In the spring of freshman year, I raised my hand in Spanish Aa and answered a question incorrectly. The girl beside me whispered, “Did you go to private school or public school?” Stunned, I mumbled “public” just so she would look away from the tears welling in my eyes.
I was the first in my rural high school to attend an Ivy League university. I thought I might have a tough time fitting in socially with peers from prep schools and wealthier backgrounds. I also thought that hard work and asking for help would be enough to do reasonably well academically, even when I made mistakes along the way. However, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, nor did my advisers realize the extent to which I was underprepared.
This is why the College must offer a summer enrichment program for students from under-resourced high schools: Low-income, first generation, and underrepresented students could navigate Harvard more smoothly if they were provided with peer and institutional support.
During freshman spring, I requested an appointment with a counselor at the Bureau of Study Counsel for help in Math 21a. I already had a tutor, frequently attended office hours with the professor, and visited the Math Question Center almost every night. But I still felt lost and was in danger of failing the class. The counselor asked about my roommate situation, homesickness, sleeping and eating habits, as well as how often I went to office hours and if I had a tutor. The elephant in the room was that I should not have been in Math 21a in the first place, that I should have started with a lower level like Math Ma if I hoped to stand a chance in a STEM field. But neither of us realized that, and it was too late to drop the class. My Resident Dean of Freshmen told me to work harder when I sought an exception to the add/drop deadline, and I could barely hold back tears until I stepped out of the Freshman Dean’s Office.
A summer enrichment program for students from under-resourced high schools could have prevented a situation like mine. These students have the talent, drive, and smarts to survive here, but peer solidarity and institutional support can mean the difference between surviving and thriving. Countless students, myself included, could have benefited from an enrichment program, and there is no reason for yet another class of students to arrive in the fall without one. A cohort of students who understand each other’s backgrounds would serve as a support system beyond advising conversations at the start of the term. Just like the Freshman International Program, we need an orientation program that recognizes the needs of students who come from environments incredibly different from Harvard, and that a network of similarly situated peers facilitates immersion into the university.
A summer enrichment program is where to start if Dean Khurana truly believes in a Harvard where wealth does not correlate with GPA, success in STEM fields, or 4-year graduation rates. This program would cost a minuscule fraction of the amount spent on financial aid for these students. If we can afford the high expense to bring them here, we can afford the quite low expense of empowering them to succeed here. Most of our peer schools have done this for years; for instance, Princeton offers the Freshman Scholars Institute, a 7-week program where students earn two course credits and build a strong community of peers and advisers who empower them to navigate their first year and beyond.
Last year, I interviewed a student who participated in Dartmouth’s program. Her parents don’t speak English, and she was nervous to attend an elite university in a rural area with mostly white, wealthy peers. She credits her advisers and mentors in the program for helping her thrive her first year—and her fellow participants for “getting” her background and experiences in the transition to college. Similarly to my experiences, she found that making friends with diverse groups of people matters, but that solidarity from people who understand can make the difference for academic success.
Each year Harvard postpones approving a program for students like her and countless others, incoming students suffer needlessly, even though we have had a viable plan in front of us for years without action. I spearheaded a student group that put an hour-by-hour schedule of a week-long program on Dean Khurana's desk a year and a half ago. It’s inexpensive, our peer schools do it, and students are suffering without it—what is he waiting for?
Dean Khurana, you brought us here. You flaunt us in your diversity statistics. You hold the power to create not just a diverse environment, but an inclusive one. Hundreds of students currently at Harvard could have benefited from a summer enrichment program, and no doubt dozens more will arrive on campus in the fall of 2017. Don’t they deserve the same chance to belong and to succeed as their wealthy classmates?
Savannah N. Fritz ’17 is a Sociology concentrator in Kirkland House.