It’s 4 a.m. at Eastern Carolina University. Brendan M. Brogan ’03 is down south to visit a buddy. A girl joins him on the porch swing.
Small talk: She asks him what he’s studying there. He’s just visiting a friend, he says.
“So where do you go?” she asks.
“Her eyes lit up,” Brogan later recalls. “She said something like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing...you must be smarter than anyone here.”
A few minutes later, the girl turned to him and said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to hook up with a Harvard man.”
“She moved in,” says Brogan delicately, “and the rest is history. I overheard her later saying that she had hooked up with the guy from Harvard. All of her friends were impressed.”
Welcome to the world of the H-Bomb, fabled weapon of the Harvard male: Tell a girl you go to Harvard, and she’ll fall at your feet. No matter who you were in high school, the myth goes, you’re a hot commodity once you manage to slip where you go to school into casual conversation.
“Being special means you get special attention,” declares Olugbenga T. Okusanya ’05. He knows from personal experience. “If you want it,” he laughs. “Not that I did.”
Last year, he and some friends from Harvard were hanging out at Northeastern. Ten or 15 Northeastern students and three Harvard guys congregated in Okusanya’s friend Jeff’s room.
“Guess where he goes to school,” Okusanya says Jeff told the women in the group. He grabbed Okusanya’s wallet, pulled out his Harvard ID, and held it up triumphantly.
“You could see it in every girl’s face” is how Okusanya describes the effect. “A girl will turn and pay more attention to you, because now you’re special.” Sure enough, less than an hour later, one of the girls took his friend Jeff aside and murmured something in his ear.
“That girl really wants to have sex with you,” Jeff announced, in her presence, upon returning.
Okusanya looked at her. “Are you hearing what he just said?”
She nodded. “Yeah.”
Okusanya, who is now dating a Berklee student, says he didn’t accept her offer. He harbors no illusions about what drew this woman. Asked to attribute the role of his own irresistible qualities, Okusanya is blunt. “I think I’m more charming [to these girls] because I go to Harvard,” he says. “I would say 60 percent of it is my personality, and 40 is definitely because I go to Harvard. They assume that you’re some kind of super-genius —which we all know isn’t the case—they assume that you’re going to be rich and successful, they think that you’re a more worldly, charming, amazing person because you go to Harvard.”
“It opens up doors for you with girls that you may not normally get,” Derek R. Melvin ’05 agrees. “A girl who, at this age, may be a little more superficial, who may be interested in dating a guy who is incredibly popular or an athlete or something, may give you the time of day.”
The H-Bomb is something no one wants to admit to using. Unsurprisingly, many of those reputed to be zealous perpetrators were unwilling to speak publicly about their exploits. Thus it is that with a few candid exceptions, the true efficacy of the H-Bomb is difficult to prove, further inflating the lore.
“Guys joke about ‘reeling them in with the H-Bomb,’” says Whitney H. Welshimer ’03, a Crimson editor. “Or they say, ‘That girl from B.C. is only dating him because he threw out the H-Bomb.’ And I know many more groups of guys than girls who go off-campus.”
This sentiment—that the H-Bomb is an exclusively male beast—is widespread among women on campus. “Good for guys, bad for us,” is how Jennifer P. Klein ’04 sums it up.
Why doesn’t the H-Bomb seem to work for women? Using Harvard to impress a dating prospect implies the need to gain an advantage over the other party. Conventional wisdom traditionally places the man in the position of impressing the woman. It also insists that men don’t like women who are too smart.
Last semester, Tina Rivers ’05 was getting down at Boston club Who’s On First. “I ended up getting, um, intimate on the dance floor with a certain fellow who rather struck my fancy,” says Rivers. “He was chatting me up and all was going well. Then he asked me where I went to school.”
Oh, dreaded Harvard. Rivers says that when she broke the news, he “straightened himself and backed away from me, taking me in with this remote, detached look of awe.”
His parting words? “Wow, you must be really smart. Do you mind if I ask you what your SAT score was?”
