Harvard has blessed me with a number of gifts: great classes, incredible friends, and even twice-weekly doses of golden nuggets in the dining hall. But these represent just a slice of Harvard’s largesse. In fact, the University gave me its best gift before I even set foot in Thayer 301. Harvard told me to take a year off.
One of those words unique to the Harvard vocabulary, the “Z-list” refers to a group of 50 to 100 students offered deferred admission to the College every year; it comprises a sizable minority of every Harvard class. The Z-list is a funny place to be. You don’t get a fat envelope the day that official decisions come out. You probably accept at another college. You hold onto your spot on the Harvard waitlist, but the swirling news stories about record yields make the possibility of acceptance seem awfully slim. As June rolls around, you make preparations to move to a new city and begin your freshman year—in my case, at the University of Chicago as a member of the Class of 2010.
One day early in June of 2006, I was staple gunning “John Sarbanes for Congress” signs to wooden planks in a hot and dusty campaign office in Baltimore when I got a call from my regional admissions officer, who wanted to discuss the possibility of the Z-list. I accepted.
Many Z-listers emphasize the opportunities for exotic travel afforded by a gap year. But I didn’t travel any more than 50 miles away from my house throughout the entire year. The day I got the call from my admissions officer, I immediately told my campaign manager that I wanted to commit my services for the entire campaign.
That evening, she instructed me to go to Fells Point, an up-and-coming neighborhood on Baltimore’s waterfront, to staff a campaign house party—in other words, to wear a campaign button and a wide smile, while chatting with guests and asking them to sign up to volunteer with the campaign. The party was so stressful, it made me feel physically ill. I was awkward and sweaty and tongue-tied and only 18 years old. Everybody seemed so much older and more sophisticated than I was. The prospect of approaching them felt daunting enough; the idea of asking them to volunteer seemed unthinkable.
But the campaign manager, the spunky and talented Pia Carusone, sent me back to these house parties night after night. And pretty soon, the butterflies and the nervousness went away. The intimidating party goers—interesting, intelligent, and busy people, for sure—were just fellow citizens, and I realized that I had every right to ask them to get involved in the campaign.
For the next 14 months, I got a crash course in the practical challenges of working in politics. “Call time” became sacred. I bought two suits and learned how to get them dry cleaned. Some volunteers stepped up in inspiring ways and others flaked. I swallowed hard and asked for a job on Capitol Hill after the election.
Working in politics demands a balance of humility and hubris: the former, since politicians are accountable to constituents, and the latter because you need the audacity and self-reliance to shape the future.
Harvard, like politics, requires its students to be both respectful and irreverent. Students need to respect professors and teaching fellows and the decades of work that they have invested in their fields. But students also need the chutzpah to challenge them to get a full education. Students need to respect institutional traditions and structures. But they also need to not always take “no” for an answer when red tape or inertia blocks new ways of thinking.
The education I received in that Baltimore campaign office was as valuable as anything I could have learned in a faraway land. High school does not teach you many of the skills needed to succeed at Harvard. Sure, high school classes may prepare us for Harvard academics, and participation in sports teams and extracurriculars may prepare us for leaderships positions on campus. But at the end of the day, there is no AP exam in mingling, no IB test in asking a Nobel Laureate for an extension, and no SAT section on figuring out the difference between your own dreams and your parents’.
Some people like to discount the classroom education at Harvard, calling it impractical or full of minutiae that is easy to forget as soon as the Blue Books are handed in. I disagree. My education in the practice of politics—both before and during college—has been a central part of my classroom education. And the skills and theories I’ve learned in the classroom compose a key part of the mindset I’ll take to my work after college.
A Harvard education is a four-year adventure filled with incredible opportunities. The Z-list may be a funny place to be, but it makes Harvard an even better place when you finally get here.