Burnout at Harvard


A damning investigation of why some students decided to take time off Harvard. 

“There was no one holding me there,” says Sam‘17*. “My sense of joy in life bled out of me over the course of sophomore spring.” Sam has decided not to return to school this fall, choosing instead to till a farm in Rural Wyoming.

Taking time off college may be a phenomenon as old and weary as college itself, but it is never that simple. You think of Harvard and you think of superlatives—the oldest, the richest, the smartest. We have an endowment that puts entire economies to shame; we produced eight American presidents and countless Supreme Court justices. Crimson bloodlines sustain the glistening spires of Wall Street. But while we may have uncovered the secret to raising donations, producing presidents, and cracking case interviews, we have yet to find the password to producing happy students.

On a campus shoving with ambition and social anxiety, an increasing number of students are choosing to take time off, not to work or travel, but to escape the institution and idea that is Harvard.

While the same could be observed for a number of competitive colleges, it would be too easy to ascribe the trend to a general high- stakes environment. Harvard is no wellspring of perfection: could there be deeper structural issues beyond the competition and exclusivity, deeper fault lines that are breeding frustrated young men and women?


For Sam, the biggest problem was loneliness. “I’m not a huge fan of the blocking system, which I feel can make it seem like you’re supposed to find your friends for all of college in the first 5 months of college, and then you’re stuck with those 5 or 6 or 7 people and sort of expected to hang out with them and love them for the rest of the time here,” he says.

Under the blocking system, students in the spring of their freshman year team up with fellow freshmen to form ‘blocking groups.’ Your housing fate is now anchored to that of your blocking group: your group is assigned a house, your home for the rest of your time here. One can, of course, choose to ‘float’ in the housing lottery by not joining a group. Once assigned a house, you may choose to transfer out. But only groups of 2 can petition for a switch in what is considered to be an infamously fickle transfer lottery.

“I’ve seen it work out great for some people who do find those amazing friends by February freshman year, but it didn’t work out personally for me,” Sam adds.

Sam is not a person one would conventionally term asocial. He has had two relationships at college, in addition to taking a cross-country road-trip his sophomore summer that made the national media. “He is the opposite of asocial,” a close friend and confidante says of him.

For Sam, however, loneliness extended beyond group housing. “It is not hard to make friends at Harvard. It’s hard to maintain a friendship once it’s been formed.”

Friendships nurtured in class rarely survive the semester, as hectic schedules, housing distances, and extracurricular commitments enter the fray. Friendships in extracurricular are better positioned to succeed, but only marginally. “People at Harvard just prioritize other things than the people around them, in my experience, in a way that I found more frustrating than any other factor,” he says.

Even Houses often fail to produce friendships that go beyond one’s blocking groups or circle of acquaintances. The administration hopes to tackle this very phenomena this term through a college-wide program that seeks to enhance the level of social bonding within Houses.

Blocking groups or social groups such as final clubs, sororities, and fraternities often prove to be the only sources of meaningful social interaction on campus. As final clubs bear renewed administrative scrutiny for promoting sexual harassment and exclusivity on campus, many have blamed the administration for a lack of alternate college-sanctioned social spaces. William F. Morris‘17, in a Facebook post, wrote that the lack of safe social spaces “endanger[ed] the social and mental well being of students on this campus.”

Not Prepared for Harvard

Valentino R. Gonzalez, ’18 faced a different problem: he wasn’t prepared academically or socially for Harvard. The prospective Neurobiology concentrator from Los Angeles is currently on a year off from college.

“Harvard allows students from any background to study along the academic and privileged elite who already know how to ‘game the system’ which is the reason I felt isolated and burned, aside of personal stress,” he says, adding that it is a new issue that naturally arises from “allowing students from any background to study at a previously all-white school.”

The problems faced by incoming students from low-income communities or under-resourced high schools have been well documented. In fact, both Princeton and Yale have programs geared towards such students as part of their orientation weeks. Harvard alone stands conspicuous in its lack of one.

Savannah Fritz‘17 took a step forward in this direction when her idea for a ‘Freshmen Enrichment Program’ for incoming students from under-resourced high schools won $3000 from the Undergraduate Council’s ‘Harvard Project’ grant.

“In terms of academics—and this is the major thing, of course—the sheer gaps in preparation can set a student back while more prepared peers hit the ground running,” she says. These ‘gaps,’ Savannah includes, can come in the form of material and the lag in content some high schools may cover as well as differences in study skills.

“The immense amount of time many public schools must spend on standardized test prep in the hopes that some students pass state-mandated exams decreases the amount of emphasis they can put on critical thinking skills and increases the amount of rote memorization their students develop,” she adds.

It is necessary to recognize that that the shock is not merely academic, but also cultural, and Gonzalez agrees. For him, Harvard has so far been “a tumultuous experience where [my] consciousness about life, society, knowledge and emotion was built and destroyed in the course of 7 months.”

Fritz, who herself considered taking time off, worked this past summer on building a model for the program, and hopes to get it running by August 2016. Significantly, no university office including the Admissions Office, Office of Student Life, or the Advising Programs Office have formally offered to control or coordinate the logistics of the program yet.

Such support is crucial for the pre-orientation program is to have an institutionalized structure. Besides, the program will assuredly require the guidance of those who know more about educational issues and meaningful programming than Fritz, a twenty year old, can.

Harvard is a Health Hazard

“It was due to health concerns,” says Max‘17* of his decision to take this term off.

The Quad resident is handicapped and requires a wheelchair to commute. With unprecedented levels of snow in the region this past winter, Max learned that handicaps and snow do not gel together too well, not at least on Harvard terrain.

“It was the first time in my life when I pondered about what disability is after the injury,” Max says. It was incredibly challenging for him to go to classes, sections, and office hours especially when the buses weren’t working on schedule. Max says he spoke to President Faust, Dean Khurana, and “probably more than 5 other deans” to resolve the situation. He was finally moved to Leverett, whose distance to the Yard is only marginally better than the Quad’s. It took “more than three months” to resolve his case, an entire semester’s worth of time.

Handicap inaccessibility is no new issue. Quincy is the only totally wheelchair accessible river house. Still, the issue goes beyond providing accessible spaces. Harvard may have incredible resources to help students but, according to Max, each time the burden is on the students to ask for help. “It is students’ duty to ask for help, but for students who are having a difficult time already, that simple next step to approach for help may be the most challenging part,” Max says.
Looking Forward: Plans for the Term Off

Sam hopes to become a person who “treats everyone with dignity” instead of a person who “judges others’ worth and deems them either worthy or unworthy”, which is who he thought he was becoming at Harvard. Valentino hopes to catch up academically, with a special focus on math, music theory, neurobiology and writing skills, while Max hopes to rest and get back in shape.

But all three are all united in their hope that Harvard learns the errors of its ways: that Harvard gets one bit the better, one bit the more welcoming for their sacrifices.

*some names have been changed to protect the identities of some individuals

Aditya Agrawal’17 (adityaagrawal@college.harvard.edu) thinks that sometimes taking time off makes time at Harvard better.