The term “H-Bomb” entered the vernacular of the world at large last spring with a “60 Minutes” feature about economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. The book found a “epidemic of childlessness” among career women and warned a younger generation that if they waited to have children, they might never become mothers.
In a segment that snowballed in notoriety when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd devoted two columns to it, “60 Minutes”’ Lesley Stahl interviewed Harvard Business School student Ani Vartanian about how her success has hindered her social life.
“As soon as you say Harvard Business School...he’ll turn around and that’s the end of the conversation,” she said. “As soon as the guys say, ‘Oh, I go to Harvard Business School,’ all the girls start falling into them.”
In her column, Dowd described a man who confessed to being too intimidated by her to ask her out, and blamed the dearth of childbearing career women on men’s insecurity. “Men veer away from ‘challenging’ women because they have an atavistic desire to be the superior force in a relationship,” she concluded.
For some, this may not be far from the truth. “I can’t imagine trying to hit on a girl from Harvard if it’s so obvious that she’s smarter than me,” says Okusanya. “When she has that much more control, it would be so much more difficult for her to be pursued.”
By this logic, Harvard men have little advantage on campus, where gaining the upper hand in accomplishment or intelligence is more difficult. “This campus breeds intellectual people and people who are too serious, who are taking 1,001 classes, saving babies, and being so concerned with the real world already, that it’s hard for people to just step back and laugh at themselves,” Okusanya complains. “To find a girlfriend who will relax and not take things so seriously and kind of be happy with the way things are and not stress you out is a difficult task.”
Enter the off-campus female. Boston is full of them—Wellesley, Lesley, Simmons and Fisher, all women’s colleges in the Boston area, have a combined population of about 4,000, and at Boston University, women comprise around 60 percent of the population. The climate is ripe for Harvard men to look elsewhere.
Take Wellesley. Everyone has heard about the “fuck truck,” the shuttle between Wellesley, Harvard and MIT with a reputation as the conveyer of man-starved nymphets of easy virtue.
Sara-Munro Bryan, a sophomore at Wellesley, is well aware of the stereotypes. Having befriended students here through her roommate, whose boyfriend goes to Harvard, she was treated to a discourse on the relative merits of Harvard and Wellesley girls at a party in the Quad last year.
“He said that Harvard girls were really uptight, that they wouldn’t even kiss goodnight,” she remembers. “But that Wellesley girls are more laid-back.” She pauses. “I think he meant that Wellesley girls are sluttier.”
Bryan says that general opinion on campus favors Harvard men as being more “normal” than the men at the MIT shuttle stop. “I do think a lot of Wellesley girls would like to meet guys from Harvard,” she says. “But I think Wellesley girls would like to meet any guys, in general.”
Still, not every woman is wowed into sexual submission by a Harvard ID. One B.U. senior still rolls her eyes when she describes accepting a family friend’s invitation to attend a final club party last fall. The friend gave her a full tour of the club, enthusiastically extolling the virtues of Harvard and its social scene. She was unimpressed. “I basically didn’t like a moment of it, because I knew that every time he was trying to show me something, it was to prove his status and what that [Harvard] name gave him,” she says. “And without that, he wouldn’t have known what to do. There was no conversation besides his club.”
“I mean, I think it’s a great achievement for a person to go to Harvard,” she continues. “But if he uses it to get girls, he’s kind of lowering himself.”
The element of class and elitism may have more to do with the H-Bomb than most people would like to admit. Harvard’s reputation isn’t limited to excellence in academics and success in life; it also epitomizes privilege to the world. At a school where students actually run the financial gamut, this can be constricting.
“I’m not trying to use the Harvard name to pick up girls,” says Guillermo A. Coronado ’05, who has made his share of off-campus trips. “Especially because I don’t personally identify with the typical Harvard male—the white male from the well-off suburban area who went to all of these prestigious schools. That’s not me. And anyone who shows any interest in me after I say Harvard is completely off my mind.”
