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. . .and More Than You Bargained for

By Matthew M. Hoffman

SOME people are naturally happy. Offer them an obstructed-view seat at Fenway Park and they will swoon over the architectural beauty of the left field wall. Draft them to fight in Iraq and they will come back singing the joys of desert warfare. Send them to Harvard, and they will join the Crimson Key Society.

Although there are not so many of these incurables at Harvard as it sometimes seems, they make a lot of noise and they travel in packs. They are constantly leading tours, organizing parties, shaking hands and just generally being cheerful. It gives them an appearance of ubiquity.

Inevitably, they spout a steady stream of happy chatter contending that Harvard has the most brilliant professors and the biggest libraries and the prettiest buildings in the Western Hemisphere.

Poor, deluded souls, they dwell in a world of sunshine and light from which they can never escape. Ignore them, if you can. In the end, all their soothing words of wisdom will come to naught for a very simple reason. The Harvard that you will attend is not the same Harvard that they attend.

WELCOME to the real Harvard University. The one in which the brilliant professors--the ones who aren't on sabbatical--are shielded by an array of adoring graduate students who have thoughtfully assumed all academic duties. The one in which the library system is so vast that the only remaining copy of the book you need is locked in a basement vault three miles across campus. The University that hired world-famous architects to build Mather House, the Holyoke Center and Canaday Hall.

The real Harvard, as you will quickly discover, is infested with Harvard students. About 6400 of them. All of whom have had their egos stroked by adoring parents and teachers since the third grade. Many of them would cheerfully dissect you in your sleep if they thought it would boost their chances of getting into medical school.

This is not to say that you will not come across some genuinely nice people in your time here. Undoubtedly, you will. Your friends here will be as congenial as they are cutthroat. Get used to it.

Harvard--the real Harvard--is big. Not as big as, say, the federal government, but big nonetheless. And what the University lacks in size, it makes up for in bureaucracy. I have now spent three years in this northeastern nirvana, and not a week goes by in which I don't discover at least one new administrative department that is completely unable to solve my problems.

Official Harvard, you see, operates on a system of lists. People who are on the right list breeze through the the University with no problems at all. People who are on the wrong list--or even worse, left off the list entirely--enter a tangle of red tape that would do even the Pentagon proud.

I know whereof I speak. On my arrival in this fair city I was already a battle-scarred veteran of the War to Crush Bureacracy. I had to wade through a tide of petty officials just to get a reply card to accept the University's kind offer of admission. In the intervening years, I have been left off more lists than I care to remember.

For a time, I conjured up visions of a conspiracy, an organized administrative bloc that had targeted me for a program of systematic harassment. Then I realized that life here is like that for everyone.

TAKE heart, however. It is not impossible for you to get some attention from the system. If you stand up and yell loudly, your voice will eventually be heard.

But you need to be persistent. If you don't have the time or the energy to spend two hours each week on the phone being transferred from Information Systems to Undergraduate Records to the Office of Information Technology, you might as well give up.

Harvard, after all, is an educational institution. It is supposed to teach you things. And if you stay here long enough, you will learn a valuable lesson in life: it's much easier to to live with your problems than it is to solve them. And thus are the future leaders of America trained.

Not that people don't learn more concrete lessons at Harvard. Members of Harvard's nine final clubs learn to be sexist, elitist snobs. Writers for rightwing publications learn new ways to rationalize their irrational hatred of homosexuality. Junior professors learn to take out short-term leases on their homes.

The best way to deal with the real Harvard is to view it as one vast laboratory experiment cooked up to examine the darker regions of the human character. You can't help being a guinea pig--you're already here.

But you can be an observer as well. Set aside a corner of your brain and keep it at a distance from the morass of lunacy that you are bound to encounter. Take a moment from time to time to analyze what the "Harvard experience" has done to you and your friends. It will help you keep your sanity.

If all else fails, just close your eyes tightly and recite, "It's only a college. It's only a college." And if you click your heels together and wish real hard, it'll all be over in a few years.

Matthew M. Hoffman '91 is looking for a roommate.

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