Published: Sept. 13, 2021

As the first in their families to go to college, John and Ann Harsh understand some of the challenges first-generation students face.

Now, they're paying it forward by creating a scholarship for first-generation and underrepresented students studying integrative physiology at CU Boulder, as well as a bequest to establish the first endowed faculty chair in the Department of Integrative Physiology and directorship of the Health Professions Residential Academic Program (HPRAP).

Their aim: To help health science students representing a diversity of backgrounds and identities reach their capacity as scholars and as people.

John and Ann Harsh

John and Ann Harsh

John Harsh, a board-certified clinician in sleep medicine, has been a pioneering researcher whose investigations of treatments for narcolepsy with cataplexy contributed to the development of a potentially transformative new therapeutic approach now undergoing clinical trials. Currently, he is an adjunct professor of integrative physiology at CU Boulder. Ann Harsh is a lifelong educator who has also partnered in his research for decades.

The John and Ann Harsh Endowed Undergraduate Scholarship Fund will yield $4,000 in scholarships annually for first-generation or underrepresented students majoring in integrative physiology. 

Their bequest will establish the John and Ann Harsh Endowed Chair in Integrative Physiology. The chair will serve as director of the Health Professions Residential Academic Program and will spend a portion of the bequest on student recruitment, retention and boosting the student experience.

The current estimated value of the bequest is $3 million.

CU Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano said the Harshes’ gifts connect to one of the university’s top priorities: improving the undergraduate student experience. 

“John and Ann have dedicated their lives to education, research and the synergy of the two, particularly with respect to first-generation students and those who face historic and systemic disadvantages,” DiStefano said. “As a first-generation college student myself, I know well that this scholarship and the bequest of an endowed chair in integrative physiology ensure that their lives’ work will be an enduring legacy.”

Focusing on student success

Todd T. Gleeson, a professor of integrative physiology at CU Boulder and the current HPRAP faculty director, said the Harshes’ gifts will help integrative physiology students succeed.

“Their scholarship makes it possible for a young physiologist to start their undergraduate studies in the HPRAP with less financial debt and allows them to explore coursework, research and career opportunities earlier in their studies,” Gleeson said.

He noted that the residential academic program provides first- and second-year life sciences coursework that serves the needs of students interested in the health professions. Almost half of these students are integrative physiology majors.

Gleeson added: “John and Ann’s endowed chair gift ensures that the director of the HPRAP continues to be an integrative physiology faculty member who is attuned to the coursework and programming needs of integrative physiology and other life sciences students interested in health profession research and clinical careers.”

The program immerses students in a liberal arts environment, with small classes and a dormitory setting that places participants together. Plus, it employs “really top-notch instructors,” John said.

“With the right resources, with the right personnel, the undergraduate programs could have the reputation that the graduate programs do,” he said, expressing a hope that the endowed chair would focus on “bringing in and supporting students who are first-generation, educationally disadvantaged or underrepresented students.” 

The Harshes recognize the transition to university life is full of challenges. John said first-generation and educationally disadvantaged college students face particular challenges: “What they need is not just financial support; they need social support as well.”

That’s where the residential academic program comes in. “HPRAP provides the social support that many of these students need to get launched into their academic trajectory.”

A long-standing passion for education

John and Ann met at the first social mixer at Ohio University in 1965. She was majoring in education, and he was majoring in psychology. During that session, the university’s president told students to look to their left and then look to their right, adding, “One of you might not be here at the end of this year.”

The speech got their attention. But with support from their families, both John and Ann graduated. Since then, they’ve taught at the primary and university levels and have valued education throughout their lives. 

“Our focus has been on undergraduate education for our entire careers,” John said.

Ann added, “Education is vital for individuals.”

The Harshes have worked with first-generation students, and Ann has worked with students for whom English is a second language, along with students who are educationally disadvantaged.

“We’ve been especially attuned to the needs of students who don't come from professional backgrounds,” John said. 

“We come with a focus on students who may need a little bit more attention, maybe a little bit more encouragement ... where there are demands that are not placed upon the students who have been on an educational track right from the beginning.”

Within the Department of Integrative Physiology, interim chair Marissa A. Ehringer said that John is devoted to bringing abstract topics to life for students. "Each semester, he identifies a topic of ongoing societal issues relevant to public health and finds 'real data' to share as examples for topics in our statistics course,” she said. “The use of current, real-world examples greatly increases the interest and buy-in from students who are not always keen to take statistics.”

With their endowed scholarship and bequest, John and Ann are aiming to make CU Boulder’s integrative physiology program “the best undergraduate program of its type,” John said.

Ann and John summed it up: “That would be our legacy.”

About planned giving at CU

The Office of Gift Planning helps CU donors explore charitable giving options so they can determine what works best for them in supporting what they care about most. For a free guide to preparing a will or trust, or to learn about other planned giving options, contact the Office of Gift Planning at 303-541-1229 or, or visit