15 Seniors, Part II
If you’re lucky enough to catch Michelle Kuo outside of Harvard’s UniLu homeless shelter, odds are she’ll still be lending someone a hand. Tonight, she’s helping the Lowell dining hall staff put out Brain Break. Bundled in a bright red coat topped off with a lilac scarf and a pair of shaking pigtails, the ebullient Kuo apologizes for her “massive boogers.” It’s easy to see how she brings smiles to people with difficult lives.
Kuo oversees more than 300 volunteers and gives 25 hours a week to UniLu, which she joined as a first-year. She counts her relationships with its guests—including recovering alcoholics, battered women and drug addicts—as her most meaningful friendships, and says some of her most satisfying memories are times when a shelter guest shows her the keys to a new house. “She has an internal radar of how people are doing and knows intuitively when they need a boost,” says Dominika L. Seidman ’03.
Kuo’s extracurricular commitments don’t leave much time for her duties as a social studies concentrator. She woefully refers to her thesis on domestic abuse in China as “my abandoned child. I’ve messed up our relationship so badly, I don’t know how to talk to her anymore!” She spent the summer researching in Beijing, where she battled homesickness, language difficulties and a Buddhist cousin who wouldn’t kill the mosquitoes and ants in her home. This same cousin tried to convince Kuo that handing out food and blankets to the homeless only increases their material desires.
Kuo has had to overcome her self-proclaimed “judgmental streak” when confronting such views. Her panelist for the final rounds in the Rhodes scholarship competition asked Kuo if her friendships with the guests at the homeless shelter were “real.” Kuo calls the Rhodes process “corrupting. It became a total vanity thing, rather than, ‘I want to study in England.’”
Though Kuo informed the committee she wanted to study women’s non-governmental organizations in developing countries, she concedes an ulterior motive: “I want to go to England and seduce British men with British accents!” She admits to an obsession with Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice.”
In Kuo’s scarce down time, she is known to sing Christmas carols year-round, walk around her room naked and even croon “Come on Eileen” while sporting a silver boa. She justifies her once-a-semester laundry habit by citing water conservation and harbors an unrequited crush that involves stalking a florist. Roommate Kristin E. Naragon ’03 calls Kuo a “grown-up Punky Brewster.”
Kuo is unsure of her plans for next year, torn between applying to Teach for America, driving an ice cream truck and opening a children’s bookstore in her Michigan hometown called “Kalamazoo Zoo.”
It hasn’t been easy for Kuo to reconcile her parents’ two-car garage with the lifestyle of a shelter guest who works 50 hours a week and still can’t afford a home. When Kuo entered Harvard, she “wanted to end homelessness in the USA.” Now, she says, “If I can provide a safe space for 24 people in Cambridge, I’ll feel good about it...I used to get mad that people weren’t engaged in social issues. Now I’m more understanding. Everyone wants to save the world in their own way.”
Richard T. Halvorson
Rich Halvorson is pretty liberal—for a guy from Idaho. The intensely conservative Christian philosopher is also an actor with plans to take a shot at Hollywood stardom post-graduation, a Sigma Chi, an aspiring male model and a man known to occasionally drink coffee with random homeless strangers at ABP. But his favorite talking point is religion.
“I got baptized a month before I came to college, so I basically decided to follow Jesus only shortly before arriving. It’s been an interesting place to learn what that means to me,” Halvorson says about his faith. Since then, Halvorson has been one of the most active members of the Harvard Christian community.
“I’d say that faith really defines my character and identity, who I am.” Halvorson says.
His passion for his religion even landed him a position on the board of Harvard’s Secular Society. “I wanted the title of chaplain, but they already had a chaplain. So they gave me the title of resident sage,” he says. Halvorson also counts among his accomplishments his role in helping the Harvard Republican Club become the most active campus Republican organization in the country.
Halvorson’s beliefs and philosophies are easily accessible at his domain name, www.richh.com, which also showcases some of his best modeling shots. Halvorson’s friends, however, caution that he sometimes tries to be too profound. “The guy has never said anything worthwhile,” says Mel K. Thaker ’03, one of Halvorson’s best friends who considers it his place to keep Halvorson grounded. “Rich’s love for God is almost as deep as his love for himself,” he adds jokingly.
