Two days ago as I travelled from the airport to my house after completing sophomore year, my mom and I made a pit stop at Panera to grab a late dinner. Inevitably we ran into a slight acquaintance who didn’t realize that I had gone to Harvard for the past two years. After maneuvering through the “Where do you go to school?” question and the “in Boston” response, which is always followed by “Oh, what school in Boston?” I hesitatingly answered, after an internal expletive, “Harvard.” We all know what happens after this. Dropping the H-bomb even when coerced into it can produce a variety of reactions, but there is always a strong one. This time it was the questions. “Harvard, huh, do you like it?” “It must be really difficult, but you must be really smart, right?” “How much does it cost?” “How’d you get in?” “What’s it like there?” “What were your SAT scores?” “What do you do there?”
The list goes on and on and on. From the inappropriate SAT and family financial status questions to the unanswerable “How did you get in?” (wouldn’t I like to know) question to the much more normal college experience questions, we get these a lot. Just ask my teammate, who, during our tournament, was literally followed around a Goodwill store between games by members of a certain men’s club basketball team who wanted desperately to know her SAT score (and probably her number, but that’s a different story). However, this time what really struck me about her questions was the never asked, but very much underlying question, “What is Harvard?”
This column explores Harvard student life and its implications. Throughout the semester I have tried to address some of the important or pressing issues that exist on campus for students. However, in light of the last couple of weeks, the issues Harvard faces seem cursory in comparison to how fortunate we are as a whole. With this in mind, I decided to address several much more lighthearted topics. I spent the week asking my classmates, friends, and random people in the dining hall for input. I’ve compiled some of their ideas into the following list of “Things We Just Can’t Understand About Harvard.”
1. When is the grass cut?
There are many adjectives that could be used to define Harvard, but if asked to pick just two that sum it up, history and excellence would likely be popular choices. After all, Harvard is the oldest college in the United States and legacy admissions mean that from day one, students are surrounded by stories of parents meeting at Harvard, grandparents rowing crew or writing for the Crimson, and so many more bits and pieces of the fabric of individual lives that make up the greater Harvard quilt. The adjective “excellence” is also pretty self-explanatory. Arguably the best and always among the top schools in the world, Harvard’s reputation is one of academic excellence, career excellence post-Harvard, and excellence in extracurricular activities, whether pursued simply for leisure or to change the world.
However, there is a greater word that connects history and excellence, and likely encompasses most other adjectives that one could find to describe Harvard. That word is veritas. Engraved on our gates, our statues, and even our waffles, Harvard’s motto, fittingly, provides an overarching description for the college. Students and faculty are supposed to achieve excellence through the pursuit of greater truth. Our research is done to reveal previously unknown truth. Our classes are taken to help increase our knowledge base and hone our personal perception of truth. Our extracurriculars enhance that perception of truth by expanding our minds. Finally, our careers hopefully help to further global truth or at least promote truth in the fields in which we work.
At 5 p.m. on admissions day 2011, I sat by myself on my bed, told myself that Vanderbilt (which I’d already gotten into) would be a fun four southern years for a northern girl, closed my eyes, and opened my rejection emails—except they weren’t. The moments that followed are still surreal as I stared at an email from Harvard University that started with “I am delighted to inform you.” I re-read the first lines of that email 10 times and then I closed the email just to check that it wasn’t a mistake, but, magically, when I re-opened the email it still said that I had gotten in.
The afternoon after that was one I’ll never forget. I shouted to my mom over the balcony and she came running into our living room in disbelief. Then she and my younger brother started to do what could only be described as a touchdown dance, while I called my dad who was travelling for work. When I got his voicemail, I left him a composed message and proceeded to call him another five times, more excited each time. My life changed dramatically at that moment. I went from being a high school student who had the world in front of her to a high school senior who had the world through Harvard glasses in front of her. At the time, though, I really had no idea what I would see through those glasses.
Before just about every social event I went to while I was growing up, from scholarship receptions to weddings, my mom would tell me to stop thinking about the way I looked and acted, and instead pay attention to other people. While in this case my mom was saying that I wouldn’t worry about my skirt being wrinkled or having something in my teeth if I was truly focused on what other people were saying, I think she was really sharing a greater point. When you start worrying about other people, you stop worrying so much about yourself.
In light of the Crimson article “Bring Back Banter” that was published last weekend and several other recent pieces about student life and student happiness, perhaps the Harvard student body could use some of my mom’s advice as well. Are we so caught up in our own lives that we’ve forgotten how to be interested in the lives of others?