Campus & Community

Pets and song as therapy

3 min read

Currier House senior White looking forward to veterinary school

Michelle White and friend Rosie: 'Dogs have a joie de vivre that's infectious.' (Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

Michelle White’s love of animals has shown her a way to reach out to others and is leading to a possible lifetime’s work as a veterinarian.

White, a graduating senior from Currier House, worked for four years with Pets as Therapy, spending the last three as its director. The student-run organization brings dogs into area nursing homes to give residents a taste of the outside world, a reminder of pets in their past – and a bit of unconditional love.

“Dogs have a joie de vivre that’s infectious,” White said.

White said she’s seen people who hadn’t spoken in two years speak up when a new dog comes in and people who are crying or angry become soothed. She’s also gotten a new sense of the place that Harvard occupies in the world, as the nursing home residents aren’t reticent to tell her they expect great things from her.

“It’s like having a chorus of grandparents really wanting you to give it your all,” White said.

White said the inspiration from Sundays spent working with Pets as Therapy has helped get her through her schoolwork during the week.

White, a biology concentrator, plans to spend the summer working on wildlife rescue near her home in Ontario, Ohio, and to apply for a fellowship to attend the University of Pretoria in South Africa to work with wildlife and on the transfer of infectious diseases from wildlife to domesticated animals.

After a year, with that experience under her belt, White said she plans to apply to veterinary school.

White came about her love of animals and the natural world at home. Her parents, she said, conveyed their own love of the natural world to her. The family dog, a black Labrador retriever named Belle, was a constant presence, wandering freely between her house and those of family members who lived nearby in the quiet town.

Belle’s health problems gave White an early exposure to animal medicine. Blind when she was 5, Belle had eye surgery that allowed her to see again before she died last fall.

Pets as Therapy has not been White’s only animal exposure while at Harvard. She regularly walks dogs for faculty members and has used that activity as a way to recruit dogs for Pets as Therapy.

White said her greatest learning experience while at Harvard was the research she did into genetics and infectious diseases. And, while Pets as Therapy was an important experience for her, she said her experience with the Radcliffe Choral Society was her most significant social outlet.

Serving as the choral society’s president this year, White helped organize the group’s quadrennial overseas tour, this time to South Africa, last summer. The trip was the first time the society had traveled to Africa and White said they received a friendly welcome wherever they went.

As Commencement draws near, White said she’s excited for the day to come. She said she’s sure she’ll be able to keep in touch with friends from the choral society and with roommates – simply because there’s no other choice. But White also said that as she’s gotten to know people at the University, she realized why in his or her own way, each was selected by Harvard’s rigorous admissions process and that together, they make Harvard a special place.

“That’s definitely the saddest part. I’ll never be in this environment again,” White said.