Coronado was at a gas station in his Illinois hometown when two girls called him over, asking where he went to school. They were high school students—16, 17 years old—and they wanted to know if he went to one of the other local high schools. Reluctantly, he told them he went to Harvard. The tone of conversation shifted abruptly.
“They had, on some level, been hitting on me,” says Coronado. “In about two seconds, they went from that to talking about how their boyfriends are losers and are going nowhere.”
At the end of this impromptu therapy session, one of the girls stopped and looked at Coronado. “You go to Harvard, you must be rich,” she said. “Do you want to pay for our gas?”
“They refused to believe that I wasn’t rich,” he marvels. “I was like, ‘I’m driving a Hyundai, for God’s sake!’”
Sara-Munro Bryan confirms this belief matter-of-factly. “If you’re dating a Harvard guy, you know there’s potential for money in the future. Everyone wants to marry someone who will have money in the future, or has money now.”
But for all of the name-dropping enthusiasts, there are still plenty of students who go in an entirely opposite direction: They lie. “It attracts too much attention,” says Whitney Welshimer, who has been quizzed by men in bars on U.S. presidential trivia after revealing she was a Harvard student. “And if I don’t think it’s going anywhere with a guy, I’ll just say I go to B.U.”
Those who withhold their Harvard affiliation may be doing it out of more than self-conscious modesty. Just ask Ryan P. Lannon ’05. “I have roommates that tell girls, ‘I go to B.U., I go to B.C.,’ just so the girls think they’re more social, more normal,” he says. Lannon says he doesn’t do that, but has experienced multiple negative repercussions from telling people he goes to Harvard.
Maybe it’s because his accent smacks of Worcester, Mass., or because he favors baseball caps over Brooks Brothers, or because he looks like a hockey player (he is one)—whatever the reason, few believe that Lannon goes to Harvard. And when they believe him, they usually don’t like it.
At a bar this summer, Lannon struck up a conversation with an attractive college student. When the inevitable question arose, Lannon gulped. He fell on a usual tactic. “I go to school in Boston.”
“Where in Boston?”
“I just knew she wasn’t going to take it well,” says Lannon. “Eventually I just had to tell her that I go to Harvard.”
She did not take it well. “Who do you think I am?” Lannon says she demanded. “You think you’re funny, joking like that? Your name probably isn’t even Ryan. You’ve probably been lying all along.” In desperation, Lannon produced his Harvard ID, and when she scoffed that it was probably fake, he finally matched it up with his driver’s license, but that was the end of it.
Still, the H-Bomb is usually a powerful weapon.
“I had liked this girl from home in Virginia, but we’d never gotten together during high school,” recalls Derek Melvin. “Last winter break, I called her up, and she sounded really excited about seeing me. This is a girl who had barely returned my calls before.”
Melvin says the girl, a senior in high school, made sure that he came to her house and met her parents, whereupon the parents talked to him about colleges and gave him money to take their daughter out.
“She went out of her way to make sure that all of her friends met me,” Melvin says of their date. “She introduced me everywhere as ‘Derek, he goes to Harvard.’ She got a kick out of seeing other people’s reactions to that. It was reflected glory.”
Harvard’s renowned status is so ingrained in our culture that for some, the appeal is more than just the promise of success; it’s celebrity by association.
“The Harvard name opens up a lot of doors for you, everywhere,” reflects Melvin. “Socially, when I see that reaction it makes me a little more distrustful of people. I would think twice before dating a girl who seemed really into the fact that I went to Harvard, for obvious reasons. But if you just want to have a good time, hang out with a bunch of people, get them to remember you, it definitely is an in.”
More than an “in,” the Harvard name is eternal baggage, should one choose to carry it. It refuses anonymity; it invites a thousand characterizations. To some, it means wealth, prestige and success, or it means snobbery and a woman with whom you don’t want to get involved. To Illinois high school girls, it means someone who can spot them for gas.The reality is that, for better or for worse, while there may be different versions of the H-bomb, Harvardians are never without its power.