For all Harvard’s good and bad, it doesn’t have to be this way
BY DAN VALENZUELA
The first time I experienced the joy of Harvard was when I received an email congratulating me on my acceptance four years ago. Like many others, I hugged and cried with my parents. And I don’t doubt that many other high school students also had the same immense feelings of joy in the face of what seems to be a miraculous event in our lives.
As I reflect back on this moment, I can only conceive of one immutable, significant fact that my own and my fellow classmates’ feelings of joy were directed toward as we celebrated with our families: it doesn’t have to be this way.
Putting it this way is so close to saying “I am so lucky to be at Harvard” that the immutable fact almost becomes mundane and obvious and cliché. I mean, how often have you heard people say that they are lucky to be here? A lot, I bet. I also bet you tell yourself all the time that things could have been different, too, and that many other people don’t have the same luck and, therefore, you should make the most of Harvard.
But luck doesn’t cut it for me. It doesn’t get at the tireless work and little, unsexy sacrifices people have made to put me on my way to a place with uniquely immense resources that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Luck also misses the ways in which Harvard doesn’t live up to expectations for many people who come here. I don’t find many people saying that Harvard could do better to serve its students while also saying they are lucky to be at Harvard in the same breath.
In short, luck doesn’t really describe the immutable fact which applies however you look at Harvard: there are many ways in which Harvard doesn’t have to be.
For one, Harvard doesn’t have to be the place where I went to college. Frankly, the admissions file I saw a few weeks ago confirmed my suspicion that I only got in here by a hair. Both readers of my file wished that my school supported me more but also found that I had potential — further consideration of my application would depend on how my interview went.
Apparently my interview went well enough that they thought extending an offer to attend Harvard was a good idea. But I still have little clue as to what the readers meant when they said they wished I had a more supportive school. Being from a family of little means, I don’t know if I would have been able to go to Russia and Singapore for cultural exchange trips without generous funding and support from my school and school district. It’s also hard to think I would have been in the position to successfully apply to an internship at the National Institutes of Health without the rigorous scientific training my magnet school provided. To take the logic even further, I don’t think I would be anywhere without my family’s strong support and the habits and genes I inherited from them.
All of this should-have-could-have-would-have can seem self-indulgent and beside the point, but there is reason to it. I truly believe that I would have been fine and happy at a state school. The education I received in high school and the support of my family would have been enough to let me do very well there. Yet, as noticed by the readers of my admissions file, these things aren’t necessarily enough for Harvard.
Perhaps it was the case that whatever was lacking in my education and my background I made up for in other ways. But I never intentionally did so. I was just going along my merry way until two readers and other admissions officers decided to take a chance on me. It just seems like a happy coincidence.
Now that I have experienced more of Harvard, its happy coincidences are interspersed with rather unsavory ones; the irony of Harvard admissions officials saying that they wished my school supported me more is not lost on me.
I had a tough time transitioning to Harvard like many other low-income, first generation students here. My first semester I ended up with a 2.67 GPA as a result of being overwhelmed with the numerous responsibilities of making friends, cultivating relationships with professors, and committing myself to extracurricular activities.
I don’t think I was particularly stupid or inept. But I certainly felt like it. I just didn’t know how Harvard’s world worked and a lot of my world in high school was just taken for granted. High school was wasn’t all that different from middle and elementary school, which meant that I didn’t have to juggle too many new expectations.
Eventually, I was able to regain my footing at Harvard, but not all of it. There are many things I am still not great at, like going to office hours or making time for friends despite my other responsibilities. But I recognize that it doesn’t have to be this way. And I am still making small steps to make up for the things I lack.
Not only do I not have to be the person that has no hope of improving, Harvard doesn’t have to be the college where low-income, first generation students lack the support they need to do well. A bridge program has potential to help orient students like me who didn’t know what they didn’t know. It’s not going to fix all first generation students’ problems in adjusting to Harvard as they’ll have to put work in, too, but it’s a step that they don’t have to twist their ankles over.
I think every student experiences a way Harvard doesn’t have to be when they consider the people they’ve met here. Harvard doesn’t have to be the place where we have made very good friends. In dating, people like to say there are plenty fish in the sea. But with friends like these it’s hard not to consider each of them special for all the little coincidences that have led them to be at the same place as you with personalities that allow you all to continuously enjoy each other’s company despite your differences.
Lately my good friends and roommates and I have been talking about the importance of all the ceremonies surrounding commencement. To a large extent, my friends would rather not deal with worrying about sweltering heat, rain ruining our nice clothes, the logistics of getting family to the event, begging for extra commencement tickets for said family, or wearing black polyester caps and gowns. I think it’s a poor attitude given the immensity of Harvard which commencement celebrates.
Every damn moment we’re here at Harvard doesn’t have to be this way. It’s a small miracle. So many little things that each of us has control over have added up to this big thing that none of us entirely has control over.
This thought is a source of great happiness when Harvard’s immensity is pleasurable and good. I am filled with joy at the thought that my family will be at my graduation, and that my friends will be right next to me and that our educators will be overlooking us and that big elms and oaks we have walked under for years will enclose us together, along with the classrooms we frequented in Sever and Emerson flanking us and with Widener and its stacks upon stacks of books having our backs and with the freshman dorms in which we began to know each other in the corners of our eyes. Very little of these things were directly under each of our control and yet there they will be, each contributing to a happy whole.
And this thought is a source of great comfort when Harvard’s immensity is painful and bad. Freshman year is just chock-full of moments which make us feel the pain of being lonely and homesick, the embarrassment of not knowing the norms of academia which others seem to already know, the envy of another student being offered that internship you wanted but you failed to get, the rejection that results from comping every organization under the sun, and the self-doubt to which all of these things inevitably lead. Yet, again, very little of these things were directly under our control. It really isn’t any one person’s fault that a student was never prepped for college in ways that other, seemingly well-adjusted students were. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be any different. It just means that many other things have to go right to make it better, including the small decisions that each person has control over.
All of this is not to say that I am simply content in what Harvard has given us, good and bad, or that I think Harvard is capital-u Unique. Harvard is place like any other place. It’s a locus of coincidences, many of them peculiar. But that mere fact doesn’t make Harvard any less special.
What I am saying is that if we don’t appreciate Harvard for what it is, if we don’t see it as a place that has already brought together people — with all their intelligence, personality, feeling, history, and action — in joyful and painful ways, and as a place that can bring people together in infinitely different ways for the better, then we will have lost a place. And the world will be poorer for it.
Dan Valenzuela (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a bi-weekly columnist for the Indy!