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Exactly two months ago, as I was sitting on the Memorial Church steps with a heavy textbook in my hands and procrastination on my mind, I thought back to orientation week.
Remember those days, back when there was a single question that would roll off our tongues at every chance encounter?
"So, where are you from?"
"I'm from California."
"No way! My roommate Sara's from California. Do you know her?"
"So, where are you from?"
For me, the question always posed a dilemma. I grew up in Germany, Finland and India and immigrated to the United States eight years ago. English is my fourth language.
When I came to Harvard, I identified with international students as much as I did with those from my "home" state of Maryland. I was as much at ease with European traditions as I was with Indian customs. But, to tell you the truth, before I entered the huge registration tent behind Sever Hall, I had never strongly associated myself with any one particular group--ethnic, religious or otherwise.
As members of different student groups pulled me toward them, in my mind, the question "Where are you from?" changed into "Who are you and who do you want to be?"
Harvard asked me, and many of us, these questions for the next four years and guided us in the quest for answers. It taught me to draw meaning from the randomness in the world within me as well as from the complexities in the world without. Harvard showed us that we could be whoever and whatever we wanted to be. Here, all the different and often contradictory dimensions of my heritage existed peacefully with each other, with my current aspirations and even with my dreams for the future.
At Harvard, I finally felt at home. Here, in a single day, I could go from attending a class on Western chamber music to writing an article for The Crimson about Hillary Rodham Clinton's campus visit to making it to German table for dinner to attending a late-night dance practice for Ghungroo, the annual South Asian cultural show.
In this vast sea of talent and energy, I found not one but countless niches in which I felt a sense of belonging. Some of us tried to change Harvard, and most of us were inevitably changed by it. Harvard taught many of us to understand what really matters in our lives. Some of us were guided in the pursuit of lifelong passions, and others saw our carefully-crafted plans repeatedly fall apart and reassemble into something completely new after a single lecture. More often, a late night conversation or a new extracurricular endeavor showed us opportunities we never knew existed.
Indeed, for many of us, the most precious lessons came while teaching children about science, politics or peace; while serving food in Cambridge homeless shelters; while playing a sport; while organizing conferences and discussions on global and national issues or while participating in one of the countless annual performances on campus. We developed intellectual ties that transcended many of the cultural and societal differences we brought with us four years ago.
I realized that when you look beyond the barriers of race, culture, language and religion that tend to separate us, most people are really the same inside, driven by the same motivations and desires. At Harvard, we learned to see the world through a different lens and sometimes to remove the lens altogether.
As you enter the "real world" tomorrow, I urge you to remember the more intangible lessons Harvard taught us. Remember that some of our most valuable knowledge came from learning how to unite our disparate cultures, ideas, interests and aspirations into lives that hold meaning for us--that the most exciting paths often come from the most unexpected experiences and that our lives can often not be divided into neatly set tracks.
I thought especially about that last point over the last few months, for, believe it or not, a new question now rolls off our tongues at every chance encounter: "So, what are your future plans?"
While some of us can provide quick short-term replies such as "medical school" or "Wall Street," for many of us, even this question poses a complex dilemma. We are still striving to unite our different interests into a coherent whole.
As you think about where you came from, where you are headed and even who you want to be, remember that Harvard taught us we can be multi-dimensional. We can be both musicians and scientists. Both Indian and American. And our greatest strength may come from uniting these disparate elements in our minds.
Although we may lose touch with each other over the years, let us resolve never to lose touch of the dreams and ideas that we shared and built together over the last four years.
Although we may be perpetually busy, let us promise always to lend a steady hand, a patient ear or our time to those in need.
Although you may reach great heights, always remember the journey and those who shared it along the way. Although we may forget names and faces, let us always remember the lessons we taught each other.
And, although we may be separated by nations or physical boundaries, let us remember that we will always be united by the common vision and dreams we shared in the Harvard we called home.
Amita M. Shukla '98, a biochemistry concentrator in Winthrop House, was a senior editor of The Crimson in 1997.
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