UPDATED: November 11, 2017 at 1:57 a.m.
Three of my close friends walked into the Public Service Recruiting Day event last week, hosted by the Office of Career Services, Center for Public Interest Careers, Institute of Politics, and Philip Brooks House Association. They expected to be met with eager staffers excited to talk with them about their resumes. Finally, they thought, Harvard is connecting us to jobs that can make the world a better place. Instead, the event was mostly informational, as many groups did not have concrete positions open or hadn’t started taking applications yet.
Listening through Harvard residential housing’s razor-thin walls, a friend of mine, a freshman who we’ll call Sarah, was troubled by a conversation coming from the neighboring room. Referring to her boyfriend, a female voice proclaimed, “I like him, but I want to date an upperclassman that can get me into final club parties.” When Sarah confided to a friend that she was concerned by this sort of transactional attitude toward relationships, the friend abruptly told her to stop being so judgmental: “It is not your life, so it is none of your business.” In short, the friend judged Sarah for her judgment.
Sarah told me that she has encountered this “none-of-your-business” attitude incessantly since coming to Harvard. When she opines to her friends that corporate finance is a less honorable profession than the non-profit world or public service, she is jumped on for her heretical gall. When she questions the character of a friend who loves going to parties and mocks those who aren’t similarly inclined, she is branded a doctrinaire. Sarah’s defense of her ethical values is constantly rebuffed; in exercising her ideals through her opinions and actions, she feels alienated and ostracized by her peers.
From schoolwork to job hunts to intramural sports, college students are propelled by the motor of competition. With the astonishing number of things that people compete over here, it may be surprising to learn that there are certain things that elicit no competition—like strong friendship. While people sometimes take pride in the quantity of their friends, few compete over the quality of those friendships. Rarer still do people strive to improve their relationship skills to deepen their friendships and romantic life.
One notable exception is a friend of mine (let’s call him Joe). His freshman year, Joe began his first romantic relationship. Thinking that he could apply his argumentative skills from high school debate to his partner’s problems, he gave her analytically rigorous advice, similar to what we are all probably used to hearing from our friends: “You are worried about that test? Here are 17 reasons you shouldn’t be worried about that test.” But she, unsurprisingly, already knew these rational solutions, and hearing them from Joe only made her feel worse.
From star-studded athletes to budding entrepreneurs to accomplished scholars, Harvard is brimming with nearly unlimited talent, but I’ve found that my amazing peers are also often full of self-deprecation and insecurity.
Recently, a friend recounted a social experiment she had performed. After a Harvard Student Agencies event, she was left with a box of Insomnia cookies. Instead of simply handing them out to the people studying in her dining hall, she formulated an idea: She would give people cookies on the condition that they answered her question, “What do you love the most about yourself?”
I wonder if Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana likes “Dead Poets Society.”
At my Convocation three long years ago, Dean Khurana presented a dichotomy that has overshadowed my college experience. Standing before us on that sweaty day, Khurana forecast that we could follow one of two paths to graduation: One would be “transactional,” in which we would chase material goals, taking easy classes and residing within a homogenous circle of friends, on our way to comfortably receiving our Harvard degree with minimal contemplation. The other was “transformational,” in which we would challenge ourselves in our coursework, in diverse extracurriculars, and in our intellectual discourse with our classmates, leading us to some sort of radically enlightened and non-materialistic perspective on life. For me, the speech evoked a group of inspired prep school boys standing on desks reciting Walt Whitman, the Dead Poets Society valiantly fighting back against the impending concrete reality of the real world. Could such an idealistic college experience really exist?