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Parting Shot

Saying Yes

By Adrienne Y. Lee

When people ask me to describe how I think I’ve changed at Harvard, I like to say I’ve become more game. I say “yes” to things—an impromptu trip to the North End, a walk along the Charles on a sunny day, a Celtics game. Making a conscious effort to be spontaneous and adventurous has made all the difference to me in deriving enjoyment out of a place that I know can be stressful, high-pressure, and demanding.

For me, saying “yes” is about trying to take advantage of every opportunity offered to me, unless I have a strong reason for saying “no.” It’s not necessarily about being especially upbeat or positive—it’s about not closing the door on something that could potentially enrich my life in some way.

My freshman year was exciting, scary, and unbelievably overwhelming. In the fall I took a history class with 300 to 400 pages of assigned reading a week. I felt like I had to be constantly reading or else I would never get through all of it in time—and I know that many of my peers felt the same way about their endless problem sets and midterms. There were so many things I wanted to do, but I frequently found myself saying no, I have work to do.

That first year flew by, and I realized that I had just three more years to appreciate the amazing place that Harvard can be. I came to see “I’m busy” or “I have work” as less than adequate excuses to go explore a new part of Boston, or to see a new exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, or to go to a friend’s party. Academics are challenging here, and extracurriculars are extraordinarily demanding, which means that almost every Harvard undergraduate can honestly say he or she “is busy” or “has work” pretty much all the time. At a school like this, I realized that I never really had “free time”—but I could make time to do things outside of my established commitments.

Since that revelation, I have said “yes” a lot more than I would otherwise. When a friend proposed a trip to go apple picking in the fall, I went. When I heard about an interesting person coming to speak at the Harvard Kennedy School, I got a ticket. When my blockmates got tickets to a Red Sox game, I went—and I asked a lot of questions because the rules of baseball really confuse me.

Of course, I can’t always say “yes.” A paper due the next day, a volunteer shift at the Boston Medical Center, or a late night at The Crimson have all been good reasons to say “no.” I also gave myself a pass for being sick. I have tried to be sparing with excuses like “I just don’t feel like it,” or “it’s too far away.” In essence, saying “yes” is not about hard and fast rules. It’s a mindset that says that when offered the opportunity to enjoy a valuable new experience, or to enrich a social relationship, I will try to prioritize such an opportunity.

I’ve learned to say “yes” not just to experiences, but to people as well. A considerable number of my closest friends are individuals with whom I share little in common on paper. We have radically different interests, political convictions, religious inclinations, and personalities. I think our friendship survives not because we have especially compatible characteristics, but because we are open to the possibility of being friends. Our friend circle is made strong every time new people are incorporated into the fold.

Saying “yes” prevented my senior thesis from being the only thing I remembered about this year. I visited Plymouth Rock, I went skiing over J-Term, and I cheered on the runners of the Boston Marathon. I participated in nearly every Quincy House event, and I showed up at every Senior Bar. I played in a C-league intramural basketball game, even though I can’t shoot or dribble and my friend had to explain the rules to me right before it started. My main contribution was being there so that the team had enough females to avoid a forfeit.

Looking back on the past four years, I think there are some things I could have done differently. I could have been more focused in my academics and extracurricular pursuits, and I recognize that when people around me have been too busy to do anything that isn’t on their Google Calendars, it’s been because they were doing important things like research with a famous professor or working on an important social issue. For a lot of students here, Harvard is a stepping-stone to bigger and better goals, and these take priority over everything else.

As for myself, I don’t really know where I’m going at the moment, and I have little idea of how my time at Harvard is going to connect to the next thing I do in the future. Harvard is not some mark on my resumé that is going to get me into my dream graduate school or set me on a path to a six-figure salary. I didn’t come here just to get somewhere else. I came to Harvard for the experience of being at Harvard, and it’s been one amazing ride.

Adrienne Y. Lee ’12, a former Crimson editorial executive, is a history concentrator in Quincy House.

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Parting ShotCommencement 2012