With the end of the semester fast approaching, most students are looking forward to a relaxing winter vacation before another term begins, but a small contingent on campus is anticipating more. Fall graduates, or “super seniors” as they are commonly known, have spent at least one extra term on campus, and will be receiving their diplomas in a matter of weeks.
Though the common path of a Harvard student consists of four continuous years of classes, some students take time off during their studies and have to stay behind after their class graduates. Sometimes, these breaks are unexpected. Ryan R. Burkhead ’10-11 injured his foot last fall playing varsity football and took the spring semester off after enduring the season-ending surgery. “Sports are brutal. People get hurt all the time,” says Burkhead, adding that it’s common for football players to stay on for an extra season after an injury.
Other fall graduates needed an extra semester for academic reasons. Isaac S. Shivvers ’10-11, an astrophysics concentrator did not initially plan on a late graduation. He decided to take sophomore spring off to travel the country with his band Moniker. “It was a chance to do something we had always talked about,” he says. He didn’t anticipate his impending super senior status because he had arrived at Harvard with advanced standing. It was only after switching concentrations before his senior fall that he realized that he would be staying at Harvard for the fall of 2010.
Sion Lee ’10-11 spent a semester abroad in Ecuador, living in an indigenous community and studying the practice of vertical birth. During her stay she was influenced by the Andean emphasis on family life, and decided to spend another semester away from Harvard reconnecting with her own family. “My parents thought taking time off was a sign of weakness, but they eventually understood my decision,” Sion says.
NAVIGATING THE SOCIAL SCENE
Staying on campus after all of their class has graduated, however, can be disconcerting for the fall graduates, especially in terms of the Harvard social scene. “It was weird at the beginning of the semester. Going to the dining hall you feel like that awkward kid in high school who doesn’t know anybody. You really have to force yourself to meet new people,” says Burkhead. Robert E.T. Tainsh ’10-11, who took time off after an unfocused freshman fall, found the atmosphere this year more conducive to studying. “I believe with my crazy blocking group gone, my GPA is the highest it’s ever been,” he says.
Beyond academics, Harvard nightlife also changes for a super senior. “It can get a bit awkward. When I go to a final club and introduce myself to a girl, and it turns out that she was born in 1992, I’m just like ‘Oh no,’” says Burkhead.
Shivvers remains involved in the Harvard social scene through his music. His new band Third Rail, which hopes to replace DJs at campus parties, has played at venues from the Owl Club to this year’s Harvard-Yale pep rally in the Yard. “It’s sort of sad leaving now. I think the band could be big for the next few years,” he says. “But I’ve selected an heir to my throne.”
As they approach their long-awaited graduation, fall graduates are making plans for their future after an extended stay at Harvard. Tainsh hopes to find a career in public service. Burkhead plans to spend his spring playing football in Spain before attending law school next fall. Lee will travel with her family, maybe go on a mission trip, and then head to medical school. Shivvers plans to spend some time in Hong Kong and then possibly work at an observatory in Chile before going to graduate school for astrophysics. His musical future will be put on hold for now. “I want to be in an old man bar band for the rest of my life, but a career in music is not what I’m looking for.” says Shivvers.
Despite graduating off-cycle, most super seniors don’t regret the decisions they made. They value the opportunity they had to reflect. “I was too immature for college when I got here,” says Tainsh. “I don’t at all regret taking time to re-evaluate.”
“I would definitely recommend it—I’ve enjoyed college as much this semester as I ever have,” says Burkhead. Especially as a pre-med student, Lee found her time off extremely rewarding. “When I got back to Harvard, I kept on seeing people who were jaded, exhausted, and ready to get out,” she says. “I came back finally ready to embrace what Harvard had to offer with a new set of eyes and a laid-back perspective.”