I can’t fuck up. Limited time. Limited resources. Limited energy. I can’t afford to fuck up.
By HUNTER RICHARDS
I don’t want to generalize; I’m sure that this is a common sentiment among Harvard students. However, my incessant need to succeed is less so a result of my perfectionism than it is the truth that this is my only chance. I don’t have a safety net I can fall back on, or patient support that I can rely on under any circumstance.
I’m a first generation, low income, disabled, engineering student working on an SB degree. Of course I have a chip on my shoulder.
Freshman year, I watched my peers call their fathers to ask help on the homework. I was calling home to see if I could help out with paying rent. When my peers lied to their parents about how well they were doing in school, it was to impress them and avoid any disappointment. For me, I couldn’t let them know that I went from my comfort zone to the twilight zone. I was spiraling out my first year at Harvard, and there was nobody I could tell. At least, not until getting involved with the First Generation Student Union and realizing that I wasn’t alone.
But even though I have a group of students I know can relate to what it’s like being a low income, first gen student, that doesn’t mean that the problems I have as a low income, first gen student stopped existing. I did everything that I could:
I buy my tickets home for holidays months in advance, and usually only for Winter and Summer break when I’m not working.
I fit work in between classes and office hours. I skip lunch so I can get in two hours of work.
I go to every TF office hour because I’m avoiding office hours with my professor out of fear that I don’t know how I’m supposed to talk with them.
I skip dinner so I can pull a five-hour shift Monday so that I don’t have to work the night before my midterm.
I take psych studies in William James Hall to make money so I can go home for spring break, but it doesn’t end up being enough and goes towards junk food I’ll eat when I’m stuck on campus instead during this period.
I start problems sets the day they’re assigned, but still spend the night in office hours a week later before it’s due because I was too afraid to admit I needed help before then.
But no matter how hard I work and how strenuously I plan, I’m still in a constant state of impending upheaval. Being a disabled student means I’m never sure if I’m going to be able to commit to something, because when the time comes I can’t guarantee I won’t be trapped in bed because of a severe allergic reaction, or unexplained dehydration, or because if I try to sit up my nervous system will be right there to bring me crashing back down. Even with my significant physical limitations, I still worked 10-15+ hours weekly at jobs that required me to be able to carry 40 pounds regularly – because those were the jobs available and I needed money. My physical health suffered, but my mental well-being also felt the toll that my workload both in and out of the classroom had on my body and mind.
I’m like every Harvard student in refusing to admit I might have any weaknesses, let alone multiple that are built right into my body. My nervous system is just about as indecisive and bad at communication as I am. I black out, except for me it’s a result of my heart rate rapidly fluctuating rather than a wild Saturday night. I’m exhausted. All. The. Time. I check every ingredient for each item of food in the dining hall, both online before I head to dinner and as I’m filling up my tray. And then I check it again. And then I hope that they didn’t mess up the card, or try to be ‘fun’ and add weird ingredients. I tell my professors, advisors, fellow club members, boss, and friends but they don’t always get it. Because it isn’t going to get better. The definition of a chronic illness is that it doesn’t go away, it doesn’t get better, you just find ways to get used to it.
As a junior, I was advised to take time off from Harvard for my concussion that just wasn’t getting better. No matter how many people told me how the college welcomed people to take time off for health issues, I knew there was no way that I would ever come back and there weren’t resources for me while I would be away from campus. I couldn’t afford it, emotionally, financially, or academically. As an engineer, I don’t have room for electives. There aren’t extensions for most engineering classes on problem sets, and the sighs of relief in office hours the night before homework is due when the TF confirms you can drop a pset score echo. It isn’t an environment with flexibility built into it, and when you start to fall behind you begin to feel as if you might as well just give up.
Sometimes it’s just the person pushing the second floor button of the elevator and laughing about how they’re “just feeling lazy today,” and other times it’s the project partner getting upset that you didn’t make it to a group meeting one morning. The assumption that disabled bodies must appear is certain way to have the accomodation it needs respected is harmful. While living with an invisible illness means daily medication, being late to class because my legs just couldn’t work the way they usually do one day, or immediately leaving a room where there are allergens, you might look at me and see a perfectly healthy human being. Questioning why I am unable to do certain tasks and pressing me because I don’t look like you’d expect someone with a health condition to is exactly why I would rather push my body to the limits than fight ableism when I’m already worn down.
Navigating a campus that still sticks to cobblestone as broken as my body feels and whose buildings have elevators stashed away in back hallways you didn’t even know existed, it’s not hard to be reminded that it wasn’t built for you.
Hunter Richards (firstname.lastname@example.org) will continue hoping there’s an elevator she can ride to the top.