Campus & Community

Come to Harvard and see the world

5 min read

Weissman fellows tell tall (true) tales about their travels

For 39 Harvard students, summer vacation this year wasn’t a vacation at all. It was up to 12 weeks of full-time work in a variety of countries – the requirement for being in the Weissman International Internship Program.

Since 1994, 292 Harvard sophomores and juniors have been Weissman interns abroad, working in 72 countries so far. Back in school, they become ambassadors, bringing fresh global perspectives to their friends and into their classrooms.

The program was founded by Paul Weissman ’52 and his wife, Harriet. Last week (Oct. 19), the couple drove up from their White Plains, N.Y., home for the traditional fall luncheon honoring the interns.

List of Weissman fellows

“They’re back safe and sound,” said Harriet Weissman of this year’s interns, whom she had met this spring at an introductory luncheon. “We tend to worry a little bit.”

As for the program, she added: “We wanted to be involved in something that would change people’s lives.”

Benedict H. Gross, dean of Harvard College, praised the Weissmans for providing a model of experience abroad. “The opportunity to do this in the middle of your undergraduate experience,” he told the interns at the Faculty Club gathering, “is just invaluable.”

There were 32 interns on hand to tell three-minute versions of their summers. All the stories were about taking learning beyond books.

In France, Ayah Mahgoub ’07 worked on a commission studying poor areas in suburban Paris. “I learned an incredible amount I couldn’t have learned here in classes,” she said. “It enhanced everything I learned in school, by a million.”

Many worked with poor populations.

In a medical clinic in rural Guatemala, Jianhua Andy Tau ’07 learned to draw blood, administer vaccines, and suture. He witnessed the pride and the plight of the impoverished Mayans the clinic served, whom he described as “gracious and brave.” Tau remembered one boy who could afford to get a tooth pulled, but not the extra 10 cents for an anesthetic. Tau plans to go back to Central America when he becomes a doctor.

Jessica Yang ’08 arrived in rural Anhui Province, China, with a big box of sketchbooks and painting supplies. She used art therapy to reach out to children in foster homes, or whose parents had died from AIDS. “All of this offered me a new perspective on life,” said Yang. “It’s no longer about getting into the best medical school, or getting the best grades.”

Nina Catalano ’08, in her first trip abroad, worked with a London prison-reform agency, and got deep into the plight of imprisoned drug couriers, many of them mothers, and most from Nigeria or other Third World nations. “It was close to my heart when I started,” she said of prison-reform advocacy, “and it became closer to my heart.”

In Israel, Julian Gingold ’07 salsa danced with farmers, worked on his Hebrew slang, and studied protein mutations at the Weizmann Institute. “It was America times a hundred,” he said of the intensity of his stay, which included visiting archaeological sites and traversing the same pathways and tunnels fighters used during the siege of Jerusalem nearly 3,000 years ago. “It was a very powerful experience.”

Anna Swenson ’08, who is studying classics but plans a career in medicine, spent eight weeks in a Cape Town, South Africa, pediatric AIDS ward. She did nutrition counseling, calculated dosages for medicines, and learned that HIV/AIDS is a social disease complicated by poverty, “and not [only] a disease of medicine,” she said.

In their experiences abroad, the students also learned that cultures are different, but aspirations are universal.

“The more you travel, the more you realize people are the same, and want the same things,” said Nina Kouyoumdjian ’08, who worked in a corporate law firm in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

And they learned that current events appear different when viewed through a variety of cultural lenses.

Kouyoumdjian was in Dubai when war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah guerillas. The lawyers she worked with, most of them Lebanese, “gave me a completely different perspective from the U.S. perspective,” she said.

When the fighting started, Miriam Hinman ’08 was on an archaeological dig in Tel Dor, Israel, while rockets were hitting 20 minutes away. “I managed to have a very exciting time” once reaching safety, she said, “while checking on the war every hour.”

Hisham Mabrook ’08 spent eight weeks in London at a global Islamic financial think tank, working on microfinancing projects and on the design of a Muslim credit card. “It was very difficult to create a profit-making mechanism, while conforming to holy law,” he said. (Islamic law forbids collecting interest.)

“Harriet and I never tire of these luncheons,” said Paul Weissman. He told the students: “You’re full of such enthusiasm and spirit and ideas and aspirations. You truly inspire us, and thrill us, continually.”

For the past few summers, the Weissmans have been getting e-mails from all the interns, who in turn use the Internet to keep in touch with each other. And every fall, the Weissmans get a final written report from each intern.

The program is student-directed. Those applying must secure their own opportunities abroad, and submit budgets that include travel and living expenses.

“The students create the experience,” said William Wright-Swadel, director of the Office of Career Services at Harvard, which administers the Weissman internships through its International Experience Program. “They are both engaged and learning.”