Glossing Over College Life
LAST WEEK'S CBS movie of the week, First Affair, was not the first film about Harvard to premiere this fall. Earlier this month, the admissions office released its own version of life at Harvard--starring real students, not Hollywood actors--as part of a new grassroots campaign to change the college's reputation among the masses. But though this 10-minute slide show with accompanying tape has already been screened in high schools across the country and will continue to be viewed for the next several years. First Affair in its one-time prime-time presentation probably skewed more people's visions about Harvard--including those of prospective students--than the admissions film will ever have the time or exposure to reverse.
Artistically, First Affair isn't worth the time of day--the acting is horrid, the plot sappy, the filming glossy if not outright sleazy, Enough said. But beneath the veneer of Hollywood melodrama lies the perfect admissions office cover girl--Melissa Sue Anderson as Toby King. Putting aside for the moment the fact that King has an affair with her Expos teacher's husband, takes a bus home to Nebraska in the middle of the term, comes down with mono and skips numerous classes without having to drop out of school. King and her application to Harvard would have thrilled the admissions office no end. After all, she is the type of student the office is desperately trying to attract--she's from a small Midwestern city, editor of her school newspaper, a good student, and willing to give up a good scholarship to her state university to venture east to Harvard.
As it happens, the admissions office's new film strikes some of the same notes in trying to dispel myths about Harvard. It emphasizes that Harvard is not only a mecca for rich, white WASPS, but rather a meeting-place for people with all types of interests and abilities. During the past year, the admissions office has increased the number of students it sends out into the field to recruit, rewritten many of its brochures, and contacted minority alumni and 10,000 high school guidance counselors around the country to enlist support. All this new propaganda and increased communications effort is designed to attract students who wouldn't normally consider applying to Harvard because of misconceptions about the College--usually confusion about the availability of financial aid or feelings that they wouldn't fit or even get in.
ALL OF THIS leads back to King, who receives significant amounts of financial aid, manages to squeeze in a job babysitting for her Expos teacher, and even comps for The Crimson while balancing a full course load. The admissions office could ask for no more. Even King's roommates epitomize the diversity that the college prides itself on--one is a jock, one a panicky pre-med, and one an aspiring actress, Perfect.
Admittedly, First Affair goes a bit too far. Besides running the gamut of simplistic emotions and stiff, unbelievable actions, CBS somehow managed to depict every known Harvard stereotype. But from a public relations standpoint, even the overwrought tale of King's adventures carries a grain of truth. The admissions office has no control on how students do, how they behave, what relationships they have once they get here. Merely predictors, they can only form a Harvard class, not lead it through.
In the new, bona fide admissions film, students are heard describing their feelings about the College and talking about undergraduate life. Segments show students in class, in section, in libraries, and even focus in on selected activities, including The Crimson. But all the same, as with any propaganda, everything seems a bit too polished and perfect to convince insecure students that Harvard is the place for them; the scenes are so picturesque, the students so intellectually stimulated, the characters so understanding and simplistic in their descriptions of Harvard life. The authentic student speakers sound like actors, their voices clear and well-enunciated. And so, in the end, the official film captures less of a feel for the campus and its surroundings than the slick CBS caricature--even taking into account the fact that since CBS was not allowed to film inside Harvard, its scenes of dorm rooms, libraries, dining halls, and classrooms actually featured Phillips Andover Academy.
High school seniors can't be blamed for wanting to see something of what actually happens after they're admitted to the admissions office film's perfect wonderland--and that, of course, is the one thing the admissions office can't show them. First Affair shows how strong an impact a little fantasy can have; this warped piece of drama probably hurt the admissions office and set back its attempt to improve the Harvard image. Unless the office starts financing nationwide commercials about Harvard, officials canvassing the country may have to get used to answering a whole new category of questions. For instance, do Holworthy dorm rooms really have blue flowered wallpaper?