When I was deciding where to apply to college, one of Harvard’s strongest selling points was its location. In the center of ever-so-liberal Cambridge and just a stone’s throw from Boston, this university is uniquely positioned to take advantage of not one, but two of North America’s most culturally vibrant urban centers. My imagination bubbled over with fantasies of stress-free afternoons in independent coffee shops, far away from the stress, work, and worry of Harvard College.
As one can well imagine, my arrival here constituted a bit of a rude awakening.
Early in my freshman year, extracurricular commitments began to conflict with each other, and my inbox started overflowing with the e-detritus of untold many open lists. I realized quickly that free time at Harvard is really an illusion, and that a choice among the Square’s three Starbucks franchises doesn’t amount to much free choice at all. As the reality of Harvard life hit me with the subtlety of Memorial Church’s daily 8:45 a.m. wake-up call, a trip off-campus suddenly seemed ludicrous.
When it comes to improving the state of mind of Harvard’s notoriously stressed-out student body, conventional wisdom is simple. A pricey cocktail of campus life initiatives geared at making it easy for Harvard students to unwind here in Cambridge will cure our social woes. Until a few weeks ago, I would have readily agreed. In mid-September, however, a weekend in the woods changed my mind completely.
Last month, after a week spent finding my stored belongings in the attic of Winthrop House and schlepping them up three flights of stairs to my new room, I did the unthinkable. With courses to choose and tutorial reading to do, I packed an overnight bag with nary a textbook and left town for a friend’s place in northern New Hampshire.
As 95 North became Route 16 and Chocorua Road turned into Chinook Trail, the little things that needed doing back at Harvard disappeared from my mind. Without the constant presence of red brick and ivy to remind me of scholastic obligations, I was able to do—for a sustained period—what is all but impossible at Harvard: relax.
Instead of jogging through the Yard to get to section on time, my friends and I hiked through the woods with the impending sunset as our only time restraint. We started making merry not when we were done watching the previous week’s lectures on tape, but when there were no more dishes to wash.
Once during the weekend, my cell phone rang. So I turned it off.
Last spring, there was much fuss made about a survey by the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE) that ranked Harvard fifth-from-last among 31 elite schools in terms of student satisfaction. Graduating seniors gave fair Harvard poor reviews for, among other things, the quality of students’ social life. University Hall’s response—in motion even before the data’s release—has been impressive. Harvard students can now take advantage of regular pub nights in Loker Commons and a 24-hour study space in Lamont Library. In the next few years, space will be augmented by a renovated Hilles Library, a café in Lamont, and a permanent pub in Loker. And let’s not forget that, according to the University’s projections, the Harvard class of 2019 will be able to take advantage of an honest-to-goodness student center in Allston.
But amid the plethora of initiatives, the simple remedy of “getting away” has been ignored. Under the planned changes, there will be more on-campus options for students who want to escape the stress of the Harvard experience, but at the end of the day there’s no substitute for actually cutting lose and leaving town. When removed several hours’ drive from their computers, textbooks, and coursepacks, even the most bookish Harvard students (like me) have no choice but to stop sweating the small stuff. It’s this kind of distance—and not a permanent campus pub—that is the recipe for a real break from Harvard’s stress.
In the next few weeks, New England will start making its annual preparations for winter. As the leaves change color and the weather gets colder, Harvard students will find themselves more and more tied to their books and activities. Going to school here is a daunting experience, but it doesn’t have to be devoid of fun—and not just the kind of fun that comes in a bottle. For a couple of bucks and a bit of creativity, you can be almost anywhere in New England in a matter of hours. The possibilities really are endless.
I went my whole first year at Harvard without taking a weekend off. I never went for dinner in the North End, or spent the day on Newbury Street, or at Quincy Market. I certainly never made it to northern New Hampshire for the weekend. That’s one mistake that I won’t soon repeat.
Adam Goldenberg ’08, an editorial editor in Winthrop House, would really rather escape to the Swing Era, which—alas!—is not possible.