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Should I stay or Should I Go?

By Joel A. Getz

I probably would have been a lot happier at Princeton freshman year. Maybe that's why I transferred there after my first year here. Well, actually I told Princeton I would be coming but never told Harvard to count me out.

I called home from Europe the summer after freshman year and told my parents to pay the bill. I had reconsidered, I told myself, and determined that staying at Harvard was the right move. I reasoned that freshman year really hadn't been so bad. Second semester had been better than first, and I really didn't want to start learning a new system. I also told myself that if Harvard had problems, I should stay and help initiate changes. Most of what I told myself, especially the latter part, was just a bunch of crap. I had chickened out, and I knew it.

I can't express strongly enough what a smart move it was to stay here I'm extremely satisfied with my Harvard experience, and I feel complete here. I'll be entering my senior year in the fall and will be a generous alumnus after graduating (I have to make sure my kids get in, you know.) In fact I'm one of Harvard's biggest advocates. It probably seems strange for the guy who once nearly transferred out to be convincing high school seniors to come, but I honestly feel anyone would do well here.

* * *

In the time since, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what was wrong that first year. Was it me, Harvard, or college in general? When I applied to transfer to Princeton, I blamed it all on Harvard. I revived the myth that many love to tell--that Harvard undergraduate education is poor and that the professors here don't care about the students. I always knew that was a lie, but I had to blame it on something. In fact, the undergraduate education here is terrific, and as some of my friends could tell you, I know the administration and faculty here quite well.

I now suspect the problem was a bit of everything, but I have to take most of the blame myself. The brunt of the problem lay with me.

I was obsessed most of my first year with doing well. I didn't just want to get 'A's; I wanted the highest mark in each of my courses. It worked. In both math and chemistry, I got the highest grade of all 350 or so students in each class. I never did any of the fun things, or had any of the wild times that you may be reading about in other essays in this issue. Why was I working so hard? Why didn't I go to parties or just hang out? Why would I tell my friends Friday night after Friday night that I had to study? Why did I tell one of the most beautiful women in my class that I couldn't go see the movie Superman with her because I had to study (probably for the test next month or something ridiculous like that)? Maybe I wanted to show everyone I could do it. Maybe I needed to prove that the admission office hadn't made a mistake by letting me in. Who knows why?

All I know is that I didn't do it again. I didn't repeat my academic stardom either of the next two years, and I doubt I will this year. Sophomore and junior years have been terrific. I'm much happier getting average grades, going out a normal amount of times, and spending a lot of time talking and doing things with friends. It's important to learn a lot from your classes but also to learn from your friends and extracurriculars. In short, I love Harvard now. I'm happy here. Granted, it took awhile, but parents say freshman year is a learning experience, and it certainly was for me. While some were learning to study and others were learning to be independent, I was learning to be happy--happy with things a lot more important than the highest grade. Friends and having a wide variety of experiences have been much more fulfilling than 97 percents in Chemistry 5. It seems trite to say that the people here are really terrific. But I sincerely believe they're the nicest group of people I've ever gone to school with and the best group of friends I've ever had.

If I ask my parents to describe my freshman year to you, they would likely tell of the bad times I had. While I admit that I did complain a lot, and that I genuinely wanted to leave for much for the year, for some reason only the fun and funny times come out when I discuss the year.

The hardest part of the whole year was learning to pronounce and spell my roommate Mark Csweyrwjhergj's, I mean, Mark Csikszentmihalyi's last name.

My Harvard career began on my birthday. It was a bit depressing to have school begin that day. What if you had a birthday and nobody knew? That's at least how I felt. But my roommates and hallmates had a little party for me. I think we knew each other's names by them (but I'm sure I still didn't know how to spell Mark's last name.) That makes it sound like my roommates and I got along very well. Not so. But we are good friends now, despite some turbulent beginnings.

* * *

If you had asked Richard Shuman where I was planning to go to college, he would have told you Brown. Richard and I had forged a friendship in introductory Biology there. We both had gotten into Brown early action and spent the weekend together when Brown invited up all of its early admits. We both had a great time there that weekend and promised each other we would come to Brown. Maybe we'd be roommates. We both admitted to applying to Harvard but told each other we weren't going to go, even if we were accepted. The next time we saw each other it was freshman week. And we were both in the Union. Harvard's Union.

* * *

Only one of the 93 graduates of my high school came to Harvard with me, but surprisingly, I knew quite a few of my classmates by the time September rolled around. I had met one of my other roommates, Ghary, and several other classmates at the Harvard model U.N. my senior year. I spent the summer after high school in Israel and met four of my future classmates there.

* * *

I could go on listing antecdotes, most of which are amusing only to me and those involved in the stories, but instead I'll just tell a few that might have a flavor of your year to come.

