Parting Words

By

BY CHRISTINE WOLFE

Some advice from a senior.

I’ve finally realized that, as a senior, I’m about to leave Harvard. I find the
thought of exit very liberating — Harvard has not been an easy place for me. I’m ready to
move on. But Harvard has been my home for the last four years. To leave without
intention to return is to break with a place and a community that has changed me. I don’t
want to take advantage of what I’ve been given here. Nor do I want to forget what I’ve
learned from having things taken away. And I can’t ignore the fear of May 30th, of
adulthood, of one of the last new starts we’ll ever have. I’m terrified I’ll make the same
mistakes I’ve always made, that all that’s plagued me here will follow me, that I’ll lose
everything I earned in the last four years.

These articles are supposed to be our last — our farewells are meant to encompass
all our well wishes, our regrets, and our wise departing advice. But isn’t that which
makes improvement so difficult is that we only realize what we did wrong when we come
to the end? I want to finish my time here remembering the good that came from Harvard.
But I’ve also made many mistakes. Even if I can’t keep other people from repeating
them, I think it helps to know that at least one other person has endured the same
embarrassment, anxiety, or sadness. And if one of us can push forward, it seems a good
sign that we all can.

Here are some bits of senior wisdom, from me to you.

Don’t feel ashamed or inferior. Harvard is competitive — it’s an irrefutable
fact. The academic atmosphere can be tense, populated by aggressive know-it-alls
waiting to viciously maul an “uneducated” answer. But even amidst grade-grubbing
pre-meds, I’ve found the social environment more cutthroat than any classroom. Before I
came to Harvard, I lived in the rural West. I didn’t know about weekend tuxes, binge
drinking in $300 dresses, or the tenacious hierarchy of extracurriculars. I knew wealthy
people, but I had never met the elite.

Class distinctions are inextricable from any feelings of social inferiority, but the
shame perturbs a deeper place, too. When I see girls walking to or from clubs, I see the
expense that went into their outfit, but only for a moment. What remains is a reminder of
who I am not but should be. I feel the profound ache of self-disgust, when every part of
me, body and mind, repulses me so viscerally that I find even movement unbearable. I
become totally conscious of all of the wrong decisions I made that day — wearing
untucked jeans, snow boots, and a down jacket; braiding my hair instead of drying it
down; leaving my fingernails unpainted; eating Noch’s. Why is it that I can’t just let go of
who I am to become one of the desired?

These feelings are more complicated than they’re made out to be. Of course we
should encourage people to be proud of being themselves, but we also want to be
accepted, wanted, and loved. Often, the two do not cohere as easily as a politically
correct society would like. But the spontaneous sickness of self-loathing, one that eats
away at our sense of selves until minute flaws become sources of intense and frightening
rage: that isn’t worth our limited energy. It’s unlikely any of us will change ourself
dramatically — it’s quite difficult to keep up a façade that doesn’t feel natural. And, more
importantly, shame compels us to forget what’s best about ourselves. We should spend our time fostering our best qualities rather than trying to suppress what is, in the end, transient, and not as important as we think.

Academic success relies on passion. We all want to be successful. We are
promised opportunity upon arriving here, and no one should take that for granted. But
these are probably the only four years of our lives when we will have control over what
we do. Even the least academically inclined of us feel satisfied at the excitement of
mastering a concept that’s individually meaningful. This is our chance to build our
intellect as we see fit, and that’s an opportunity that’s even rarer than a great job.
Concentrating in something I enjoy but isn’t my primary passion stopped me from
pursuing research over the summer and writing a thesis, both of which likely would have
benefitted my application to graduate schools and jobs. There’s something practical to be
said for guaranteeing oneself four years of academic dedication.

I often hear other students say that people who prioritize their academic passions
over financial practicality come from a place of privilege, and that they don’t understand
what others have to lose. In some cases, this complaint is true. Anyone who says money
doesn’t make life better has never lived without it. But occasionally, it is times of
financial hardship and loss that can make us reevaluate what matters most. I decided to
pursue my academic passions — at partial expense of financial stability — just as my
family’s financial situation was at its worst. We will, most of us, lose things that matter to
us. And having something meaningful to fall back on, something of one’s own, whether
novels, paintings, or a beautiful home, will be our salvation from the bitterness of loss.
We do not each of us know what our classmates will need most. Spending time criticizing
or pitying the occupational decisions of others isn’t worth our time. What is worth our
time is the accumulation of knowledge that will help us get to where we need to be to feel
happy; we should all spend more time contemplating what that need may be.
We will not always understand each other. Harvard’s student body is, as we all
know, astoundingly diverse. Our campus unites people from distinct social, class, racial,
ethnic, and ideological backgrounds. These differences confer on us a richer and more
informed perspective than we would have without the breadth of mindsets that make up
our community. But as our education encourages us to develop a consciousness of
ourselves, both as individuals and actors within larger social systems, it can be difficult to
realize that our self may be at odds with that of our closest friends.

Race is only one of many examples, but it is likely one of the most common and
most affecting. Being an understanding friend, someone who others can rely on in times
of distress, has always been more important to me than anything. But, as I’m white, there
are some things I just will never understand and will never feel as some of my friends do.
For quite some time, this was hard for me to accept: I wanted to be trusted, and I wanted
our individual relationships to matter more than our history. But just because I haven’t
lived their experience doesn’t mean I couldn’t listen to their discomforts, their anger, and
their distress. There are some situations in which I will be the best person to turn to, and
some in which I won’t, but what’s important is that I’ll be there, waiting for the moment
I’m needed. We all need to be respectful of where we belong and where we don’t. But I
think it’s worth trying to work things out as best we can. We can never forget how much
we can learn from each other.

Find people who love you for who you are. In this high anxiety environment,
where we hold ourselves to impossible standards, and where people do not always foster kindness, it is easy to feel lost. I often feel I am not strong enough to be a Harvard student. I am too sensitive, tied down by my emotions to a growing and consumptive anxiety. I have never felt as alone as I have felt here. Interactions and relationships are
often ephemeral, seeming attempts at networking rather than honest interest. When
friends go out of their way to check in with me, making sure I’m being myself and
owning my truth — that’s when I feel I can make my own way in this place. To need the
love of others is inherently human. But what we need is not love of an ideal or
self-transformation to something easily loved: we need friends, good old fashioned ones,
who love us just the way we are. These are the people we can turn to in our darker
moments, who will remind us why we matter. They bring us neither social status nor job
prospects, but support, relief, and care. With them, vulnerability is a privilege and not a
weakness. Don’t waste your time with anyone who doesn’t see what’s best in you.
Because when we leave this place, our greatest connection will be to the people we love
the most. They are Harvard’s greatest opportunity.

Christine Wolfe ‘14 ([email protected]) finally has full-fledged senior nostalgia.