Finding a Home at Harvard Takes time

Carving Out a Niche in a World of Bureaucracy and Greasy Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

Three weeks into my first year I found myself sitting at a table in the Union lying to Joe, my Crimson comp tutor. Joe had just asked me whether I felt comfortable as a newcomer to The Crimson, a place that could often seem big, busy and less-than-friendly to new writers.

"Oh, yes," I said brightly. "Everyone seems really nice. I feel completely at home."

I don't think I convinced Joe, though he let the subject drop. I don't think I convinced myself, either.

The truth was, I had arrived here a believer in Harvard's niche theory, as propounded by friends, teachers and Edward B. Fiske, author of The Selective Guide to U.S. Colleges. In this theory, the huge and impersonal University is instantly made manageable when a student finds his or her niche on campus.

I had figured out ahead of time just where I was going to fit in at Harvard. I had myself pegged as the literary/artistic type: I would tutor with Phillips Brooks House, write for The Crimson and The Advocate, and sing in Collegium Musicum.

By the end of September, I knew my plan was doomed. The PBH program I joined was poorly run, I didn't have time to comp The Advocate and I couldn't sight-read choral music. So much for advance planning.

Most of all, in none of the organizations did I feel the kind of instant community I had expected. The Crimson's executive editors seemed old and jaded; though I quickly fell into the rhythm of the eight-week comp, I wasn't sure that this was where I belonged either. People smoked too much, argued too loudly and ate too many greasy grilled cheese sandwiches from Tommy's.

Biology textbooks had led me to believe that niches fill rapidly, sensitive to the shifting pressures of the environment. Clearly, this did not hold true for the Harvard ecosystem.

I began to worry that four years would come and go without my finding the niche that allegedly awaited me. I envisioned myself following in the footsteps of my Harvard tour guide, who had changed majors seven times. How hard could it be to find a place where I fit in?

The longer I remained at Harvard, the more I began to appreciate the kind of institutional flaws that the niche thing was supposed to overcome. For all its strengths, the College has some noteworthy deficiencies: It lacks a school-wide social life, a decent advisory system and adequate emphasis on undergraduate teaching.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed many aspects of my first year immensely. It was fun and I learned a lot--including why mudsliding in the Yard should be done on the back instead of on the stomach (otherwise, you get a mouth full of mud) and how quickly one politically dogmatic guest can clear out a party.

But as far as University officialdom was concerned, I felt little lost and neglected as I began my first year. Forget coddling her young: Mother Harvard didn't know that my classmates and I existed.

Eventually, Edward B. Fiske turned out to be right. I found my niche, and it did make a difference. It just took a lot more time (about a semester), patience and hard work on my part than I expected.

I learned how to get along in big, anonymous classes (find a good section, skim all the reading and avoid personality conflicts with your teaching fellows); how to work within the Harvard bureaucracy (know deadlines, find the right person to deal with and be persistent); and how to remove as many cereal boxes as possible from the Union (bring friends and be creative).

At The Crimson, I started getting to know the executives and the other reporters better. I learned a lot, fast, about reporting and writing news--the executives spent hours going through our articles line by line--and found that I liked it. A lot.