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Now that I can count the months left until May on one hand, I've started reviewing the last three-odd years, taking stock of what has happened, wondering if I've changed during my stay at Harvard. Am I the same bright-eyed and bushy-tailed kid who showed up in the Yard one balmy September? I'm not. I've changed. The change hasn't been particularly obvious: my sense of humor is the same, I still believe in the same essential ideals, still treasure warm weather.
The transformation has been more subtle--it's been about money. I've changed the way I think about money, the way I value money and the way I spend money.
I have been carefully conditioned by Harvard. Even the new china dishes in the dining halls seem indicative of the general trend. The plates are heavy and substantial, off-white with gently scalloped edges. They reek of quality. Of course it may quite simply make sense to invest in well-made plates that will last through several generations of college students. But why bother? Why enhance our dining experience? Sure, now my little salads and baked cod look almost worthy of a restaurant. But we are just college students eating in what others would call a cafeteria. Plastic suits me just fine, thanks.
But hey, the plates are pretty and the quality is good. And maybe I'd like to have really nice plates in my own home--no mismatched assortment, but a heavy bone-white 12-person set. We are taught here to become accustomed to a way of life. Cocktail parties, teas and formal dinners seem standard. Maybe I've chosen a certain social circle and I can't point fingers at Harvard when I've willingly involved myself in it, but the very availability of such a life is fairly amazing. My first-year photos are of boys in tuxedos, girls in full length dresses and everyone sipping wine. I refuse to believe this is how the average 18-year-old on a college campus behaves. It is fun to dress up. It is fun to sip wine. But once we graduate, the worlds where there are formal dinners, teas and cocktail parties are worlds with money.
The way I spend money has definitely changed as well. On food alone, I spend exponentially more than I did in my pre-collegiate existence. A meal out with friends used to mean stopping at Denny's for hash browns and coffee. Now a nice dinner out is routine. Restaurants are fun--why not indulge frequently?
Before Harvard, I ate differently, I shopped differently and I thought about money differently. I knew money wasn't that easy to come by, so it made sense to hold onto it. And as I didn't want to structure my life around the acquisition of a large bank account, developing an existence independent from big expenses was a sensible course of action.
But now I feel downright extravagant. I am not bothered so much by the actual loss of money as by the mentality that fuels my spending. Why only order an appetizer when I'm out for dinner in order to save a few bucks? If I can afford it, why begrudge myself of immediate gratification and the pleasure of being rash? My concern, however, is with the accompanying attitude. Once I expect to eat out often and buy nice clothes, at what point does it stop? When does the extra $4 I spend on dinner become the extra $50 I spend on shoes which becomes the extra $300 I spend on a weekend trip or a new stereo? I'm on a slippery slope and I've already taken the first step--now the downward slide may be inevitable.
So why is this Harvard's fault? Maybe it's just a function of the world I've chosen here. But Harvard pampers. I can ask for what I want at meals and I can go to countless black-tie events. And regardless of who I have chosen as my friends, I am around people for whom money is a given, people who depend on money in a way I would have never conceived. And I grow more and more dependent on money. I become what Harvard seems to want me to be. It is no longer appealing to just make do and struggle by. It becomes important to figure out how to make money.
How do I find a career path where I can live the way I've enjoyed living here and not be overly concerned with the prices of the niceties in life? I can search for a job Harvard would like to me to have, instead of wandering the earth to find myself. I can get a steady salary that will go up with time and eventually I'll send a check here in gratitude for teaching me what to appreciate.
But this is not what I really want. It is still exciting to find the perfect sweater at a vintage store in the dollar box. It's more satisfying to find a fabulous cheap restaurant than be a hipster at the latest over-priced hot spot. It's nice to cook, boil water and make pasta sauce. I don't want to slide down the slippery slope. I don't want to be the proper Harvard graduate and get the right kind of job and eat at the right restaurants and drink the right vodka and have the right brand of handbag. I do not want to have changed.
Sarah B. Jacoby '99 is a history and science concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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