The challenge was simple. Answer an open invitation from one of the world's foremost experts on the history of comparative medicine, analyze a topic and submit mini-essays so that said expert can incorporate only a handful of winning submissions into an upcoming high-profile lecture held at one of the world's most prestigious universities.
History Professor Hugh Shapiro encouraged his students to take the challenge. To Shapiro's delight, two of his students' efforts were chosen by Shigehisa Kuriyama, professor and chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, for Kuriyama's presentation as part of the three-day, mid-April Reischauer Lectures at Harvard's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.
"It's a big honor," Shapiro said, noting that Kuriyama included content from essays submitted by University students Chengli Wang and James Buhain.
Wang, a 27-year-old, first-year Ph.D. student in political science from Chengdu in the Sichuan Province of southwest China, wrote on the subject of distraction "and contending for what truly matters."
Wang said he wasn't sure if his submission was strong or not. However, he said he found the topic interesting, and worked very hard to prepare for it. He spent three weeks researching and writing the essay.
"As the saying goes," he said good-naturedly, "'Newborn calves are not afraid of tigers.'"
Wang said he was asleep when he received the news last month.
"In only five seconds, I quickly jumped up from my bed and opened my laptop to check the news," he said. "To be honest, I did not believe the happiness was real until I saw my name and essay on the website of the Fairbank Center.
"This is a very important encouragement for my future career."
Buhain, a 23-year-old political science major who is minoring in Asian Studies, said he, too, had some doubts about if his essay would actually be selected. Buhain wrote on curiosity and distraction.
"I was really shocked, happy as well as excited when I found this out," he said. "Just knowing that Harvard University recognized my talent as well as ideas that I put on my paper, makes me feel good inside. Through this submission, it has told me that I have a niche as well as a skill when it comes to writing."
Both students credited Shapiro - who received his Ph.D. from Harvard - with bringing the course content of "Pathologies of Daily Life in Modern China" to life for them.
"Professor Shapiro is truly a remarkable professor," Buhain said. "I heard great things about Professor Shapiro from my friends that took him, so I wanted to really take a class with him. When I took his class, I knew that what my friend said was indeed true. Professor Shapiro is such a great professor because he makes you think depending on what you want to know. ... If you want to learn about China and anything regarding Asia, Professor Shapiro is the one to take."
Added Wang: "Dr. Shapiro is a very wise and nice professor. He is a very knowledgeable Asian expert. We did a lot of communication both inside and outside class. I talked to him about my idea about doing an underground news study in modern China history, and he gave me an emphatic, 'Yes.' I felt so excited after that communication, because Dr. Shapiro let me confirm that my study is worthy."
Wang said he hopes to have the opportunity to further his studies at a place like Harvard's Fairbank Center, in the near future. He eventually hopes to become an international political economy analyst for an international organization such as World Bank.
Buhain, with an emphasis in international relations, said he would "love" to travel to different countries and "talk to people regarding about how they feel their economy is doing as well as how their president is running their country." In particular, he hopes to help students in Asia with their English language skills, "because Asian people are now finding out that learning English is important when it comes to finding employment." Working as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, he said, should provide an important steppingstone to help Buhain find work in Asia.
Both students said their experience with the creation of their essays was enriching, personally and academically. In addition to thinking critically and working on their persuasive writing skills, they said they've gained confidence in their abilities.
"I will have to admit, writing this paper was challenging," Buhain said.
That the effort was chosen was simply icing on the cake.
"You will never know when an opportunity will strike you," he added.