Struggling to Adapt to Harvard Can Be a Scary Experience

Fear, Tension and Discoveries Were Among the Notable Parts of One First-Year's Attempt to Find Her Niche in College

There is a perfect gap in my memory when it comes to my first year at Harvard.

Only two moments from that year remain arrested in sparkling detail, the day I arrived and the moment I left after my first year had finally ended. Everything else is nicely blurred.

But I think I can understand why I choose to remember my first year in bookend fashion. This way, the fears, tensions, and discoveries comfortably blend without order or progression, and I can leave the mysteries unsolved, faded into the collective memory.

Since I only live about half an hour form Harvard, my first trip to the campus wasn't exactly a monumental life journey. It was more like a cluttered car ride without time to find a good song on the radio, not nearly long enough for me to adjust to becoming a college freshman. I would later discover that "first-year" was the "p.c." term for my status. But at that point, I didn't even know what "p.c." meant (my roommate had to explain it to me later that day), and this was just one of many crucial bits of info I found myself lacking when I arrived at Harvard.

I thought I had it made. I Knew the territory from four years of hanging out in Harvard Square to escape the boredom of suburban high school life, and I felt my acceptance letter alone was proof that I was fit to tackle the challenges of Harvard with my peers. I never thought I couldn't handle it. I had fears, lots of them, but they were blanketed by waves of excitement and the overriding thought that this was the moment I had been waiting for. After 12 years of trudging through school and bearing the stigma of being someone who actually chose to study, I had finally arrived at the moment when all my work would pay off.


What I didn't think about, and didn't expect, were the hundreds of other people at Harvard who would be different from anyone I had met before. I thought that I was entering Harvard with the same perspective I would have when I left. But then I arrived on campus and the way I thought about myself and everything else in my life began to shift beneath the surface, exposing a fault line I never knew existed.

The first person I met at Harvard was my roommate Cara. We were both smiling but tentative, not sure what we wanted from each other. I think I scared her that first day as my parents and I unloaded my entire bedroom form home (living nearby has its advantages) and dumped it into the two rooms in Greenough which had been so pristine before my arrival. But Cara and I soon discovered we were similar in a lot of fundamental ways. In fact, I would discover most students at Harvard are frighteningly similar despite their "diverse" cultures and backgrounds.

A college roommate was something I had been looking forward to forever, and I desperately wanted us to be like the roommates I had seen in so many movies and books. But what I found my first year was that while this "ideal" college experience may exist for a lucky few, most of us spend our time just scrambling to get by, constantly trying to balance all the good and bad elements of our life at school. In other words, my roommate never did become my best friend, but she is still an integral part of my experience at Harvard, especially my first year.

The first sign Harvard wasn't going to fit my perfect expectations came early that first day when I realized just how far Greenough was from life in the Yard. I would later discover that there were certain perks that came with the Greenough package--you always beat the dinner rush, never have to debate whether it's worth it to trudge through the snow for dinner and when I was there you could sneak onto the roof and find a perfect spot to make snow angels. But I think it basically sucks to miss out on that crucial part of the Harvard experience. I have never seen the primal scream in all its naked, dancing glory, and I am sorry to say it will suck even more for Union dorm residents when they no longer have the advantage of being closest to dinner.

For me, I think the hardest part about Harvard was adapting to the level of work expected and the level of thought and discussion that seemed to come so naturally to those around me. Coming form a public school system and a homogeneous suburban town, I felt like I had been living in a corner of the world for my whole life without ever realizing how far I was form the center. A little bit like living in Greenough, now that I think of it.

I had grown up being embarrassed that I cared about school, and now I felt I hadn't cared enough. Soon after I arrived, my "high" SAT scores became something I preferred not to mention, and I couldn't believe how little I had read and how inadequate I felt to address the issues thrown at me in my dorm and my classes.

But even more than that, I looked around and felt like everyone around me was totally unreal--stage props wet up for my benefit to show me all the ways I had been wrong in my vision of college and the world.

My reaction to my self-doubt was to work twice as hard as I had ever worked in high school. And I did for a while. But it was damn tiring and more boring than suburbia had ever been. It is ironic, I guess, that it never occurred to me my good grades were an indication I wasn't a "mistake" after all.

When I finally looked up from my studying. I realized that whatever it was I was looking for from college wasn't going to be found in my books. That's when I really started thinking about what it was that I wanted from Harvard, and I began to look around myself and see what these people around me were doing with their time.

The most inspiring thing about Harvard students for me is not their intellectual ability or their cultural diversity, but their involvement in a diverse array of campus and off campus activities. In my dorm, there were students who were actively involved in homeless shelters, varsity sports, the Theater at the Union, a jazz band and, of course, the campus daily newspaper.

When I first joined The Crimson, I was sure I had chosen the wrong activity in my search for my "niche" at Harvard. The staff seemed to take the whole thing way too seriously, and the atmosphere was too intense to be called social. And yet, I also found myself gazing in admiration at these people who devoted so much of their time and effort to putting out the paper each day.

It took a while for me to find my place at 14 Plympton Street. But when I did, I discovered that I could find all the different elements of Harvard in this one building if I looked hard enough.

I think I may have experienced a more difficult first year at Harvard than some, though I know from stories that many had it a lot worse.

By the end of the year, I actually felt like I belonged at Harvard; The Crimson didn't become comfortable and fun until later. And yet, I still wasn't sure what it was I belonged to and when it was I had decided to join. It seemed that my perspective had pretty much been shot, and I would have to rebuild with "the bookends of my days and ways" as my only guides.

Robin J. Stamm '96 is executive editor of The Crimson.