC until the experience was over. 

The four participants accepted for the program were Sandra Cortez, a senior public health and nursing major, Gretta Rempel, a biology major with a chemistry and sustainability double minor, and two GC graduates from last year, Zenton Yobera and Irving Suarez.  

“We had one white Mennonite student, one international student…and then two Latinx students,” said Brenneman. “That created a cohort where they all got to know each other and learn from each other’s cultures, beliefs and practices.”

The students could choose which courses they took.

One of the classes Cortez took was called Loneliness and Public Health, which was a compelling experience, she said, especially during an ongoing pandemic. 

“Loneliness is so central to a lot of our experiences through the pandemic,” said Brenneman.

She emphasized that “it was a way for the students to think intellectually, but also personally about a topic together as a cohort,” which augmented their learning experience.

The J-term created memories that each student will remember for a long time. 

“I had a few favorite memories starting with getting to explore Boston and see the university,” said Cortez. “Meeting William Hsiao and Winnie Yip was very inspiring, especially after hearing their personal stories of how they came to have their roles and involvement in public health.” 

Rempel said the people she met humanized Harvard and “made it feel like something that’s not out of reach.”

“It’s easy to think of Harvard as all of these brilliant people that none of us could be,” said Brenneman. “That’s really not the case. These people are indeed brilliant, and Goshen College students could be those people one day.”

For Cortez, the most important takeaway was “getting to discover me and my own career path. I learned so much and I met so many new people. The whole experience encouraged me to keep pushing myself and not be afraid to step out of my comfort zone.”