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Appreciate Harvard's Diversity

By Jonathan S. Cohn

I really didn't know what to expect when I came to Harvard Summer School in June, 1986.

I knew it was a great chance to get away from home for two months, and, sure, I figured it couldn't hurt on my college application. But I had no clue what life at Harvard would be like.

Today, I still remember my summer at Harvard as one of my best ever. Although I didn't know it at the time, summer school was really a fantasyland version of Harvard, showcasing the good and hiding the bad.

REMARKABLY, the summer school office does about as good a job of attracting a diverse student body as the undergraduate admissions office does. For me, that meant a completely new world in 1986.

I came from your stereotypical whitebread prep school. The kids there wore polo shirts, and drove fancy sports cars. There were a handful of minority students in my class of 150 graduating seniors, but I didn't know them too well.

All that changed at Harvard. My two roommates were Asian-American. My best friends for the summer were my two neighbors, one of whom was Black and one of whom was Mexican-American.

Some of us had money, some did not. But nobody cared. We were an inseparable bunch, and I have kept in touch with them to this day.

What made this tolerance so special was the fact that it seemed so natural. There were no student protests--no chants, signs or pins. It was just a bunch of easy-going, curious high school students, who didn't look twice at an interracial couple or two women holding hands.

I also remember my summer here as one of the few times--to this day--that I have known all of my instructors. I took two classes that summer: one was taught by a writing instructor, the other by a psychology professor. Both knew me by name, and both knew me well.

Although I didn't make much of it at the time, I have since learned to cherish that experience.

These days, I have to work to get one class a semester where a professor can recognize my face. If he or she happens to remember my name, I consider myself lucky.

In addition, I remember my summer at Harvard as one of the few times when the students were as interested in the material as they were in the final marks. In class, people talked because they had something fresh and interesting to say.

Now, I'm a government concentrator, which means my classes are full of lawyer and politico wannabes. Forget fruitful discussion: everyone is out to impress the section leader and get that elusive "A," a sure ticket to law school or a cushy job in the capital.

NOT that the "real" Harvard is such a dismal place. If I had to do it all over again, I'd still come here--without a second thought.

After all, during the year, Harvard students are tolerant--very tolerant. Some professors still try to learn their students' names. And for every grade grubber, there's a real student in every class, if you just look hard enough.

Nonetheless, I miss the Harvard I first met four years ago. As I look forward to another summer in Cambridge, I know it won't be quite the same.

No matter how much I think about the good, the bad will always be there with it. Harvard, somehow, has lost its innocence.

So for those of you still in high school, heed this advice: enjoy Camp Harvard while it lasts. You'll never see it quite the same again.

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