After Rome, what came next?
I moved directly to the U.S. to start my studies at Harvard. There were funny moments of culture shock. St. Stephen's has a very high sense of fashion that I did not find here, so that was strange, and I had to drop some slang that I had picked up; you know, "dai" sounds a lot like "die," and that took a lot of explaining! I stayed here for two years and then took two years off, and in that time came back to Rome in May of 2018. I remember attending a fundraiser concert for Dr. Pope's work in Rwanda. It was really sweet to see how that structure and tradition remained accessible so many years later because it was always so wonderful for me as a student.
You mentioned that you took a two-year break from your studies at Harvard; why did you decide to do this, and what did you learn during your time away from university?
I decided I needed time off for professional and personal reasons. Academically, my interests were everywhere as a freshman and sophomore: I studied war movies, environmental policy, propaganda from WWII, medical ethics--it was so much fun, and it really was one of the best parts about being at a liberal arts college. But after two years, I didn't have any stronger of a sense of what I would be doing after college. I decided that I would need to work in the fields that I was intellectually interested in to get a sense of what I wanted career-wise. For example, I was interested in criminal justice, so I thought, "I should work in that," and it turned out to be a really informative experience because the work was so heartbreaking. Now I understand that criminal justice is very interesting in the classroom, but I am too sensitive to work in that field.
On a personal level, Harvard is a very intense academic environment, and given how scattered I was in my academic approach to the school, I was missing out on a lot of opportunities that I wish I had capitalized on. There were all kinds of fellowships and grant programs; I would watch these deadlines for trips and conferences fly by, and because I didn't know what I wanted from among them all, I knew I wasn’t taking full advantage of those opportunities.
I assumed I would just take one semester off, but it swelled into four because every semester, I learned more about myself and what kinds of jobs I did and didn't want. I wanted a plan when I got back to college and, sure enough, by the end, I settled enthusiastically on global health. I learned more about myself with each passing semester because at this age, you learn so much about yourself every year, and to have the freedom to explore different kinds of careers and cities helped me mature much more quickly than I think I would have in a college environment.
You are graduating in just over a month! While at Harvard, you studied History & Literature, Global Health & Health Policy, and Italian. In September, you will be starting a Master's in Public Health at Columbia. Given your curiosity and diverse interests, it must have been challenging to decide where to focus; why are you passionate about public health policy?
As a funny anecdote, I will say it started in 2018 when I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat with the vivid realization that there are not enough doctors! I don't know what the nightmare was about, but it got me thinking. I realized that public health is a thread through all of my scattered interests: it's where the climate crisis intersects with human rights and the economy, why I was so enthusiastic about zombies--really though! There's a lot of literature on this; I was surprised to learn that zombies allow us to consider victims of disease as dangerous disease vectors rather than objects of pity, and they have been called a politically correct way of channeling fears of refugee waves. I also found that I kept writing papers about the Black Plague in different classes. Systemic health issues were also a key driving factor in all the inequities that I saw growing up in different places. So, after that terrifying night, I realized public health was at the root of all the discrete things that I loved.
Harvard doesn't offer a public health major, so I had to scramble to find other ways to engage with health once I got back here. Fortunately, there are a lot of student organizations, incredible faculty, and a minor in Global Health & Health Policy, so I signed up for that immediately. The other beautiful thing about liberal arts is that my major in History & Literature has allowed me to take a lot of global health courses because it meets the department’s criteria: a lot of it's in the past, and there are plenty of documents!
Going back to why I am passionate about public health and global health: it's such a large-scale human rights issue that we have the expertise and money to mitigate, and by addressing global health inequities and structural violence, the chain reactions can create an incredible upward spiral in the economy, education, women's rights, and the environment. I love thinking of it as a field that you can approach in a hundred different ways: as a science communicator, a hard scientist, a medical doctor. Public health can have such a disproportionate impact on international development, and it's not only fascinating and moving, but there are so many different ways to contribute to the field. I, for one, am a humanities major who is scared of numbers but, because I can do a fair bit of communication and coding, I can contribute to the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public Health. They work on disease modeling and put out unsettling but incredibly important predictions--and I can help! I am not totally sure how I am going to tangibly get into the field, but that's so much of the beauty for me.
The last thing that really cemented my passion for global health was when I got dengue hemorrhagic fever in the winter of 2019. I had terrible eye pain because dengue makes your eyes swell, internal hemorrhaging for about eight weeks, and I felt like my health was out of my control. I appreciated how privileged I was compared to the demographics that usually get dengue fever and I couldn't help but think how unfair it all was, especially because the treatment for dengue is basically hydration and rest. So reflecting on where I was privileged enough to be in the hierarchy of disease response was just as distressing as the symptoms, and that confirmed my decision.
At Harvard, you are the Head of Communications for the "Effective Altruism" organization-- what does "effective altruism" mean, and why is it important in 2021?