More seriously, Thaker believes that one of Halvorson’s best qualities is his actual desire to form genuine relationships with others. “Rich was a person before he was a Christian,” Thaker said. “He doesn’t have the legalistic hang-ups some Christians have.” Many echo that Halvorson’s unique style of developing relationships has made an impact on individuals both inside and outside of the Harvard community. “He’s really blessed a lot of people in his own unorthodox way,” says P. Colton Houston ’04. Thaker puts it most bluntly: “He’s cool, he knows that he’s cool, and he treats you like you’re cool.”
What Halvorson doesn’t mention is that his desire to form relationships sometimes earns him a reputation as a ladies’ man. Coupled with his earnest plans to do missionary work in South America and spend time in a silent monastery, Halvorson’s introspective demeanor and direct stare can seem flirtatious. “He walks that line between the sweetest guy ever and a sketchy bastard,” Thaker says.
During his acting pursuit in L.A. after graduation, Halvorson plans to live in a shack with his 18-year-old brother. Steve “Spooky” Halvorson sums up his big brother with few words but much admiration: “I think he’s a man after God’s own heart. He’s got a lot of faith, and I love him dearly.”
Min K. Lievkovsky
When Min K. Lieskovsky was a kid, she had dreams of world domination. “I wanted to banish everyone from the United States so I could ride a giraffe cross-country and never see anybody,” she says. “It’s not really normal, but I didn’t have any ordinary career goals.”
Lieskovsky, who is half-Hungarian and half-Chinese, grew up in California but says she never really feels at home anywhere. “I just get really restless,” she says. “When I walk into a T station, sometimes I feel like I have to physically restrain myself from taking a train to Logan and somehow bartering my way onto a plane to the Balkans or something. It’s so easy to travel, and you learn so much from doing that than anything else, so why not?”
Lieskovsky’s wanderings have taken her across Europe and to a number of South American countries. Along the way, she has partied at the American embassy in Cambodia, bluffed her way into a maximum security prison and learned bank-robbing tips from Long Beach Crips exiled in Cambodia. Lieskovsky isn’t anywhere near done. “I want to go to as many dangerous places as possible,” she says.
Currently a religion concentrator, Lieskovsky is most interested in the intersection between literature, anthropology and biology. This past summer, Lieskovsky went to Laos and Cambodia to research her thesis, which deals with the Khmer Rouge genocide. “I’m writing about how genocide in the Cambodian context is kind of like a religion,” she says. “I’m defining religion according to Durkheim’s terms—it’s a kind of belief and ritual.” She continues, “I’m really interested in human capabilities, which is why I’m interested in poetry, music, stuff like that. Genocide is just another one of those human capabilities, it’s how you basically live death.”
In her own life, Lieskovsky tries actively to avoid being grouped or classified. She describes the Mayan social order, where people have certain roles. There are specific people, she explains, who are interstitial and who can negotiate between different identities and groups. “It’s a role that’s overlooked in our society,” she says. Though she says she has been “somewhat unsuccessful” at attaining that kind of status, Lieskovsky’s closest friends disagree. “I can’t think of anything that make her anything like other people. I don’t know if she has any human traits really,” says blockmate Jennifer L. Nelson ’03. “She has a really interesting mix of spontaneity and excitement, but also depth,” says Johanna E. Lanner-Cusin ’03. “She brings a lot of things together.”
Lieskovsky says the thing she hates most is people expressing regret. “I never want to say ‘That was the best time of my life,’” she says. “I want whenever I’m living to be the best time of my life.” Now that she’s quasi-grown-up, Lieskovsky hasn’t gotten any more mainstream in her career goals. “I want to be Angelina Jolie’s assistant in Cambodia,” she exclaims. “She’s doing all this amazing UN goodwill work. I would just love to hang out there, hang out with movie stars but help land mine victims, too. I think there’s too little glamour in volunteer work.”
Juggling apples and eating them at the same time is a messy affair. Yet the fine art of eating and throwing fruit makes a tidy set of bookends to Ryuji Yamaguchi’s Harvard career. First, there was the freshman talent show way back in the fall of 1999 where he introduced himself to the awestruck Class of 2003 Tercentenary Theatre crowd by juggle-eating apples. He also balanced a chair on his chin, a small sample of the masterful skills he nurtured as a teenage street performer in his childhood home of Tokyo.
