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Not Just Schoolwork

As Commencement approaches, my roommate and I have spent a lot of time discussing how Harvard student life has changed since freshman year, from the new Pinkberry and Starbucks welcoming us into the square, to Au Bon Pain becoming more polished, to the increase in our opportunities to travel abroad. What has not changed is the role of extracurricular programs in our lives. At Harvard, we are given the gift of working with and learning from 6,500 other remarkable students and over our past four years extracurricular activities have offered us space in which to take advantage of this opportunity. These social programs remain important, as evidenced by the tens of hours each week we dedicate to unpaid labour beyond our schoolwork, still caught running to meetings even with cap and gown in hand.

The International Relations Council is the umbrella organisation for different groups on campus including Model United Nations conferences and a travelling team, tutoring group, international publication, and more. I spent the past year organising its board of directors and central staff, while trying to find my proper role amidst our three hundred members. My decision to take on the position of president culminated in a near meltdown as I worried about whether I would be able to balance enjoying my senior year, and continuing to be involved in everything possible. I found the necessary perspective with help from the remarkable friends I met through this club. While this position required me to contribute an immense amount of time and energy, the people I could count on to support me were those whose trust and confidence I gained through our time in the organization.

Through time spent in meetings and rehearsals, we have all extended our groups of friends beyond our Houses communities, which can sometimes feel insular. The over 300 student groups on campus offer many different communities to belong to, and students have the flexibility and choice to move between these social groups and professional networks. I built friendships with people with whom I shared interests and time; extracurriculars not only united those of us with common ground, but also allowed us to create shared memories (both enjoyable and painful) to commiserate over.

Additionally, while I know this does not hold true for everyone, extracurriculars can help satisfy a need for practical experience. This does not just mean wearing suits for days on end (although I’ve certainly seen enough western business attire to last the rest of my life). It also means doing work that has a real-life impact. Extracurriculars like Model United Nations or the Crimson may distract us from our daily problem sets and papers; however, they can also prepare us for the real world as skills applicable to the workplace are not easily found in class. Yoseph Ayele ’11 explains: “I've learned many more practical and 'soft skills' as part of the Leadership Institute at Harvard College compared to what I gained from the classroom. What I am taking away from LIHC are the most practical and applicable skills and qualities that influence how well I will be able to function in the world. How to work well with people, how to design work processes, how to influence those around you without formal authority, how to negotiate, how to communicate, how to build organizations, etc—these are some of the hard skills that I learned within the extracurricular sphere that I didn't learn from many of my classes and even professors.”

On Tuesday, President Drew G. Faust addressed the class of 2011 and spoke about the importance of shaping our own life narratives. After four years at Harvard my story certainly includes my interactions with professors, lecturers, and classmates, but at the forefront stands my relationship with the IRC, and other clubs. In the future I want to make a tangible impact on society, and because of my participation in these activities, I feel prepared to tackle certain problems with a sense of professionalism and experience.

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Looking forward to our fifth, tenth, or even twentieth reunions, what will we remember about our time at Harvard? For better or for worse, I will not only remember jumping out of my seat to ask a million questions after my first class, but I will also remember living in the Boston Park Plaza for a week during my junior year while helping to run our college Model UN conference, and the hours I spent agonizing over the annual program budgets. Over the past four years, I did not have to choose between our studies and our extracurricular activities very often, but when I did, I was lucky enough to have friends beside me making the same decision.

Jennifer McKee ’11 is a government concentrator in Dunster House. She is the former president of the Harvard International Relations Council.

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