The Guest Stars of Winter Term? Alumni!

The Guest Stars of Winter Term? Alumni!

What is it like to work in a funeral home? How exactly does embalming work? Is being around dead bodies all the time scary?! No question was off the table when the "Six Feet Under: The Art, Science, and Business of Death" Winter Term class discussed the nitty-gritty of what happens to a person postmortem in class recently.

And thanks to Monica Berube Thibault '08, students got answers to all of their questions and more. The alum visited the "Six Feet Under" class on campus and shared her experience growing up in the funeral home business as well as getting a degree in funerary directorship.

Thibault is one of a dozen Brooks School graduates who joined in this year's Winter Term by visiting classes in person, hosting groups at their workplace, or meeting with students virtually through video chat. Each alum's participation was as generous as it was informative, helping students understand professional work while giving them access to insights and situations that they otherwise wouldn't have been able to reach.

When the "Six Feet Under" class, for another example, considered near-death experiences, Ben Riggs '63 brought in his wife Lee to talk about hers! The Complexity of War class travels in Washington, D.C., went beyond sightseeing and museum trips to a visit with Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer '72 in his office (in photo above) for a first-hand talk about war.

Learn more about Brooks' Winter Term, view the course catalog and see photos from the classes

"It's a great advantage to have alumni visiting class and helping out because they already have a shared perspective with the students, having been in their place in class, and on campus, once themselves," said Dean of Teaching and Learning Mary Jo Carabatsos. That commonality breaks the ice quicker, leading to meaningful conversations faster — a huge plus in a three-week program like Winter Term.

Working with current students also brings some benefits for the alums, including a trip down memory lane. "It might be their first time back on campus," said Carabatsos. "It gives them a chance to think back on their time here at Brooks and how their Brooks education impacted where they are now."

Carabatsos enlisted a few Brooks alumni to guest star in her Winter Term class "Health & Human Disease," which offers an introduction to cancer diagnosis, treatment, and clinical implications for people who develop cancer. North Andover pediatric allergist Diana Saryan Balekian '00 visited campus to talk with students about immunology. Former Students on the Forefront of Science intern and current medical school student Zander Buttress '12 carved out time to talk with the class about his pathway to medical school and what the program is really like via video chat.

Peter Dunn '82, P'11, P'13, P'15, P'18, vice president, perioperative services and healthcare systems engineering at Massachusetts General Hospital facilitated surgery viewings for the class at MGH, while Michael Muto '74 came to Brooks to discuss gynecological cancers with the students.

The class' final project was to put together a podcast relevant to the material they'd learned. So Carabatsos turned to another alum for some guidance about how to do that: Jane Lindholm '97. A Vermont Public Radio veteran, and creator/host of "But Why: A Podcast for Curious Kids," Lindholm showed students the ropes and helped them get started.

Meanwhile, "Toy Stories: The Role of Toys in Imagination, Culture, & Development" students gained incredible insight into toy production courtesy of John DeSimone '87, P'20. DeSimone arranged a behind-the-scenes field trip at his workplace: Hasbro in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where much of the company's product development takes place. Students visited Hasbro's model shop, production studio and Fun Lab where toys are tested. They also got to talk with the head of marketing for the My Little Pony and Transformer brands, and meet with a product designer who discussed the toy design process with them. The Brooksians even got a parting gift: "Bumblebee" Transformers and Lost Kitten toys for each of them!

"The students were really fascinated by the idea that Hasbro has its own division to film commercials and advertising," said the class teacher, Chair of History Department Michele Musto. "Hasbro's designers also introduced them to design-thinking processes. They had never considered that a toy is tested by children, and then redesigned possibly multiple times before going to market."

Alums were especially helpful in the Winter Term class "Lying with the Truth: Don't be Manipulated by Numbers." Supporting the course mission to investigate methods and tricks by which marketers, pollsters and pundits craft "stories" backed by real data, trustee Meredith Verdone '81, P'19, chief marketing officer at Bank of America, welcomed the class at her Boston office. She talked with the group and allowed them to go through some case studies in which the bank had used data to segment and differentiate its target customer base. Peter Dunn also helped too, meeting with students at MGH to discuss the hospital's use of data to reorganize the hospital for greater efficiency.

Fittingly, the "learn_code { < 3 weeks}; Vidcode" class video chatted with many of their alum guests this Winter Term. Sathvik Sudireddy '15 spoke about his experience as a computer science student and gave Brooksians advice about pursuing a CS major in college. Job Watcharaumnuay '08 — a world-class player of the game World of Warcraft — shared gaming stories, and Nick Letwin '09 dished about his role as an autonomy engineering manager at Uber and self-driving cars while revealing how coding can impact students' everyday lives. Former Google employee John Han '10 addressed the class about his career as a programmer and developer, as well.

Prior to Winter Term, alumna Kim Nguyen '04 had helped bring a class to life too. Nguyen and her family joined students taking the English class "Immigrant Voices" at a dinner in the campus home of teacher Leigh Perkins '81. Students had just finished reading "The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen and through Kim Nguyen's family was able to get a real-life perspective on the immigration and Americanization themes covered in the novel. The group ate Vietnamese food, shared stories and got emotional at times.

"The dinner really furthered our understanding of the struggles immigrants face not only in their homeland, but also on their journey to America and integration into American society," said Caroline Yonce '19. "It was a great experience. We had the opportunity to connect the novel we read to the stories ... Kim and her family shared."

Her favorite part? "I enjoyed being able to ask questions about what it is like to be an immigrant in America and get insightful answers," said Yonce. "Today, the media tends to portray immigrants in a negative light and it was interesting to hear Kim's perspective on the reputation of immigrants in the media, as she is an immigrant."

That deeper understanding is exactly what Perkins had hoped for when she arranged the get-together. "Providing real-life examples of the stories we read, allowing them to put faces to themes and theories, and allowing them to hear others' experiences and ask questions is the goal," she said. Perkins also offered students the chance to interview alum Diana Valdes '05 earlier in the year about her experiences with immigration. "I do this," said Perkins, "whenever I can!"

Follow Brooks School on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to see the projects, trips and happenings in our community each day during the school year.


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