The Indy explores what it’s like to shake off nerves at Harvard.
It goes without saying that walking through the hallowed halls of a university that embodies a legacy as grand and far-reaching as Harvard can be daunting for a student hailing from a small suburban town in India. But my first few weeks on campus have also made me realize that there is more to this place that can be intimidating than the pre-colonial architecture, an almost-aggressively brilliant student body, and professors whose names are painted in revering terms on the walls of their respective fields of study. These, at the risk of sounding frivolous, I would like to describe as “the little things.”
I distinctly recall the trepidation with which I approached the steps of the first building I visited when I arrived on campus during the First-Year International Program—Widener Library (probably not the best place to start tour if you are looking to shed nerves). This building, for obvious reasons, perfectly epitomizes the grandeur that Harvard stands for. It is a century old; it houses those fabled books that you only ever heard of but have never read, and above all, it is not a place where you can simply be yourself and avoid getting scowled at.
My first experience inside the building reaffirmed all this for me. As I walked up the monumental staircase, wondering how remarkable it was that I had somehow been transported to a place that resembles one of those famous European museums, I came to a horrific realization—my shoes, wet from the rain-bathed grass of the yard, were squeaking on the tiled floor. I mustered some courage and explored Mr. Widener’s study and the Quiet Study Room. As I walked around, I had this sudden, inexplicable feeling that I was an outsider to the community, someone unburdened with the wisdom of maintaining the deafening silence to which Widener is home. I left quickly before, possibly, being told to leave the library that my footwear so obviously seemed to offend. And this is exactly the point I aim to drive home—in our urge to maintain exclusivity and our prestige, we are sometimes guilty of establishing a distance with the less refined. And worst of all, the reasons for this distance are sometimes as little as a pair of squeaky shoes.
Another facet of Harvard that can be immediately bewildering for a newcomer is its sheer excess. I am almost certain that every freshman has at some point felt overwhelmed by the multitude of clubs, societies, teams, and unions that are present on campus. While on the one hand, we may have the unrelenting urge to soak in as much of this place as possible, on the other, we mustn’t let this quest for a niche disorient us from the very first day. I particularly appreciate how Dean Khurana repeatedly highlighs that there isn’t any one way to “do” Harvard. After all, we must trace our distinct paths, recognize our interests, and not fall prey to the idea that in order to be successful here, we need to fit in.
Getting pushed around during Shopping Week, from that Michael Sandel lecture that you have dreamt of sitting through for three years, to that CS50 class that just made you re-evaluate your entire life story, is normal! Personally speaking, I can recall names of at least six classmates who at the end of the first week of class had positively arrived at only one conclusion: they didn’t know what they wanted from life any more. But in the process of bathing in this excess, we must understand that these are, in the larger scheme of things, small, even insignificant, setbacks.
As a community, we ought to be more comforting and welcoming to nervous freshmen than we presently are. And it is not that our campus is not a hospitable environment; nothing could be further from the truth. But it is how we unknowingly and thoughtlessly let our mundane expressions be a source of fear for those who are still finding their feet (or their shoes). So next time you see a disoriented face walking around the yard, please do spare them a smile; it costs nothing, and it can save someone the trouble of questioning their place here. After all, people from small-suburban towns in India will continue to come here, or at least so I fervently hope, and the least we can do is be a little more receptive and a little more welcoming.
Pulkit Agarwal ’19 (firstname.lastname@example.org) has since gone shoe shopping and also discovered the wonder that is Lamont!