Earlier this week, at the dinner FM hosted for these 15 seniors, Yamaguchi once again both juggled and ate apples at the same time and balanced a chair on his chin. He’s learned a lot at Harvard but, most importantly, he hasn’t forgotten how to work a crowd.
Yamaguchi was a three-sport varsity athlete during his high school years at the boarding school Deerfield Academy. Now he is an officer of the Harvard Ballet Company, a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dance Company, a prolific choreographer and a guy who can ride a 10-foot unicycle. All thanks (except for the unicycle part), he says, to a wrestling coach in high school who encouraged him to dance. Though he approached dance at Harvard somewhat slowly, only performing in a handful of shows his first semester compared to his 10 shows on average every semester since, he is now poised to take on the professional dance world.
“I can’t think of anything that I like more than everything, which is what dance is for me,” he says while showing off the soon-to-be extinct Rieman Dance Center. He sits with his legs crossed, his hand waving in the air, speaking deliberately and glancing around the familiar dance studio. “What I’m doing right now is dance, with improvised vocal communication.”
Yamaguchi’s dance-of-speech comes screeching to a halt when he’s asked to describe his favorite moment on stage. He looks off into the Rieman studio space, stumped, considering the freshly mopped dance floor. He’s got nothing. It’s all been wonderful. And everything about being at Harvard feeds into his dance. “A lot of preparation is just hanging out. My classes influence my dance.” When pressed, he admits that even a tedious Quantitative Reasoning requirement is about dance. “If that’s boring to me, that’s important,” he says, explaining that weeding out the tedium of QR lends itself to finding the wonder in choreography. In addition to boring math class, Yamaguchi draws on his athletic background in his choreography. “You can tell that his choreography has come out of his wrestling training. It’s like a no fear sort of attitude about dance. It’s cool and refreshing,” says Adrienne M. Minster ’04, who has performed with Yamaguchi and in pieces he has choreographed.
This weekend Yamaguchi is presenting something he calls a “eulogy of myself,” but as of Monday, he says he has “yet to come up with a single movement. Movement is not a big part of the piece. It’s about how things frame movement, about how eulogies frame people’s lives.” This from the same man who chin-balances chairs. Well, he acknowledges his theory-heavy concept may be too abstract. “It’s not that the audience is going to get all of this,” he says.
What the audience will get, however, is the vibrant experimentation that Yamaguchi embraces. He finds inspiration everywhere: “I just space out. Usually I’m walking or I’m lying down about to go to sleep. [For one show] the inspiration was I got pinkeye so I did a dance about blind people.”
Next year, Yamaguchi hopes to be dancing or choreographing either in New York or Tokyo, with graduate school in the near future. His style will be constantly evolving. “Whenever I go to a new environment I tend to pick up new things,” he says. He promises, though, that he’ll never stray too far from his street performer roots and will still pick up an apple, or three, to juggle along the way.
Krishnan N. Subrahmanian
Krish Subrahmanian has a cult following. Everyone seems to know Krish, and everyone has glorious praise for him. They gush he is “one of the nicest and most genuine people,” and even “one of the best people on the planet Earth.” Subrahmanian’s self-effacing reaction? “I think there’s very little that’s interesting about me,” he says.
The well-worn sweatshirt Subrahmanian sports for his interview bares the insignia of one of his many activities: CityStep. Subrahmanian joined the organization his sophomore year, after having had extensive experience in theater and recreational break-dancing. He speaks enthusiastically about the program as “an opportunity to give arts to kids at an earlier age” and to expose them to “alternative methods of shining.” Subrahmanian also performs in Ghungroo, the South Asian Association’s annual cultural show.
After spending his first-year summer balancing an internship with Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and a night job delivering pizzas, Subrahmanian learned about the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut, a summer refuge for children with cancer or serious blood diseases. “It was exactly what I knew I had to do,” he says he realized after seeing a promotional video for the camp. Subrahmanian has spent the last two summers working there. “It’s the best place in the world, period,” he says.