This is one of my favorite topics. Effective Altruism is a global socio-political-philosophical movement that has the motto "doing good, better." It's about taking a very utilitarian and arguably overly-quantitative approach to the world's most pressing issues, including factory farming, artificial intelligence (and its existential risks), and global health and development, which is what brought me in, and I love it. I think it is important because it gives a lens through which we can consider how we respond to different kinds of crises and risks at an international and local level. In the context of global health and development, it's made me more comfortable addressing questions like, "are we measuring variables that actually indicate successful interventions? How far do chain reactions go? And are we respecting cultural taboos or imposing our values onto others because we think it will improve public health?" It's important to question the base assumptions of different kinds of humanitarian interventions, and I find it a supportive, challenging, engaging, and flexible model and organization through which to do so.
What do you consider your greatest achievement so far?
My senior thesis, which I turned in in March. It's about a controversy that influenced the diplomatic landscape of chemical weapons disarmament negotiations during the Cold War; it's a little bit about health, but it's a lot about international relations, damaging political rhetoric, and ethnocentricity. It was 18,000 words with 15,000 words of footnotes--this is a thing in my family: we are cursed with too many footnotes. It's always tough to find your place in the existing scholarship, and then a way to contribute, especially as an undergraduate. Figuring that out, and then making a long, complex, compelling, and sensitive argument was tough, so I would say that was my greatest achievement.
What are some of your other non-academic passions?
They have changed during quarantine. Before COVID--I've heard this expressed as "BC"-- so, BC, I did a lot of improv theater at the college; I found it to be a good stress outlet and a good way to keep my mind engaged, think about how humor is structured, and connect with people casually. I loved improv. I am still very passionate about film and music, just as I was at St. Stephen's. When I was in high school, I started a student organization for video production called "Cineasti," which isn't a word, but I thought it was at the time. When I was trying to think of a name, I Google-translated "filmmakers," and "cineasti" was somehow the first result. People who spoke Italian in my social circle said, "that was so creative," and I said, "haha, doesn't it just mean filmmakers? ...Doesn't it?" I'm not making movies or music very much anymore, but I am still passionately appreciating it.
I've also been doing a lot more mentorship; I'm a student mentor with the Harvard Global Health Institute and I do one-on-ones with Effective Altruism fellows from different countries. One of my other passions is teaching, like English and SAT prep.
Would you say those activities have increased during COVID?
Yes, because I have found that these activities are relatively easy to do virtually and they're a really good way to feel fulfilled over Zoom.
Has it been a straight path for you, or do you feel you have been tested along the way to achieving the goals you've set for yourself? Can you talk about what some of those challenges have been and how you've surmounted them?
I think everyone is tested in different ways, and sometimes it's our fault, and sometimes it's circumstantial. I would say I've had a combination. One of the most difficult things that I've struggled with personally is balancing my ambition in specific areas with my appreciation for holistic balance. When I was at St. Stephen's, for example, I was part of an international program for long-distance runners, and I had to run before school and after school in Villa Borghese by myself. It was lonely, but I was getting really good. However, because of my commitment to and ambition in long-distance running, I was missing parties and other kinds of celebrations, I was losing points on quizzes, and eating terribly--ironically enough. I eventually burned out and with some reflection switched my sport to football; I became the St. Stephen's girl’s goalie and went to a couple of tournaments with them. I made a video about that running program which was cathartic, and I wrote my Harvard admissions essay about it. The struggle to balance holistic well-being with ambition was a big reason why I took time off. I realized I was wholeheartedly committing myself to classes and programs that I thought I was good at rather than ones that felt right or fulfilling. That extra space gave me a better sense of balance when considering what career I wanted.
I also moved around a lot as a kid. Both of my parents--I am so proud of them---have had incredible jobs all over the world, but that brought with it a lot of emotional challenges growing up, and to this day Italy is the last time that I've lived in the same place for three years. Since then, I've lived in any given city for between three months and two years at a time. Every time you move, you face new challenges and you're tested in different ways. To be fair, a lot of this has been voluntary on my part: I've learned that it would be easier if I tried not to connect with each city I lived in because saying goodbye would be less hard, but I do my best to immerse anyway because I learn more about people, relationships, and human nature when I do, and the goodbyes are terrible, but the memories are all the more sweet, so that's been another test of sorts.
Professionally, being a humanities major in a relatively scientific field is another little test I have forced myself into!
What are some of the most important lessons from your experience that you would like to share with the next generation of St. Stephen's graduates?
Be brave. Talk to people outside your circle, outside your echo chamber, outside your school. Join activities that you may think you are unqualified for but will teach you new things about yourself and the world. Don't shy away from challenging discussions. All of this comes down to courage, and people-- especially St. Stephen's students-- are more courageous than they may realize. There are things about Rome and the IB program that have tested their limits and may have scared or inspired them. St. Stephen's is made up of a really strong group of people, so I would say: take that courage you have fostered in that environment and use it to propel you into things you love, and you will discover surprising, confusing, and thrilling parts of the world around you.