From the visa issues that have kept freshmen off campus to the trans-Atlantic time differences that complicate their online coursework, international students have faced significant challenges at the start of the virtual fall semester. Harvard alumni around the globe say they want to help make their experience easier.
With over 370,000 alumni, Harvard boasts more than 195 alumni clubs across the world. The University also has Shared Interest Groups, connecting alumni to particular activities, identity groups, professions, or cultures.
Yoshiko J. “June” Nagao ’96, who serves on the board of the Harvard Club of Japan and previously served as a Harvard Alumni Association Director for Asia-Pacific Alumni Clubs, said alumni can help fill the gaps by providing mentorship and internship advice to students outside of the United States.
“I think where we can really add value is, for instance, one-on-one mentoring,” Nagao said. “A lot of our alumni are willing to either provide mentorship or internship opportunities.”
Though the pandemic poses challenges for all, Theresa S. Cho ’90 — who serves as an HAA Director for Asia-Pacific Alumni Clubs and Shared Interest Groups — said international students face additional layers of “uncertainty.”
In particular, she said she is concerned for freshmen, noting many have never seen Harvard Yard or traveled to Cambridge.
“I think that’s where the local alumni can come in and play a really proactive role in acting as a liaison between Harvard, where they’re going to learn, and the local environment, where they need to continue learning,” Cho said.
She added that alumni can also act in a supportive role closer to home.
“Because we are so much closer to the students themselves, this physical proximity gives us a unique way to help the University,” Cho said.
Robert G. “Bob” Manson, who serves as an HAA Director for Europe Clubs and SIGs, said international alumni are discussing how they can best support students who have either chosen to enroll or defer.
“For those students that have chosen to not defer, how do we support them in their studies, particularly when there are possibly financial challenges to be met?” he said. “Then for those students that have chosen to defer, how do we put them in contact with the international alumni community or the alumni community in their home country?”
He said their conversations are not centered on the need to mobilize alumni but rather “raising awareness” among the existing alumni network and encouraging its members to rally around students at this time.
Santiago Creuheras, a recently elected HAA Director, said alumni are planning activities like office hours and happy hours for international students through Harvard Clubs worldwide.
“We are also trying to provide support for the families of the off campus students,” he said.
Denise A. Silber, who serves as a Vice President of the Harvard Club of France, said her club recently hosted an event about how to spend free time that provided a space for attendees to connect with one another.
Silber also noted concerns about how students will connect with the clubs to receive support. Due to privacy concerns, the University cannot send clubs a list of the students in a given country, she said. As a result, students must opt-in to receive information from the clubs.
“They have to even know this thing exists that they could ask about,” she said.
She called on the University to raise awareness about the existence of the clubs by including their information in initial emails to newly admitted students and offering to connect them with alumni based on their geography or shared interests.
University Spokesperson Christopher M. Hennessy wrote in an email to The Crimson that the alumni association provides “robust infrastructure” for connections between students and alumni.
“The HAA provides a robust infrastructure for all alumni to connect with each other in their home communities and encourages and supports students in building connections with those alumni communities,” Hennessy wrote.
Pavlos P. Photiades ’88, an HAA Director for Europe, said alumni from clubs in his region are “reaching out to offer their advice and help” to freshmen, but he acknowledged that interfacing with alumni is not a replacement for connecting with their peers.
“You can imagine, especially for people who have never set foot on Harvard, and they've started classes, they must be really overwhelmed,” he said. “Older alumni are not in such a good position to help.”
—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.
—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.