To the first-generation of Harvard College,
When I first sat down to write this letter, I envisioned addressing it to the administration in lieu of Dean Khurana’s rejection of the proposed First Year Institute bridge program. But, after reading Lauren Sierra’s story, captured beautifully in Bridge Over Troubled Water, I was inspired to direct my energy elsewhere. This is therefore a message to the first-generation students of Harvard College.
The CEO of my company recently asked me: How much of your identity was formed by your Harvard experience? My instinct was to say “a lot” given that my life, and consequently, my being, would look extremely different had I not graduated from Harvard. But then I started thinking about my Harvard self vs. myself now and the distance between. I thought about how much of a sponge I was as an undergraduate, carefully studying every event, every person, every interaction of my Harvard experience. How everything was so foreign and intriguing. How I assumed that all of these new experiences were superior to what I had known. How I neglected existing relationships that had propelled me to where I was because I viewed them as distractions from where I could go. I thought about how relentlessly focused I was on changing myself during that time, and whether or not that had come at the expense of strengthening my sense of self outside the Ivy League.
Harvard taught me a lot about the world outside of my own, but the world has taught me a lot about myself. I have learned that empathy is just as powerful of a skill as critical thinking for those who seek to create positive change in the world. I have learned that ambition should not and can not replace fulfilling relationships, whatever form they may take. I have learned that I am a role model with a voice that needs to be heard, both by the disadvantaged and by the overprivileged. Perhaps most importantly, I have learned that I am advantaged because I am a first-gen, a fact that couldn’t have felt further from the truth during my time at Harvard.
Success is built on greatness, not bridges. And you are great—a low-key unicorn, some might say. You have overcome barriers associated with income, educational opportunity, unconventional familial roles, race and ethnicity, language, sexuality, and likely much more. Some of these challenges may subside after your Harvard experience. But, unfortunately, many of them will remain. You'll be the breadwinner of your family, if you're not already. You'll continue to occupy spaces that were not constructed with you in mind (and may even be attracted to them by your desire to disrupt them). You'll continue to balance an untamable personal ambition with the most austere indebtedness to those who got you to where you are today. And you might continue to feel lonely, even when you're not alone. These are the unique burdens you carry. And they are the burdens that most of the people around you fail to recognize out of the blissful ignorance of privilege.
But I see you. And I feel compelled to tell you that it truly does gets better and that your burdens will grow into blessings. You will feel blessed when you are able to help your mom pay the mortgage when unexpected funeral costs arise. You will feel blessed when you are granted opportunities when those in positions of power recognize the value of your story of triumph. You will feel blessed by your humble grounding as you ascend the social ladder and the air of humility continues to thin. You will realize that you have been tested in ways that those around you couldn't even imagine and that you have passed those tests with flying colors, becoming more qualified than anyone else to do exactly what you want to do in the world.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama said it best: when they go low, we go high. Seize your strength sooner than I did. (You can start by reaching out to mentors like me and other members of the Harvard First Generation Alumni Association.) Once you do, there is no limit to how high you can go. And I have a strong suspicion that Harvard will follow your lead: upward.
All the first-gen love,
Daniel M. Lobo ’14 is currently the Chief Operating Officer of beauty products company We Are Onyx and serves as Vice Chair of the First Generation Harvard Alumni. He is also the founder of the Harvard College First Generation Student Union.
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