Legacy: The Celebrity

Laura E. Spence ’04

It’s often local news when someone from a small town attends Harvard, but Laura E. Spence ’04 became more famous for where she didn’t get in than for her Byerly Hall acceptance letter. A state school student in a Northeast England seaside town, Spence wasn’t particularly surprised when her application to study medicine at Oxford University was rejected. There were only a few coveted spots in the college, and she’d met an impressive assortment of candidates during the interview process.

However, a few months later, after she’d gotten into Harvard, her hometown paper published a local-girl-makes-good story that mentioned her Oxford snub. The English media wolf pack pounced on the story and soon, politicians and pundits around the country were demanding to know why a girl who could get into the United States’ top university couldn’t get into Oxford. Many claimed that Spence had been discriminated against because she attended a public school in northern England.

“At first, I didn’t really have an opinion about what they were saying about me,” says the Eliot House junior. “I didn’t think it was completely true…I came to realize that whatever I would say, [the press] would manipulate it. I really didn’t have a part in it at all.”

Spence describes the months-long press coverage as a personal nuisance and an invasion of her family’s privacy. Paparazzi snapped fuzzy photos of her house, which commentators examined to try to determine her family’s socioeconomic status. Spence spoke to the press once when the story first broke before retreating, saying that reporters would twist her words to fit their own purposes.

One aspect of Harvard she was especially looking forward to was the opportunity to leave the limelight. “It’s something that I kind of wanted to leave behind when I got here,” she says.

America obliged. Most Harvard students are ignorant of the controversy that Spence’s admission had raised across the pond. “Most people didn’t have a clue,” she says. “The only people who had heard anything were my roommates who decided to Google me. ” Spence did generally avoid international student groups because many foreign students were aware of her situation.

Somewhat surprisingly, Spence’s first year was characterized not by cynicism, but innocence. “I was probably one of the most naïve freshmen you could imagine. Everything surprised me,” she remembers.

Spence was unprepared for the level of work Harvard required. “I had never even heard the word calculus before and I wanted to be a biochemistry concentrator,” she laughs. Spence’s shaky math skills, something that she attributes in large part to the limited curriculum of her high schools, meant that she spent most of her first year catching up. Frustrated with academics, Spence threw herself into her extracurricular activities—rowing, playing viola in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and writing a column in an English newspaper contrasting college life in Britain and the U.S. Spence says one of her favorite aspects of Harvard is the focus on extracurriculars, a major difference from British universities where college is simply a stepping stone towards employment.

It would appear that many more English high school students are considering American colleges—as evidenced by the proliferation of emails that Spence receives asking for her advice on applications and interviews. Spence doesn’t give away any of the trade secrets. “I managed to do it on my own, so they can too,” she says.