He continues volunteering throughout the school year. During his sophomore year Subrahmanian helped found Cambridge Student Partnerships, a student advocacy group that provides employment resources to those in need. The group has grown from seven students to 22 volunteers working at two offices in Central Square. They have served 40 clients this year alone. Subrahmanian has dedicated his spring breaks to Habitat for Humanity, traveling twice to Philadelphia and once to Guyana.
Currently, Subrahmanian is applying for public service and traveling fellowships, as well as to Teach for America and New York City Teaching Fellows. “Given his intense work ethic and his complete disregard for sleeping, I am not convinced that he can’t actually save the world,” says roommate Adam J. Hornstine ’03.
Subrahmanian also finds time to work on his unconventional social studies thesis about clowns in the hospital. He observes the Clown Care Unit at the Boston Children’s Hospital a few days each week, studying the interactions between clown and patient to determine how medicine can be made more personable. Of course it’s not all fun and games, as he must throw in the philosophical theories of Max Weber, thereby “corrupting a fun topic in only the way social studies can.”
Subrahmanian is the kind of guy who can’t reveal whom he admires because he’s afraid he’ll leave people off his list. He also admits to watching the WB. “I am extremely uninteresting, so much so that I watch the WB to live vicariously through the characters!” he cries.
Despite his accomplishments, Subrahmanian remains level-headed, drawing inspiration from those with whom he works. “These organizations have given me the opportunity to see people doing great things,” he says. “I’ve realized I can’t bank on any particular talent. All that really matters is how I treat other people.”
“We were going to try to think of ways to say things that weren’t familiar” is how longtime friend Ezekiel W. Reich ’03 remembers an assignment in the seventh-grade writing club that Julia Jarcho led. “Then and now, I think Julia understood clearly the deep emotional and intellectual importance of newness.”
Since then, Jarcho has found many new things to say and ways to say them—mostly in theater. Nursery, the play this New York City native wrote at age 17, was selected from 1,500 entries to be performed off-Broadway at the Young Playwrights Festival. The New York Times called it “terrific stuff, stunning from a teenage writer,” and Seventeen magazine featured her alongside Josh Hartnett and Venus Williams as one of Seventeen Voices for a New World. She’s also appeared in numerous plays put on by downtown Manhattan luminaries, though she claims to not know how to act.
She’s got credentials aplenty—most recently, she won the Berrilla Kerr playwriting award, was writer-in-residence alongside August Wilson at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference, and has put on three of her own plays here at Harvard. But Jarcho’s charisma and cheerful iconoclasm go far beyond her résumé.
“She’s not just the devil’s advocate, she’s like his speechwriter,” says friend Samuel Graham-Felsen ’03. “She ends up saying things that are so silly and ridiculous, but they’re usually brilliant anyway. I believe her when she says she doesn’t do things to shock. She just can’t bear to do things that are boring.”
Her distinctive appearance—“punk-rock elegance,” as Graham-Felsen terms it—garnishes the mystique. Roommate Seung-Min Lee ’03 describes Jarcho as a combination of Winona Ryder and Penelope Cruz, and there’s something to it: a bit of the former’s fragility, the latter’s lushness. “She makes awkwardness the sexiest thing since Anthony Michael Hall,” Lee says.
In conversation, Jarcho moves with ease between her literature tutorial on departures from phallogocentric philosophy and enthusiastic discussions of lingerie and “tortoise-y math rock.” The last came up as a result of Jarcho’s sometime involvement as drummer, singer and songwriter in a band called Ensimismada, which played famed New York venues like CBGB and the Mercury Lounge. Jarcho translates the band’s Spanish name as “self-involved or lost in thought,” something she says applies to herself.
Jarcho is given to making vivid observations and then wittily disparaging herself. “I find myself caring a lot and feeling really involved, not in some useful political way, in the details of things,” she says over coffee at Daedalus. “But I don’t know how much of that is me just wanting to construct myself after the image of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” She brightens, looking around her. “And here we are at Daedalus. See? Anyone who knows me will say it: I’m totally a dork!”
Not quite. Those who know her use phrases like “gutsy,” “passionate provocateur” and “the most brilliant person I know.” As for herself, Jarcho says that “maintaining a high-friction edge or interface with the world is important to me.”
So what’s something about her few people know? Jarcho considers the question. “My first word was ‘more,’” she says.