Picking Your Priorities From a Wealth of Choices

Only 17 months my junior, my sister and I have always been a competitive duo. I have never been more jealous of her, however, than when I helped her off to college last September. After all, Erin had her entire college career ahead of her and mine had already been whittled down to a mere three years.

Before I began my first year, my family and I spent a few days in Boston. (I am originally from southern California and my mother insisted that it would take me at least three days to find a proper winter coat.) In the hotel lobby, I struck up a conversation with a 1998 Harvard graduate and he told me the same thing that everyone else had told me in the weeks and months leading up to school: They would be the best four years of my life.

How true they all were. Undoubtedly, Harvard is a different place and a different experience for everyone. Some prioritize academics, others extracurriculars. Many students party until 3 a.m., others study until that time. I write this piece knowing that my 800 words or so of advice will not apply to everyone. Even so, here are a few anecdotes about my first year that may shed some light on that which is affectionately, and sometimes not so affectionately, known as Harvard College.

To begin, I must warn you: Harvard is slightly intense and somewhat competitive. After the undergraduate-wide CityStep dance, you can watch with amusement as 6,000 of the most gung-ho students in the world throw elbows and scramble attempting to find a place on the first shuttle bus back to the Square. But there is variety in the student body and for every outspoken leader, there is a behind-the-scenes coordinator. With time, students gravitate toward activities and friends that reflect themselves. It may take some searching but everyone eventually finds his or her niche. One of my roommates, for example, sings but is not too fond of the limelight. She still wanted to pursue her music and auditioned for the more anonymous Radcliffe Choral Society rather than the intimate a cappella groups. For many students, it takes a long time--multiple semesters--to find that activity or that group of friends with which they feel fully comfortable and enthusiastic. Trust me, there is no rush.

In the meantime, however, the navigation may be rocky and even uncomfortable at times. Let me relay a story about my first semester within in the crimson gates: During high school I fortunately knocked off my Science B requirement with a Biology AP exam. I still had one science class looming over me and brilliantly decided to enroll in a Science A Core course my first semester. Even more intelligently, I signed up for a quantum physics class-that had never been taught before. I had sworn off physics my senior year in high school but the professor demonstrated a flying monkey experiment and my mind was made up. Only later did I find out that every physics professor performs the flying monkey experiment as a way to entice history and literature concentrators like me into their class.

As I mentioned, the class had never been taught before. A note about never-before-taught classes: At worst, the class will be disorganized and the professor will resist all forms of grade inflation in an attempt to prove the rigor of the course. At best, the new course will be instructed by a professor still enthusiastic about the subject and will be much smaller, and thus more intimate, than many other classes-especially within the Core Curriculum. Unfortunately, I managed to find a particularly nasty example of a new course. The second two-thirds of the course were poorly organized, the hour-an-a-half lectures seemed endless, and there was no textbook to accompany quantum theory material about which physicist Richard Feynman admitted, "Nobody understands."

But the course wasn't a disaster. Throughout the semester my friends and I would meet in someone's room, tackle the problem sets, study for midterms and help each other out. Whatever I didn't understand, one of my friends would. And whatever I did understand, I would use to help other people. Whatever none of us understood was usually a typo in the problem set.

Something that had potential for catastrophe did not even register on the Richter scale. Most of college is the same way. Certain circumstances or events will seem catastrophic, may they be the end of a relationship, a term paper grade or the outcome of an election. But kept in perspective, things are never as bad as they may seem. In March of my freshman year, for example, I began to panic. For the first time since I had arrived at school, I felt that certain tables at Annenberg were off limits to me simply because I hadn't yet met the students sitting at them. I figured that I had attended the school for nearly seven months and if I hadn't crossed paths with someone yet, it was unlikely that I would even run into them. But that is simply not true. Many of my older friends have shared with me and I have discovered for myself that college friendships are formed over a period of four years--not when orientation week ends or even when the first year of school ends.

If anything, remember that college is a constant state of metamorphosis. Nothing remains the same for long and the institutional memory is rather short lived. If you make a mistake, if it takes you a little bit longer to settle into school, if you need to take a semester off, things will change--and most often for the better. Your bodies will change--they don't call it the Freshman Fifteen for nothing. You might grow extremely distant from the person you were during high school. But by leaving home to attend college as an independent adult, you are not growing more distant from who you once were, but rather closer to the person that you will become.