I still remember how I spent the summer prior to Freshman Week, fixated on my own imaginings of a perfect Harvard, of everything I would do, experience, and accomplish during my time here. I was determined to make my four years as memorable and fruitful as possible: to succeed academically with an astronomical GPA and stellar thesis, to lead as many organizations as my schedule would permit, to rub shoulders with some of the brightest individuals of this nation and possibly of the world, to meet every renowned professor and famous celebrity on campus. I was determined to take advantage of whatever was thrown in my direction. I’m sure many of my peers, as they reel through past strands of memory in bouts of nostalgia, can relate to my seventeen-year-old self.
How naïve such imaginings were.
Fortunately, Hurricane Irene made it clear early on that Harvard was not insulated from the rest of reality; one of the most vivid memories I have is of the entire class, drenched by pouring rain, congregating in the Science Center because the electricity in the freshman dorms had gone out. On a more significant scale, time and time again, we have been confronted by the imperfections of Harvard—the way certain norms and traditions are accepted without being assessed for what they are worth, the way certain social and cultural dynamics are regarded, the way much-needed discussions of vulnerabilities are sidestepped or brushed aside.
I also cannot say that all of this was a walk in the park: we are reluctant to admit it, but at some point or another, we all had wondered whether we were the mistake that the Admissions Office had made, whether we really did belong in our 1666-member class. Nor can I declare that this experience was everything it could have been. In fact, for me to make such a declaration would be the equivalent of lying.
What I want to relay, then, is a more appropriate message, one that we are already aware of, but nonetheless one that needs to be explicitly stated. It is this: thank goodness for our imperfect selves, and even more so, for our imperfect Harvard experience. Thank goodness that our memories of our time here are riddled with strugglebus references, unfruitful all-nighters, unnecessary social drama, embarrassing disappointments, and, yes, failures. Things that did not work out as planned because our contexts didn’t allow for it. Things that did not work out as planned simply because we were not good enough or prepared enough for a particular task at a particular moment in our lives.
It was at the bottom of valleys that we grew stronger, learned humility, and began to really appreciate other people’s hard work and achievements. The challenges that confronted us, what had once seemed unbearable, made us reflect on our priorities and values; such reflections steered us into more promising directions, compelling us to harness our resources and place our attention to interests that we cared more passionately about. Failures made us realize that some of our dreams were no longer realistic, and thank goodness, for this realization gave us room to pursue more fitting, more exciting endeavors.
It is not a shame, then, to have given up the long-held dream of becoming a doctor because organic chemistry was too hard; I hope to see you as some of the most promising educators and public leaders of our global society. It is not a shame to have taken a semester or two off because all of this was too overwhelming; thank you for the enlightening conversations we had about what you had experienced outside of the bubble, about your deep encounter with God in San Francisco, about your strengthened desire to fight economic inequality in South Korea, about your newfound passion in animation and digital design. It is not a shame to have come to Harvard to help the marginalized and oppressed and to leave with an investment banking or consulting job; I know that with your big heart, you will use your money in the best way possible. It is not a shame that all your post-graduate plans fell through and you have no idea where you are going after Commencement; I cannot wait to hear about your experiences abroad, and I hope that you do take up that backpacking trip across Latin America you had always dreamed of but was unable to do.
To be honest though, it wasn’t until the beginning of this year, after my summer in Cambodia, that I came to understand how to let go and appreciate my Harvard experience for what it was. For nine weeks, I lived in the capital city, Phnom Penh, conducting research for my anthropology thesis. My daily conversations with genocide survivors reminded me, again and again, of how grateful I should be for the opportunities that have come my way—for the ones that did work out and also for the ones that didn’t. My friend Visal, with his narrative of how he made it to Phnom Penh from the countryside, made me realize that a perfect life without surprises and unexpected turns would be so boring and undesirable. And my disappointing fieldwork experience taught me that roadblocks often precede the opening of new doors and the producing of rare epiphanies, one of which became the basis of my 160-page thesis. At times, we need to step away from our familiar contexts to understand some of the simplest yet deepest messages our heart tells us.
Our Harvard experience is meaningful because it is imperfect, marked by unmet expectations, dropped plans, and shattered dreams. For it has changed us for the better, instilling in us endurance—an endurance that has produced character, and character that produces hope for what lies ahead. Thank goodness that we are leaving this place completely different from how we had entered those gates of wisdom. Thank goodness that we were given the chance to realize just how resilient we are. It is my strongest belief that these revelations will become even more illuminating as we leave this place.
Especially because we are leaving this place.
Sharon Kim ’12 is an anthropology concentrator in Cabot House.