Do You Know Who You Are?

It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit that between the years of seven and 17, my whole life had been directed toward getting into Harvard. Every essay, every test, and every homemade diorama depicting Native American domestic life represented one more cliff to be scaled on the great ascent to Harvard College.

I’m probably not the only one who forewent a vibrant social life or non-resume-boosting activities in order to get into Harvard. One memorable Friday night in high school, my mother knocked on the door of my room. I was taking a practice SAT. She gave me $40 and told me, “Sweetie, go see your friends. Here’s money so you can take a cab.”

Now that we’re here, we implore each other to pause and appreciate our lives—and then promptly scamper back to Lamont. And even though we know we can’t be “the best” at Harvard—there are just too many people here who really are the best at whatever it is they do—we often lose sight of ourselves while trying to succeed in school, in service, in sports, in leadership, and even in social life.

Despite everything we’ve been told about college being a life-changing experience, there seems to be little place here for the failures that are part of any true personal transformation.

Luckily, there is one community at Harvard that is entirely devoted to helping students make their lives meaningful—whatever that might mean for them.


That community is Harvard Hillel, an institution whose service reaches far beyond its mission to be “the catalyst for Jewish life on campus.” For me, the Hillel community was an antidote to the competition that had driven me into the ground while I was climbing to the top.

At Hillel, students are considered valuable not because of how talented or hardworking they are, but because they are intrinsically worthy of attention, investment, and love. You don’t need to be anyone other than yourself, flaws and all, in order to fit in at Hillel. In fact, you don’t even need to be Jewish—because while Hillel is driven by Jewish ideals, it embraces people of all ages, ethnicities, and faiths. Anyone can take part in the many classes, religious services, and social activities that take place at Hillel on any given day.

And in a community where three (or more) radically different forms of Judaism are practiced simultaneously, it’s hard to feel like an outsider for long. Students involved in Hillel are used to figuring out how to accommodate a wide range of personal preferences when it comes to religious observance, social life, dining rituals, and educational endeavors. There will always be room for you, and, more importantly, there will always be respect for you.

Hillel’s immense diversity facilitates an environment of personal discovery and growth. I have never seen people change as dramatically and deeply as I have at Hillel. I am perhaps the most glaring example of this kind of transformation.

I didn’t have a traditional Jewish upbringing—no Hebrew school, no bat mitzvah—but when I came to Hillel late my freshman year searching for a spiritual home, I found what I was looking for. I found a resting place.

Resting is a big thing in Judaism: maybe that’s why I never felt I had to “work” at Hillel—not to be “more Jewish” than I was, not to join every committee in the institution, and not to be the smartest or the prettiest or the funniest.

Around people who believed in an existence greater than the one we can see, and in an environment that encouraged discussion and dissent, I began to let go of the cynicism I had developed over so many years of striving to be the best. There was more out there, and there was more within.

Before I became the undergraduate president of Harvard Hillel, I had never held a position of leadership. No other community had made me feel I was worth more than the hours I could work or the goals I could reach. No other community had made me feel truly valuable as a person.

But at Hillel, I looked beyond my grades and my resume and saw something I had never seen before. I saw a risk-taker, a decision maker, a world-changer. I saw a leader.

So Hillel changed me from the inside out, and I got my real college experience after all.

Nell S. Hawley ’11 is a literature concentrator in Lowell House. She is the former undergraduate president of Hillel.