So you're going to Harvard. It all seemed so simple when that thick envelope came in the mail asking you to join the club, become one of us, a member of the fellowship of educated men and women, a student at America's premier university. How could you refuse that certificate with your name in stately calligraphy, your own invitation to a four-year cocktail party with the best and brightest?
But then, after you mailed back the postcard saying, "yes, of course I accept, are you kidding," then you started hearing it, it seemed, from everybody. "So you're going to Harvard?"
"They said it with knowing looks, with ironic smiles. The last word was always heavily italicized, it's last two syllables stretched to an impossible limit to make some point that you never got. Your friends said it, your neighbors, your relatives, teachers, sometimes even your parents. After a while, you started saying it to yourself, and it became more of a question than a statement.
"So you're going to Harvard?""To Harvard?" "To Haahvahd?" What did they mean, those seven letters that attached themselves to your name like a foreign knighthood? It was only the name of a college, but everyone seemed to hint that it was much more than that.
At first, the word sounded pretty impressive to you, too. But the more you thought about it, the more you pronounced it over and over in your head, the less you knew what it meant. Listening to other people talk about it made you only more confused.
You talked eagerly, almost defensively, about the great classes, the brilliant students, the proud tradition. But you really didn't know if Harvard way any of these things. In fact, the best reason you could honestly think of for choosing Harvard was that Harvard had chosen you. So now you're here, and you're ready to find out what it all means.
But you won't, not right away at least. It's not in the speeches from President Rudenstine and Dean Lewis, not in the Handbook for Students, not anywhere in the fliers and leaflets and publications that they sent you over the summer. In fact, what Harvard will come to mean to you will depend on who you are and what you do here for the next four years.
You can, if you choose, spend you time under the hothouse lamps of Lamont Library or the computer center, and Harvard will be your search for a veritas that you can footnote, explicate or write out to the fiftieth digit.
Or you can find an extracurricular group that will take you in. Then Harvard will be four years of putting out a newspaper or producing plays or helping the homeless. You can enter a Harvard of black-tie parties, gin-and-tonics, and walnut-paneled exclusivity. Harvard can be your ticket to $50,000 on Wall Street after graduation. Or it can be your forum to protest economic injustice and plan for the revolution.
You may play a major role in ground-breaking research. Or you may never meet a professor. You may publish poetry. Or travel to cameroon. Or try LSD. You may fall in love with someone and spend the next four years together.
Harvard may come to mean any of these things to you, or it may mean none of them. You may hate it here. The important thing though, is to be aware of the options open to you, and not let yourself be limited to stereotypes and expectations. Don't worry too much about screwing up, especially your first year, and let yourself try things that you might not have dared to at first.
Above all, meet your classmates, and don't just meet them at noisy parties and in sections. Instead, take the time to talk with people who really are different, people who may challenge your assumptions and make you think of things that you wouldn't have come up with on your own. There are a lot of people like that here.
And at the end of four years, when you get that other certificate with your name on it, you may still not know what those seven letters mean. But you will have had an experience that is your own and no one else's, and that will be enough.