Why I Give: Kasisomayajula "Vish" Viswanath

The graduate alum uses giving as a way to pay it forward.

“I owe everything to Murphy Hall” said Vish Viswanath (M.A. ’86, Ph.D. ’90). “I arrived there from India as a new international student, completely lost, to a completely new system. I am a beneficiary of the tremendous generosity—from scholarship and mentorship from faculty at the time, to social support of my fellow classmates.”

Today, he holds a whole paragraph’s worth of titles at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, another paragraph’s worth of awards acknowledging his work, and oversees a lab of up to 20 people, researching diversity and equity in regards to health communications, documenting the relationship between communication inequalities, poverty and health disparities, and knowledge translation to address health disparities. That is to say, exactly the kind of work the world needs as it works to make sure everyone gets reliable, critical health care information coming out of a global pandemic.

So, Viswanath has a full schedule. Still, he carves out time to give back to the Hubbard School, sharing not only financial donations but also consulting on other projects around the School. Why? He feels it incumbent upon him after his experience at the School that allowed him to advance his own career, from professor at Ohio State University to a scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to his multiple-hat-wearing role at Harvard.

Because he was a recipient of donor generosity when he was a student, Viswanath wants to pay it forward. “I am grateful for the foundation I received during my stay there,” he said. “Minnesota has graduated some of the most illustrious in the field . . . incredible, smart, careful, hard working people. I was a part of that history and a beneficiary of that movement, and that experience allows me now to do the kind of work I am doing.”

He is quick to play down his contributions—to funds like the Journalism and Mass Communication Fund, the Donald M. Gillmor Memorial Fellowship fund, the Dan Wackman First-Year Graduate Student Research Award fund and Hazel Dicken-Garcia Graduate Fellowship fund, to name a few—characterizing them as “a ripple with a pebble I throw in the water.” But his hope is that wherever and whenever he provides a financial contribution or an intellectual one, it demonstrates solidarity with the School and the intellectual framework it imbued him with.

Viswanath points out that while large contributions are wonderful and necessary, his feeling is that every bit matters. “It accumulates over time, and collectively can make a huge difference in the life of a student who you may not ever meet,” he said, adding that it is still extremely meaningful. “It’s not only that somebody will benefit from scholarship today, but over time—even decades later—we will all benefit from that investment in an individual.” He points out that one of the most important factors in having a happy life is having meaning or purpose, and giving allows for that. “It doesn’t always have to be money. There are other ways to volunteer your time, too, even from a distance.”

“People forget the land grant tradition is exactly founded on the principle that people in that state benefit from access to higher education and contributions to their state,” he said, acknowledging that not only has the U given back to the state but it’s also been successful at educating people like him. “The School and the University have made a difference in countless lives, and been a part of history. It makes me grateful and proud to do my part to continue that legacy.”

-- By Katie Dohman

Vish Viswanath