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A New York State of Mind

By Anne K. Kofol

Everyone knows that we New Yorkers are coddled elitists with more than our fair share of neuroses. Or at least that’s what you’d hear if you asked the average Harvard student. Even after four years here, it still seems like this campus still has an axe to grind with me and my fellow City dwellers.

When I first arrived at Harvard, I assumed that my roommates and friends would be curious to hear what growing up in Manhattan was like, but that at most it would be a topic of conversation during Freshman Week. Frankly, I had lived my whole life in “The City,” surrounded by others who had grown up there, and didn’t think that my hometown would incite any immense interest, much less any animosity.

But I soon discovered that, while Harvard students hail from just about every state in the U.S. and mostly pledge support for this geographic diversity, it was completely acceptable—and almost de rigeur—to express hatred for the New Yorkers flooding through the gates of the Yard. Almost immediately I encountered a negative stereotype of New Yorkers that seemed as much a staple of the College as all-nighters and Tommy’s pizza. I was shocked that while students were accepting of almost all religious, racial and socioeconomic differences, many were intolerant of New Yorkers and specifically clung to an image of us as wealthy, snobby, arrogant and reticent to stray from your New York social group.

When my freshman year roommate told her new boyfriend I was from New York, his first question was whether I was a “rich bitch New Yorker” and expressed surprise when we got along. Another friend told me that when she met me Prefrosh Weekend, she thought I was the quintessential Cliffie, surrounded by my New York friends and boasting of acceptances to Princeton and Yale (which turned me down). We didn’t end up becoming friends until junior year.

This was not just a freshman year phenomenon—if anything, I’ve noticed the hatred for New Yorkers become more widespread and firmly rooted in our class. An acquaintance from the past few years recently discovered that I was from New York and remarked to another friend: “Wow, I never would have thought that. Her parents must have done a really good job raising her.”

But there is a good reason that claiming your hometown as New York City—and particularly Manhattan—causes some classmates to be wary: A large proportion of the Harvard students from New York act as though it is the center of the world. Many come from private schools, grew up in the wealthiest circles and associate mostly with those of the same socioeconomic or social class in college. Many of them arrive in the Yard already knowing a bevy of new undergraduates from school, summers in the Hamptons and ubiquitous New York social connections. To students from other parts of the country, this creates an intimidating and elitist image.

Of course, most of these students are incredibly bright and deserve to be at Harvard. They also deserve a less judgemental attitude than the student body currently affords them. But the fact that this image of New York is so pervasive at Harvard also suggests that Byerly Hall must do a better job recruiting students in the New York area.

The admissions office should try harder to find students who represent the complete spectrum of neighborhoods, ethnicities, classes, countries and schools that make New York the fantastic melting pot that it is. New York is not populated by a bunch of rich white people whose parents were Ivy Leaguers—the Upper East Side of Manhattan is.

Perhaps that means that the admissions officers should try harder to look for students beyond the private schools and public magnet schools that regularly feed applicants to Harvard. While the problem is compounded by the dismal state of New York City public schools, Harvard has the resources to mine different schools for qualified applicants—and, in the process, to redeem my city’s image at Harvard.

As a result of the implicit challenge in the generally negative view of New Yorkers, I have begun to identify myself even more staunchly as a New Yorker than when I actually lived there. My New York is a vibrant city with incredible cultural opportunities and a diverse population of creative and worldly individuals. The beauty of New York is in the unmatched diversity of people that are crammed into the five boroughs, and the admissions office should seek to replicate that characteristic in the students it recruits and admits from New York City.

Many of the seniors in my class are moving to New York in the fall, and I’m looking forward to proving to them what the real New York is like. And I encourage anyone else who is skeptical to jump on the Chinatown bus to visit us. You might be surprised.

Anne K. Kofol ’04, a history and literature concentrator in Mather House, was an executive editor of The Crimson in 2003.

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