How to Forget Harvard

There was a time when I was stupid, and that time was April 1998. Ms. Albarelli, our high school’s guidance counselor, had called in my parents so we could all have a “discussion” about the college application process. Neither my parents nor I had ever done this sort of thing before—they were immigrants, and higher education worked much differently back in India. Knowing that college applications weren’t due for at least six months, I expected this meeting with authority figures would be painless.

Immediately, Ms. Albarelli lit into me. “Rahul, what schools are you applying to?” she asked forcefully.

I was stumped. To be honest, I had never really thought about it. I was only a junior, and while college was on the horizon, I couldn’t see much past the district tennis tournament that coming weekend. So I winged it.

“Oh, you know: Georgetown, North Carolina, Penn State.” Nobody else knew it, but I had just listed off my three favorite college sports teams. What quick thinking!

“Mm-hmm,” Albarelli began ominously. “Well those are excellent schools, of course. But with your grades and extracurriculars, don’t you think you should look at Ivies?”

“Ivies College?” I asked meekly. “Never heard of it.”

Thus my Ivy League education began. My parents and I sat motionless for the next 15 minutes as the guidance counselor proceeded to explain all about the Ancient Eight and early decision and connections and need-blind financial aid and by the way, how come I had never heard of Harvard?

It was an easy answer, at least in my mind. Harvard wasn’t on ESPN. Nobody from our school or any of our family friends had ever gone there to my knowledge, and I had never been to Boston or cared much about colleges. Ms. Albarelli was aghast, and before we left she made us promise that when we went on our summer vacation trip to Cape Cod (we had also never been there) we would go visit this grand Harvard place of which she spoke.

As I think back to that oh-so-very-not-long-ago meeting, I laugh at how innocent I was behind the Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” when it came to Harvard. And what I find is that it is almost impossible to remember what that was like.

I am not from the middle of nowhere, but from a small town in Pennsylvania where I did have access to the world. Even so, I am continually amazed by the amount of exposure this place gets. I showed up on campus in September 1999, and in four years it feels like the television cameras never stopped rolling.

IOP speakers. Living wage sit-ins. Groundbreaking medical studies. Grade inflation. Private-spats-turned-public-fodder between professors and administrators.

When I would leave campus, friends and acquaintances rarely asked, “How’s Harvard?” Instead, they asked, “How is Harvard?” They invariably had just read about former Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 or how everyone gets honors; they were more interested in the media issues than my own experience. Very few times did the media stories intersect with my own life, and so I was often forced to answer, “Fine.”

Pick up a newspaper or watch CNN for a few hours. Once you know what Harvard is, you realize you’re seeing it everywhere.

However, the key to being a successful Harvard graduate, in my opinion, is to turn that off. I don’t mean ignoring the College. I still fully intend to return for sporting events and reunions; I might even join the local Harvard Club. But turn off the clutter that will dislodge your own Harvard experience and replace it with the one everybody else assumed you had.

Don’t read every story in the paper that has “Harvard” in it. Don’t buy the books with titles like Inside the Ivy Gates. Don’t read every piece of junk mail that comes from various Harvard organizations to your mailbox. Don’t talk to every person at the party who went to Harvard or had a friend there. And for Pete’s sake don’t donate millions of dollars. You (or somebody you’re now indebted to) already paid about $125,000.

Instead, embrace a new veil of ignorance. Remember that most people (like my former self) do not know anything about Harvard, or if they do it’s a one-sentence image—and usually negative. Harvard may be something special and unique, but most Americans don’t flaunt their colleges.

People will think whatever they want to think about you and Harvard no matter what you do about it. The key is to avoid getting pigeonholed. Harvard ought not to define your persona in 20 years—if these were the best four years of your life, then it’s a sad commentary on you at age 40.

Nail that diploma to the wall, file away that transcript and just smile silently, remembering the good times.

Rahul Rohatgi ’03, a government concentrator in Quincy House, was an associate sports chair of The Crimson in 2002.