To My Younger Self
Struggling with mental health on the Harvard campus
By ARIANA AKBARI
People who don’t go to Harvard always ask me, “Is Harvard hard?” What they’re looking for in this question is for you to tell them, “No. Harvard is not that hard. Harvard is just like every other University. Which are also not hard.” Usually, a variation of this statement is what I say because it’s easy and because I think it makes the questioner feel more satisfied.
The veritas of it all, however, is that this is just not true. The real answer to the question “Is Harvard hard?” is a resounding, “Hell yes. Attending Harvard is challenging in a way that is practically incomparable.” Attending any university certainly comes with its stressors. Today, many students are navigating unprecedented mental health waters catalyzed by things like the integration of new technology systems, economic uncertainty, and the introduction of programs that integrate racially and socioeconomically diverse students into spaces traditionally reserved for the white elite. (Just to name a few.) Even with that being the case, however, I maintain that Harvard is extra hard.
It seems obvious to say that what makes Harvard exceptionally difficult is its exceptionality. Harvard takes the demands of the typical university experience and multiplies them fourfold. In attending Harvard, it is very likely that you will be pushed to your intellectual and psychological limit. The academic workload is extensive, the expectations of the professors are high, and because of the House system – in which all students over all four years live and eat together in dormitories – students are put in a position in which they can constantly compare themselves to the highest performing students from across the globe without reprieve.
The aspect of the Harvard experience that I personally struggled with the most was this constant proximity to other students seeking to perform at a high caliber. Most Harvard students are driven by a need to be the best. As a result, they’re usually aggressive, socially insecure, and more selfish than your typical human. All of these students are caged inside of what people call “the Harvard bubble” and what results is one of the most interesting anthropological studies waiting to happen.
Most of my closest friendships with my peers at Harvard were forged during the opening days of my freshman year because everyone was still acting relatively normal then. Over time, however, people on the Harvard campus become obsessed with internal power struggles, campus social politics, and competition for future career prospects. Final clubs always end up taking the rap for all of the social issues on Harvard’s campus – and they are certainly responsible for many of them – but the problem goes deeper than that. In my own case, I was severely traumatized by bullying with a significantly gendered angle that was not related to final clubs.
People would not naturally assume that I would be a target of bullying, and conventionally I haven’t been – I walked onto Harvard’s campus as a confident former pageant queen with a track record of community service and academic excellence. I am extremely privileged in that there’s not that much explicitly that I can be targeted for (beyond my Middle Eastern heritage in a post-9/11 society). As a result, I have always been the type of person who has been able to leverage her own positioning to stand up for those who were being targeted. For me, however, the same traits that had allowed me the privilege in the “real world” to be able to stand up for others put me in constant jeopardy on the Harvard campus.
Whether they are in a final club or not, many Harvard men have gone through their entire lives without being told “no.” At the same time, they have learned that they can achieve anything if they just try hard enough. Harvard guys were often nice to me until they realized I wouldn’t become sexually involved with them, upon which time they became quite bitter and mean. This often resulted in them making unpleasant remarks to me and in treating me disrespectfully. That is not to say that Harvard women were always better. In my experience, many women at Harvard – usually in competing for Harvard men – resulted in creating rumors about other women and treating other Harvard women poorly to make themselves seem and feel better.
As a result (re: protective mechanism), I now consciously try not to talk to Harvard men unless they:
- are gay
- are dating a friend
- have been friends with me since early days (although sometimes I have to avoid them too)
- work with me in an official/organizational/professional capacity
- are friends with my boyfriend
- are my boyfriend
That being said, I want to iterate that I still have a lot of sympathy and respect for Harvard men, especially international Harvard men and Harvard men of color. I understand that they face significant challenges as well in navigating the Harvard university structure – with its exceptional academic, cultural and social stressors. There exists even more of a stigma around mental health for men, and I hope that their voices and experiences are also being given the adequate attention and care they deserve.
And so. To my younger self, struggling with mental health on the Harvard campus.
- When you get your Harvard acceptance, look into therapists in the Greater Boston Area not linked to Harvard Mental Health Services. Therapy is normal. Harvard is hard. On campus resources are extremely sub-par.
- Don’t go to final clubs/frats/sports parties/etc as a freshman girl, even though The Social Network made them seem cool.
- Stop seeking validation from other people. They’re (mostly) stupid and selfish at this age.
- Create a circle of trust.
- Suffering is unnecessary. Work hard, but don’t hurt yourself. Don’t compare your workload to that of others. Even though you’re competitive by nature, don’t make a competition out of the pain.
- When all seems too difficult and overwhelming, just do the next right thing.
- When in doubt, ask for an extension. (Even if you may not get it).
- If someone is bullying you, tell an authority figure immediately. Don’t wait until it’s too late.
- If you are concerned about the behavior of one of your friends, talk to them. If that doesn’t work and you’re still concerned, again, tell an authority figure.
- People say time off is cool, but it actually sucks. Do what you can to avoid it.
- At the same time, Harvard is better done when you are your best self. Take time for yourself always, and remember to protect your own peace, even if it doesn’t make other people happy.
- Be your own advocate. No one will stand up for you unless you stand up for yourself first.
- Learn to communicate respectfully, intelligently, and honestly with your professors, your peers, and yourself.
- Eat less HUDS. I think it’s making you sick.
- To expound upon the words of Our Forever First Lady, Michelle Obama, “There is no boy cute enough…interesting enough, [or cruel enough], to stop you from getting your education.”
Keep going, girl. I believe in you.
*I want to make note that while my own experience has been quite cisgendered and heteronormative, that I imagine the experiences had by members of nonbinary and LGBTQ communities come with their own exceptional challenges. I hope that members of these frequently marginalized groups are also afforded platforms and communication structures that allow for them to adequately thrive on the Harvard campus moving into the future.
Ariana Akbari ’19 (email@example.com) regrettably, cannot change her own past, but she writes to her younger self with the hope of positively influencing the futures of fellow students.