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To Hell and Back

By Avinaash Subramaniam

The morning birds sang sweetly as I walked from Lamont Library at 4 a.m., carrying my heavy backpack to Mower A-11 for an hour of sleep after studying for the Life Sciences 1b final. It was the bittersweet sound of spring, the spring of 2011, when the sun rose when you wished it was dark and it set when you wished it was still bright.

I do not remember a point at which I was happy in that freshman spring semester. At the end of the semester, my attitude was confirmed when I saw that grade on my transcript: D+. It stood there like a demonic fire, making the C+ I received in Math 1b look like a Hoopes Prize. I had worked so hard, torturing my body and torturing my mind, for a D+ in a class that I loathed. It brought down my freshman year GPA to a 2.7. Frustratingly, although I really wanted to learn the material, I felt that the class could not teach it to me well. At the time, I couldn’t imagine how much that hellish freshman year would change my life for the better. It taught me a great deal about the importance of experiences, how they shape you and how you can use them against your fears, and it also taught me how flawed the GPA system is in assessing students’ success and its detrimental effect on students, especially on their mental health.

My freshman year began with such excitement, with the thought of all the great people I could meet, the awesome classes I could take, and the amazing activities I could engage in—only to end with depression. I only had a few close friends, and I was even afraid of opening up to them. I would go back to my room to try and hold back my tears. I spent my summer in a similar state, trying to figure things out. I felt so alone. I needed someone to talk to.

That summer, I spoke to a close friend about dealing with depression, and he recommended a book called “The Power of Intention.” The book’s ideas were enthralling to me: I decided to take up meditation. Soon, miraculously, it began to work, clearing my mind of negative thoughts. I had long forgotten what happiness felt like, but now I was beginning to remember. I started meditating daily. By meditating, I felt myself reaching a deep state of peace; positivity came flowing in. I could feel a strong presence, calmly assuring me that everything was going to be alright.

At the beginning of sophomore year, I decided to concentrate in organismic and evolutionary biology instead of molecular and cellular biology, relishing the big picture framework that it seemed to offer. That fall I took an advanced class in OEB—and I loved it. I also took two classes in religion, which impelled me to take up a secondary in that field. I had found my niche. After struggling with feeling alone, I finally decided to embrace Room 13 and the Bureau of Study Counsel. Though I do occasionally experience some depression,  I am now nowhere near the rut that I was once in.

Harvard is a place for personal growth in addition to academic growth, and experience—even struggle—is necessary for that growth. My grades have improved, but what is the point of getting good grades without any personal development in the process? Those with lower GPAs, like me, are a part of the Harvard community. Our voice is rarely heard, but it is about time that it is.

Our grades and our GPAs do not define who we are. They are constructs; they categorize you based on someone else’s parochial understanding of excellence. In reality, of course, only you can define who you are. We all came to Harvard because we could think out of the box, not because we could fit into it. So why should we fit into a box that someone else creates for us?

I have realized that the difficulty with using GPA in academics is that it is not as nuanced as the grade system. Whereas grades are meant to track your progress throughout a course, the GPA system only provides a picture on where you stand at the course’s conclusion. Unfortunately, we tend to use this holistic system in unhelpful ways—ways that tend to equate a number on a transcript with our own self-worth.

Students here contend with serious mental illnesses each and every day. It is important to consider these issues, and assure these students that they are not alone. But it is just as important to reconsider the kind of academic culture we promote. To promote good academic culture, we must believe in Harvard and we must believe in each other. It is our interpersonal experiences that help shape us, not our GPAs. The good moments will make us happy, and those dark spots that we are in at times will make us find the courage and the desire to move to higher ground. And when we get there, we realize that if it was not for that experience, we would not be on that higher ground. Every bad experience, at the end of the day, is just an opportunity in disguise.

Avinaash Subramaniam ’14 is an organismic and evolutionary biology concentrator in Lowell House. This piece is part of a semester-long series organized by Student Mental Health Liaisons to encourage conversation around mental health; previous pieces may be found here and here.

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