I lived in Greenough Hall, one of the four freshman dorms not in the Yard. Being off the Yard was a bit inconvenient. We were away from the action, but we were much closer to the dining room, if you call that an advantage. The problem with Greenough wasn't that it was so far away, or even that it wasn't that it was so far away, or even that it wasn't as beautiful as the Yard dorms; it was that the dorm was star--studded with academic hotshots. It had a reputation of being the nerd dorm that year, and the reputation was true. Maybe the fact that everyone else around me was studying so hard (or wonking out, as you'll learn to call it) helped perpetuate my compulsive studying. At the end of freshman year, 71 of my 1600 classmates and I were nominated for the top students of the class of 1986. At least 10 of the other 71 lived in my dorm, another 10 were near misses. We must have had twice the average of the other 14 dorms.

* * *

Don't get me wrong. I did have a lot of fun times in Greenough. just like any place, people took time out of their busy schedules to gossip. One example impugned my all-too-pure reputation My roommates and a friend from down the hall were discussing pre-marital sex. I insisted that it was always wrong. They basically told me I was ridiculous. And my friend Stuart bet me that I would have sex before I graduated from Harvard. I insisted I'd remain a virgin until my wedding night. The loser had to fly the winner to Manhattan for a night and take the winner to the restaurant of his choice. One of the women from upstairs came by as the conversation ended and learned of our bet. Several weeks later, I was talking to a different woman in the dorm who had heard that my friend and I were having a race to lose our virginity. I guess things had been embellished a little in the Greenough Grapevine.

No comment on who's won the bet yet.

* * *

Greenough was co-ed by floor, but all the floors had urinals dating back from the days when Harvard was all-male. One of the women from the third floor evidently had never seen a urinal before. She asked one of the guys on my floor what they were, and he told her that people washed their hair in them. She believed him, unbelievably, but swears to this day that she never used it. I'm not so sure. Who knows, it might work. If you live in Greenough, try it.

* * *

I only went to a handful of parties that year, and I nearly got beaten up at one of them. The weekend of the Harvard-Yale game, kirkland House was having a victory bash, and I decided to pass up Cabot Library for the night. The library staff probably filled out a missing persons report for me, but I made up for it by studying hard the rest of the month. I was dragged to the party by roommates, a few friends from the hall and a few women from upstairs. One of the women from upstairs began drinking heavily as soon as we arrived. She was tall and muscular and rowed crew. She came up to me and told me she could beat me at arm wrestling. I agreed. She then told me she could beat me up. I agreed with her again. Then she said she would demonstrate her strength by tearing apart my beer can, and she did. I couldn't take it after that, so I went home and studied some chemistry. I dubbed her Bertha after that and, unfortunately, a lot of the dorm picked up on it. She never learned of her nickname, and I'm glad she's not reading this now.

* * *

At the beginning of the year, I met this girl who I thought was both cute and nice. My hallmates didn't agree, and every time she would come visit, they would tease me, so I didn't pursue her. Stuart should have pushed me, he might have won his bet that way. I had missed Love Story freshman year, and I guess I hadn't learned to ignore others' opposition and go for it. I guess we had a mutual unrequited love. I hope she is reading this. If so, come visit next year, and I promise I'll respond.

* * *

One of the funniest--albeit weirdest nights of the year--came the last Saturday night before we went home for the summer. I still had one exam left the next Tuesday, but one of the women upstairs had finished and was having a year-end party. She had bought a lot of champagne and had invited a few friends over to say farewell. We were all sitting around playing some innocuous drinking games, when Stuart arrived and suggested we play "I Never." You would go around the room and declare something you had never done; everyone who had done it had to drink. Since I had never been drunk before, everyone wanted to get me trashed: But I hadn't done too much, so they really had to dig deep to find things I had done that no one else had. Someone said they'd never gotten the highest grade in a course at Harvard. I drank. Someone said they hadn't studied on a Friday night. I guzzled again. I kept telling them I wanted to leave, but they said "sit, stay." So I did. It was fun. I really wish I had left, because the game became a bit vindictive. Some who knew others' intimate secrets brought them up and forced their nemesis to drink. One that sticks out was: "I never had sex in my mother's bed." For the record, I didn't drink to that one. At the time, the night was a bit sad, but it has remained a funny memory.

* * *

I could go on and on, but soon enough you'll be having your of Harvard experiences. I hope you all leave Harvard enjoying it as much as I do and having grown as much as I have. But I hope you love the place a lot faster than I did. It's a big adjustment for everyone, so don't be discouraged if you're a bit sad those first few months. Most people are, even those who seem so content from the start.

In short, take advantage of Harvard's great opportunities. Meet your classmates; they'll be your friends forever. Move, shake, study, hard, get involved, and most of all, relax.

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