Taking Chances: My Story

The acceptance letter was a kind of confirmation, an acknowledgment of sorts. Yes, it said to me, everything you've worked for, invested effort in and valued has been worth your while. I transferred to Harvard with the belief that my move across the Atlantic would be just another step on the yellow brick road to my future, another rung on the ladder to the bright mysterious unknown. I didn't know exactly where I was headed, but it seemed certain that my sense of direction was on target. I did not guess that I would find myself skidding out of control that year, struggling just to keep my eyes on the road.

At the American college of Singapore--a small international institution owned by the International School of Singapore (ISS) and affiliated to Broward Community College in Florida--most students enrolled with the goals of transferring elsewhere. The college offered only a two-year program, leading to an Associate of Arts degree. The faculty of 12 was partly expatriate, the student body of 100 wholly international. My friends were there for many reasons (to redeem their high school performances, to kill time until the Fall.) It was there because I didn't want to deal with the GCE A Levels, which was the necessary pre-college exam for applicants form British-based education systems.

True enough, the academics were less than rigorous at the American College, and I found myself becoming incredibly lax. I prepared for tutorials by sharpening my pencil, and I studied for exams the morning before, all of which made the transition to Harvard bumpy at first, But good Study habits are retrievable, I found, even if they are shocked into reuse. It was more the social scene that seemed like a cold shower: my new classmates didn't seem to have time simply tohang out.

Students did not appear to gather in any one place between classes just to sit around and chat. When people did, it was known as lunch. Transfers from Columbia sighed nostalgically about the steps outside the university library, where undergraduates lingered and relaxed with friends. I recalled the student lounge, where someone familiar was always to be found. At Harvard, however, so rare was the occasion when people just got together for no specific reason at all that "Let's have coffee" turned out to be a loaded statement.

Socializing itself seemed pretty heavily streamlined to me, with many distinctive groups of likeminded members: the pre-med crowd, for instance or the artsy crowd or the athlete crowd. Certainly I was no longer a member of a United Nations-type community and I realized that if I wanted to have the broad mix of friends I was used to, I would need to join some kind of social organization. It was much later, in my junior year, that I met several spirited women, who were starting a sorority--Delta Gamma--and would up going Greek.


Applying to Harvard was the result of chance. I never planned on it: I was determined to attend Duke, because of its renowned writing program and because it had a reputation as a fun place. And I did not waver until the Christmas I flew out to Boston to see my sister, who was then a junior at Boston University. I spent two weeks there, and on the last day, we toured the Harvard campus. There was something aboutwalking around the Yard for the first time thatevoked all manner of intellectual fantasy for me.I imagined the classes, the philosophicaldiscussions, the interior of Widener Library. Itwas not hard to be won over by my own ideas ofwhat Harvard was like.

My first shock at Harvard was not making thecut when The Advocate, a well-established campusliterary magazine, held its fall comp. I stoodoutside its closed green doors, scanning the listof successful candidates again and again, hoping Imight have missed my name. Finally, I decided Ineeded a second opinion, someone who would bewilling to read my comp essay and suggestimprovements. The first person who came to mindwas my English professor.

She was unlike any other teacher I'd hadbefore; the theories and ideas she talked aboutwere completely new and startling to me.Deconstruction, for one thing, and the fallacy of"universalism," for another. When she firstintroduced herself I thought she was intriguingand unexpected, and after two weeks in her class,I saw my opinion was justified.

I went up to after class one day while she wasgathering her books. Hurriedly describing myunsuccessful attempt to comp the Advocate, I askedif she would read the essay in question. Shelooked at me for what seemed an eternity herexpression weary. I began to wonder if I'd donethe right thing in approaching her and started tomake an excuse to leave. But then she smiled andtold me to go her office hours, and I scuttledaway in relief.

Standing outside her office the afternoon Iwent to see her was a bespectacled undergraduate,who spoke rapidly and animatedly aboutUlysses, which I'd never read. He was aphysics concentrator but declared he could notabide spending all his energy on numbers andformulas alone. His dilemma, he said, wasreconciling his talent for physics with his loveof literature. There was no doubt that theirconversation was in full swing, but I'd made anappointment and was determined not to leave.Finally, she saw me and interrupted the Joyceaficionado. "Wait for me," she said to him, "Thiswill only take a few minutes." With that she sweptme into her office and shut the door.

