The First-Year Outdoor Program (FOP) is an excellent intermediary between one's senior year of high school and Freshman Week. It enables nervous future first-years to spend a relaxing week getting to knows some of their future classmates in a beautiful mountain setting instead of hectic Harvard Yard. Upperclass leaders also become friendly faces in a crowd of strangers.
Alas, nothing is perfect. Applications for FOP leaders are due today and I am reminded of a bone I've had to pick with the group since I applied to participate in FOP almost two years ago. That bone is that I had to apply at all. While approximately 600 members of an incoming class fill out a lengthy application to go on FOP, only half that number is admitted.
I was wait listed to FOP my senior year of high school. Somewhat stunned that my application wasn't good enough to hike with other members of the class of 1999, I could only wonder whether or not I was somehow on the lower end of the 1601. So, I placed a phone call over the summer to ask why I wasn't admitted, whether or not I would be and when they would let me know. Only sometime in August did FOP actually accept me. On the Phone, I was met with an Apologetic student who tried to explain that it might help if I sent in an enthusiastic letter as others had done. When I asked her what FOP's criteria were, she explained that they were looking for a geographically and ethnically diverse pool who demonstrated a real enthusiasm" for participating. Letter? Enthusiasm? Was this a Harvard within Harvard?
Harvard is the most selective college in the country; once a student is admitted in April, the contest should be over. Supposedly, every single student of an incoming Harvard class has something to offer the community that the other 89 percent of applicants do not. And yet, among those select few, only a fraction are special enough to go camping.
The Harvard experience is an extremely competitive one-in the classroom, extra curriculars and just about everything else-and is definitely performance based. By choosing among the chosen those who can hike and those who cannot before anyone even arrives is, if not ludicrous and malicious, ill-conceived and stupid.
Why should Harvard go to extra pains to foster a competitive atmosphere before students ever set foot on its campus? Many Harvard students, who by any other standard are quite stellar, suffer from believing they are not good enough or accomplished enough simply because simply because some of theirs peers are summa cum everything. Such harsh self-criticism is not a positive by-product of being surrounded by 6,400 talented people. It may drive students even harder to succeed, but this, too has its negative aspects.
The one beauty of this problem is that its solution is free and easy-two words Harvard can relate to.
In an ideal world, every student who applies to FOP would be admitted. Applying in itself shows necessarily sufficient "enthusiasm." especially since participation ought to be encouraged and even recommended as an invaluable transition period. FOP Steering Committee member Rebecca L. Meyer '99 offered three reasons that a 100 percent acceptance rate is impossible: "not enough qualified leaders, a limited number of students allowed in each campsite and not enough money."
Given these real restrictions, which FOP has not succeeded in bypassing, the solution is clear: Either accept the first 300 who apply (an application would be purely descriptive i.e., name, address, interests, etc.) or choose by random lottery.
The latter option seems to be the optimal choice as it allows even those who were (God-forbid) wait listed to the College (and those whose post offices are slower) to participate.
FOP is a terrific starting point for Harvard first-years. It is a very comfortable way to enter the challenging and rewarding Harvard community, which can tax even the best of us. But regardless of the outdoor program's merits, we must assert that if you're good enough for Harvard, you're good enough for FOP.
Daniel M. Suleiman's column will appear on alternate Wednesdays.