Sixteen hundred successful high school students checked into 16 unfamiliar brick buildings last weekend and thereby offered themselves up to an outrageous number of emotional slings and arrows. Between now and June, they can count on undergoing many, if not all, of a sequence of trials peculiar to that single nine-month period, in roughly chronological order:
Anxiety about strange living conditions, confusion about administrative and geographic landscape, inability to decipher course catalogue, awkwardness of long-distance calls with hometown sweetheart, hopeless infatuation with face in Union, frustration at lack of infatuating faces, difficulty balancing need to sleep with need to attend classes, rage at Expos teacher who completely missed the point.
Next: loneliness at sight of large and cheerful groups at every turn, irresolvable personality clashes with roommates, cold war with hometown sweetheart, distress at ridiculous string of accomplishments boasted by everyone else in entryway, despair at impossible equation of things to do and time available, fear of extraordinary academic failure (with concurrent anxiety that admissions-office computer made error), agony that infatuating face prefers one's own roommate, disquieting sense that life at home has changed in one's absence, exasperation at sarcastic attitude of hometown friends and family about fancyschmancy college (with cute regional pronunciation of college name).
Which leaves only final exams.
As it happens, Harvard administrators are aware of all the pitfalls on this list (many from their own experience as Harvard undergraduates) and have run across a few of considerably greater urgency. Over the years, the College has developed an elaborate administrative structure--from proctor to dean of freshmen--for handling freshman woes, and several independent offices and agencies have sprung up as sources of additional support.
The resulting network of specialists has not eradicated freshman unhappiness, and every year sees a sizable group of first-year students in every stage of human misery, from a bout of depression to a roommate crisis to a suicide attempt. But the professional and volunteer counselors who deal with the College's undergraduates have an illuminating perspective on the special strains Harvard can put on freshmen--and they offer some reassuring thoughts on possible antidotes.
In speaking of the types of first-term blues that seem to afflict Harvard freshmen more severely than students at other schools, many counselors bring up the high-powered reputation Harvard enjoys. "An extra-heavy burden falls on kids who go to a prestigious school," says Nadja B. Gould, an experienced clinical social worker at University Health Services (UHS). "Freshmen may come in with a whole variety of expectations--from their family, their school and themselves."
"A lot of people spend a great deal of time and effort in high school with one goal in mind--to get that admissions ticket," explains Thelma Foote, the North Yard's senior adviser and a graduate student in American Civilization. "Once they get here, they feel they have a lot to prove."
"Everybody's fearful that they're not qualified to be here," says Chris Auguste, a proctor in Matthews. "There's always the worry that they're the mistake."
Foote suggests, however, that such fears are ultimately rooted in the freshmen themselves, and not in the institution. "No doubt Harvard is a competitive place with very high standards, but most of the pressure is ultimately self-imposed--it's generated by the student body itself," she says. "Most students can deal with it very well," she adds. "They can go about the business of learning something instead of worrying about it."
Hand-in-hand with this sort of pressure, counselors say, goes the widespread tendency among freshmen to compare themselves unfavorably with their classmates. "A fairly common problem--one that Harvard freshmen especially have--is the shock of finding you're just one of the crowd," notes Suzanne Vogel, a senior clinical social worker at UHS. "A lot of students come from a top-dog situation and then find they're part of a mob where everyone's been special. We hear a lot of people say they're lost and lonely and feel like nobody--they feel threatened by other students who appear very impressive."
In short, as Nancy Ryan, assistant to the director of UHS, puts it, "It can be difficult to find out your roommate discovered a new atomic particle over summer vacation."
Ryan also points out that even after a freshman has become adjusted to Harvard, there is often one more potential trauma ahead: the first visit back home. "It's very hard to go back and find how your own family has changed," she says. "It can be disillusioning to find your younger siblings acting older, your friends suddenly interested in different things."
As Susan Cronin '84, the chairperson of Harvard's Committee for Economic Change, notes, the first visit home can be especially difficult for certain Harvard freshmen--those from working class backgrounds. "Working-class freshmen can face a lot of hostility when they get home," says Cronin, whose committee operates a support group for students from working class backgrounds. "Their parents and friends will tell them. 'We're from Harvard, we don't have to get uppity.' And then they get back to Harvard and think, 'Gee, I haven't been to Europe.'"
Letitia Peplau, a UCLA psychologist who has conducted research on loneliness among college freshmen, cites one last freshman difficulty unique to students at exclusive private colleges like Harvard. "At Harvard," Peplau says, "most people are leaving home to go to school. Here at UCLA, a great many students live in the area and come right in with their whole gang from high school. There's no social transition for them."