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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Alexandra L. Bradbury ’13 was at a horse race in Scotland with her best friend Nicola V. Maasdorp ’13 when the College Admissions Office called to tell her that she had been accepted to Harvard off the waitlist.
After learning of Bradbury’s admission, the pair decided to bet on horses—and promptly lost.
“It was too much good luck for one day,” Bradbury muses.
Inseparable since meeting in chemistry class at age 14, Bradbury and Maasdorp grew up together in Zimbabwe and both applied to Harvard during their final year of high school.
Although Maasdorp was accepted during the normal admissions cycle, Bradbury was waitlisted until the summer.
“I was like, ‘C’mon, Harvard, just hurry up and call her,’” recalls Maasdorp of the agonizing few months before they learned they would be spending their college years together. “And then they called, and Alex was just shell-shocked. But I was over the moon.”
Bradbury and Maasdorp are among a number of pairs on campus—both romantic and platonic—who spent their high school years together before both coming to Harvard. While these couples and best friends sometimes struggle to maintain a balance between spending time with each other and their new college friends, the consensus is clear: Harvard is even better when your best friend forever is right down the hall.
EXPANDING SOCIAL CIRCLES
Previously established friendships among freshmen are hardly new at Harvard. For many years, the administration even encouraged the phenomenon by allowing incoming freshmen to request roommates. However, that policy was terminated in the 1980s.
According to Dean of Freshman Thomas A. Dingman ’67, the change was made to widen the narrow social circles that tended to develop among high school friends.
“Under the old system, students were coming in with a built-in community,” says Dingman. “There wasn’t the incentive to go out and meet people.”
Although they can no longer select their roommates, freshmen have largely embraced the change, says Dingman.
In fact, Dingman says he thinks that some freshmen are relieved to have the stress of choosing a roommate taken out of their hands. He cites a former freshman from a Boston-area high school who came to Harvard with many high school friends—all of whom would have wanted to be her roommate, he recalls she said.
According to Dingman, the student told him “how nice it had been to not have to confront that decision.”
EASING THE TRANSITION
But for many freshmen who come to Harvard with a best friend or significant other from high school, this connection can make the adjustment to college much easier.
During their first weeks at Harvard, Bradbury and Maasdorp relied on each other to ease the transition to both college and American life. According to Bradbury, it was because of this support that Harvard “became our home so quickly.”
Maasdorp says that their friendship gave her space to relax in the hectic first days of freshman year.
“When you’re meeting all these people, sometimes you just want to be yourself,” she says.
Their connection also gave Maasdorp relief from the attention she garnered as an international student.
“Everyone tells me I’m really interesting because I’m foreign. You can’t imagine how nice it is to have someone who thinks I’m typical and kind of boring,” she quips.
Robert E. Powers ’14 says he thinks that his relationship with Alison Liou ’14—his best friend since third grade and his girlfriend since senior year of high school—actually allowed him to meet more new people than he would have otherwise.
“Off the bat, because of our relationship, we created a social circle,” he says. “I’m not sure if I could have done that on my own.”
STRIKING A BALANCE
As comforting as it can to be to have a connection from high school during Opening Days, most students eventually move on to new college friends. Students who come to Harvard with a best friend or significant other say it can be tricky to balance the old and the new.
However, these pairs claim that the secret to maintaining their relationships is to set aside time to spend together while still pursuing independent activities.
As they adjusted to life at Harvard, Maasdorp says she and Bradbury began spending more time apart.
“We completely branched out,” she says. “Towards the end of last year, we didn’t see each other a lot. But we always had each other as backups ... we’re like an old married couple.”
Byran N. Dai ’11 and Alexander K. Sherbany ’11—an inactive Crimson editorial editor and photo editor, respectively—share a similar story.
Although they were best friends in high school, they are now pursuing different concentrations, participating in different extracurricular activities, and even living in different residential houses, they say.
“You’re not doing yourself a favor if you don’t go a little out of your comfort zone,” says Sherbany. “I think we were successful with that.”
Sheema Golbaba ’14 and Tyler J. Ott ’14, who are a couple, have also maintained separate lives at Harvard. Golbaba and Ott, who started dating at the end of eighth grade, were never “that couple that was always together,” Golbaba says.
Now in college, they say they make an effort to see each other twice during the week and at least once during the weekend.
This distance is beneficial to their relationship, according to Golbaba.
“Not that I wouldn’t want to have dinner with you every night, but I feel like that would create problems,” she says affectionately to Ott.
THE BLOCKING QUESTION
For best friends and couples who are separated into different dorms their freshman year, the blocking process provides a potential way to reunite.
Dingman says he thinks the decision to block with a significant other or best friend is “very case-specific.” For example, he warns that it can be “potentially risky” for romantic couples to block together in case the relationship turns sour.
Although Bradbury and Maasdorp decided to block together, they made the conscious decision to choose different roommates within their blocking group.
“We know we work together,” says Maasdorp. “We wanted to spread around and see how we work with other people.”
When asked if they planned to block together, Ott and Golbaba started laughing.
“I don’t think that would work,” says Golbaba. “Our friends are very different.”
While Golbaba says she associates with the “artsy kids,” Ott says he spends his free time with members of the football team.
“It would make for a very disparate group,” Ott says delicately.
BEST FRIENDS FOREVER?
As students look into their post-Harvard future, they must sometimes confront their separation from a lifelong best friend or significant other.
Dai and Sherbany, who are applying to jobs and internships in different regions of the United States, will likely go their separate ways this coming summer.
“[Our separation] will be a bittersweet moment,” says Dai. “But I’m looking forward to staying in touch.”
Sherbany says he is not worried about the future of his friendship with Dai.
“Every time we sit down, it’s like no time at all had passed,” he says.
On the other hand, longtime best friends Meryl F. Natow ’13 and Alexandra “Ali” P. Berman ’13 jokingly say that a future apart from each other is incomprehensible.
“I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t with Ali,” says Natow. “I can’t get rid of her.”
—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at email@example.com.
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