When your meet cute involves T.H. Chan

A collection of stories covering Harvard University’s 373rd Commencement.

Seray Sener and Alan Rheaume came to the U.S. to begin working on master’s degrees at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in June 2022.

Sener, who worked for Pfizer in Turkey, and Rheaume, a neurosurgery resident in Canada, enrolled in the same “hybrid” epidemiology program, mixing two intensive, three-week stays on campus with four semesters online, ideal for working professionals and foreign students. Each hoped the program would help them take the next steps in their careers.

Neither came to Cambridge expecting to find a life partner, however.

Heather Baer, faculty director of the MPH in Epidemiology program, said the program is designed to bond classmates rapidly during campus stays. Its intensive nature keeps the 50- to 60-person cohort together both inside and outside of class, allowing them to bond over academic material, program-sponsored social events, shared housing at nearby Massachusetts College of Art, and during down time, when they’re free to tour the city, walk on Boston Common, kayak on the Charles, and engage in other activities.

It might be an understatement to say that for Sener and Rheaume it worked better than it perhaps ever has.

“The three weeks they’re on campus are very intense. It’s typical for the students to become really good friends during that time,” said Baer, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard Chan School and of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “One of the main points of that three weeks is for students to bond so that when they go off for the next year — much of which is online — they’re interacting with people they already know really well. But I don’t think we’ve ever had any other couples get engaged.”

Sener and Rheaume say the first day of class included a touch of love at first sight despite their different backgrounds. She’s from Turkey, where he “melted” in the 104-degree heat during a recent visit, and he’s from Canada, where she was greeted with minus 4-degree Fahrenheit temperatures during a visit for Christmas and New Year’s 2022.

The frosty capper on that visit was an invite by his family to a celebratory polar plunge in Lake Ontario’s 39-degree water. The air temperature by then had warmed to a balmy 28.

“It’s difficult because you cannot breathe, you cannot control your body,” Sener said of the experience. “And I didn’t have health insurance in Canada.”

“We found we have this shared mission together, as well as a personal connection and similar values.”

Alan Rheaume
Seray Sener and Alan Rheaume in Turkey.
Seray Sener and Alan Rheaume in Kapadokya Turkey.

Sener said that the two getting engaged was a bit of a surprise, especially since her mother warned her that North American men might break her heart. Sener was initially looking for a native English speaker to pair up with for homework — English is her second language — and was determined whoever that was would remain forever “in the friend zone.”

Those homework sessions, however, turned into trips to the gym together, and then dates around Boston. Though the pair faced both geographic and cultural gulfs, they found that they nonetheless had a lot in common: ambition and a drive to succeed academically and professionally paired with a deep appreciation of social and family connections.

In fact, their decisions to earn advanced degrees have already reaped gains, even ahead of graduation this spring. Sener said the program has already fostered her promotion to a new position with the multinational company, where she is now global director of oncology.

Rheaume said his studies have given him the quantitative tools for what he anticipates will be a career combining roles as a neurosurgeon and an academic researcher. He’s been accepted into a cerebrovascular and endovascular neurosurgery fellowship at Stony Brook University Hospital on New York’s Long Island.

“The work that we want to do is not just something to make money, but a vocation where you can contribute and give back to your community,” Rheaume said. “We found we have this shared mission together, as well as a personal connection and similar values.”

That isn’t to say that things have been entirely smooth over the last two years. Though they were on campus together for six weeks and managed weekslong visits to each others’ home cities, there were months of dealing with the complications of a long-distance relationship and the nine-hour time difference between Edmonton and Istanbul.

She once called from the beach, for example, while he was in emergency surgery. He called back when the surgery ended, but she was then in a meeting with Pfizer executives.

Still, both did what they had to in order for it to work. Rheaume said his medical training made him a champ at getting up at odd hours for a phone call, and he blithely handled oddities like red wine for a remote dinner date, despite it being breakfast time in Edmonton.

“There were times when, because of the time difference, I’d be downing red wine at 9 a.m. on a Saturday because that time worked for her on a Saturday night,” Rheaume said.

All this occurred against the backdrop of the pair’s busy professional lives and a significant course load. The remote portion of the program was designed to be mostly asynchronous, with students able to view course modules on their own time, but it also included weekly live classroom sessions, discussion groups, and homework, some of which had to be done in collaboration with classmates.

“They’re clearly both bright and there’s no question about them being smart, motivated, capable people,” Baer said. “On a personal level, they are both very charming as well.”

The pair put those capabilities to work, both in the classroom and out.

Outside of class, Rheaume managed to teach himself Turkish using a cellphone app. He and Sener eventually solved the logistical puzzle of their long-distance relationship when Sener moved to Edmonton, and they plan to move to New York together in the coming months.

Now, though, their looming graduation has brought both their Harvard and personal journeys full circle. Just weeks after they receive their hard-won degrees — Commencement will be the first time their families will meet — they’ll get married in Turkey and have invited their entire cohort and several program faculty and staff members to attend.

“We want them to be with us because they saw us from day one and supported us,” Sener said. “They’re really close friends.”

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