As she read the first page, she circled andunderlined line after line with a thick red pen,shaking her head in disapproval. My mechanics, shesaid, were a mess. This was perfectly true;semicolons were my downfall. After glancing at thesecond page, she handed the essay back to me, andinquired if I was taking Expository Writing. No, Iresponded, growing meeker by the minute, I'd beenexempt. My answer did not sit well with her, andshe expressed grave displeasure. Where exactly didI transfer form?, she inquired. the AmericanCollege of Singapore, I answered, Well, Idefinitely needed to take Expose, she said, and itwas imperative I go to the writing center before Iever tried to hand in a paper she assigned. Yes, Iagreed, feeling lilliputian. Maybe I'munaccustomed to the standards at Harvard, I said.This isn't about Harvard, she said indignantly.I've taught at major universities across the U.S.,and I demand the same of everyone. Looks, she saidfinally, if you ever hand in a paper like this fora grade, I'll have to give you a C, and no one whogets Cs continues in the Honors English program.In fact, she went on, consider dropping my class.Get your English and writing up to speed first.

I took a taxi to North House, where I lived,because I could not seem to muster the energy towalk. Slowly, over those first few days and weeksat Harvard, I'd felt layers of myself fallingaway, or being stripped aside. Eventually, Ithought, I would be down to nothing, and theprospect of this was frightening. In the chaos offiguring out transfer credits, studying for theQRR, and class shopping, it was easy to ignore thechanges. But that day, I finally realized thetrade-off I'd made in picking Harvard. I'd taken arisk, although it didn't seem so at the time. Andfor the life of me, I couldn't imagine what to doabout it.

At Harvard, my religious devotion some-howbegan to slip away. Once, Id' sung soprano inSingapore's Wesley Methodist Church and felt Godwas listening when I sang my favorite hymn,"Surely The Presence of the Lord is in ThisPlace." Darwin had always given me something tothink about, though, and taking E.O. Wilson'sclass on evolutionary biology my first semesterinadvertently gave me greater pause. And inChaucer section, discussing the socialmachinations of the Church in the Middle Ages onlyfanned the fires of doubt. There was more to itthan that, of course, but certainly I was growingdiscouraged. Going to services at Harvard-Epworth,the only Methodist church in Cambridge, did notquite restore confidence, particularly as thepastor frequently made references to literaryfigures. Suddenly, the Bible seemed littledifferent form Paradise Lost, and John theBaptist barely distinct form Milton.

At least if my beliefs were in question, Imight have found solace in the company of friends.But friends are not made overnight, and mine, forthe first time in my life, were exclusively male.We were all transfers, and we all lived in NorthHouse; it was inevitable that we all fell into thesame social group. In a way, it seemed we werefriends by default. The lack of congenial society,as it turned out, was not to be solved by tryingto meet people in the house. At least, not for me.The atmosphere at North simply did not suit me; itwas a quiet and studious house when I knew it.Many of my neighbors spent their Friday nightswatching "Star Trek" reruns, playing foosball, orstudying in the dining halls. This isn't for me, Iwould think. Then there were people in the housewho did go out--but feverishly, with missionlikeimportance. Not really me, either.

Whenever possible I hung out with Robert Levy,who lived downstairs from me, a sure bet forcigarettes and good company. Robert was a transferfrom Oberlin and a die-hard New Yorker, whosestriking looks and blase attitude suggested bothintense individuality and worldliness. He appearedoddly out of step in the tepid drama of NorthHouse, as if he was there only because he'dauditioned for the wrong play. He was also asmiserable as I back then. With Robert, there wasno need for bravado. Eventually, though, Robertmoved off-campus, and I managed to transfer toLeverett House.

I remember lying in bed that day, worrying howI would get through Harvard. Now, two years later,I know that getting though is seldom the realchallenge because it's virtually guaranteed thatyou will. In the meantime, you'll have to holdfast to whatever it is you most value aboutyourself because Harvard will probably give it agood shaking up. Which, in retrospect, is notwithout benefit. After that incident with myEnglish professor, I became hell-bent on improvingmy writing. I needed, more than anything, tojustify the writer I believed I was, and the one Ihoped to become. And so, with the aid of Strunkand White's Elements of Style--a gift froma sympathetic instructor--I finally cleaned up mypunctuation act.

Intellectual upheavals are one thing, socialones quite another. My first year at Harvard, Iwas more reckless than ever before in my life. Itook risks without a second thought, some of thememotional ones. Youth had something to do with it,but really I was trying to replace what I'd givenup for lost--a familiar life of assured friendshipand love. And I did it by taking chances, goingout on limb after limb, hedging my bets on wildspeculations, all so that I wouldn't have to facethe changes that were happening. Many times I wasburned, but I never crashed. May be it was sheerforce of will, maybe it was knowing that I wasnever without the support of my family. And maybeit was the people I eventually met, who remindedme of the bonds I'd forgotten were possible, in aplace that often seemed remote and indifferent. Inthe end, this is what made it worth the ride.

H. Nicole Lee '96 is senior editor of Thecrimson.