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Humbled by Harvard

By Meredith C. Baker

During high school, many of us were used to being big fish in a small pond. Once we arrived on campus, we were quick to realize that we were really just guppies. Although any college experience may lead students to reassess and find themselves, with the academic rigor and the intensity and talent of the student body, Harvard can be a pressure cooker if we don’t know how to find success after failure. This is a good time to commemorate the things that have led us to graduation and reflect on how challenges and setbacks have led us to current and future triumphs.

Harvard students may pass through the five stages of “humbling” during their years on campus. I’ve modeled the Harvard “Humbling” process to the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief. Though we are very familiar with the early stages of excitement to be at Harvard and recognition of stiffness of “competition,” we can sometimes remain stagnant, or move on without processing and growing from the lessons we are lucky to learn, ahead of the real-world schedule.

Flash back four years, to the day you arrived at Harvard. Here, we enter Stage One—Excitement. We are overwhelmed with the amount of activity and the caliber of our fellow classmates. Which club should you join? Which PBHA or IOP program do you envision yourself running by the next year?

Study cards are turned in, Ec 10 has sealed your fate for freshman year, you have attended 15 intro meetings for various organizations, and you are realizing that you probably won’t be partying much this year. Enter Stage Two—Disappointment/ Intimidation. The esteemed faculty, famous lecturers, and incredible classmates may make you feel out of your element. Maybe you find that you can’t brag to the person sitting next to you at the dinner table about the trip you took to vaccinate orphans in a war-torn country, because chances are that person discovered the vaccine or wrote a book about their experience doing the same thing. Attempts to get involved, find leadership positions, and continue with pre-college passions may result in disappointment when your ideas, applications, and efforts are not selected or rewarded. You start to see the tip of the iceberg of work, of hierarchical ladders you would have to climb alongside other students to reach the leadership position you eyed, the effort-laden coolness you had to exude to navigate weird social processes.

Stage Three—Self-doubt. Intimidation may take root and you may find that you constantly compare your achievements to those of your peers. Maybe your resume isn’t really that impressive. Everyone is talking about how busy they are and which summer job to choose. Why did she get an offer at Morgan Stanley? Do you even stand a chance? Someone else is always smarter, better, more capable, more creative.

Stage 4—Recovery. Slowly, you start to realize that you are not alone in feeling intimidated and rudderless. Sometime around junior year, you (hopefully) realize your doubts are shared by a great many of your peers, and you are relieved. You have time to process the academic pressures and extracurricular opportunities, and your performance, progress and mood improve. You make time for the things that you are passionate about, not just items for a resume. FOMO (fear-of-missing-out) is no longer overwhelming (save for Senior Spring); you feel freed from continuing to be a member of the organization you have been invested in but no longer enjoy. We all start in unique ways to come into our own, regardless of occasional disappointments and sporadic pangs of inadequacy.

Stage 5—Humbled by Harvard. Eventually humility becomes a constant companion. In fact, we learn that humility is not just experienced in the presence of the rich and famous, or the Nobel-prize recipient or your prominent professor, but also where you never expected, in the presence of the man pursuing his passion playing music on that obscure instrument in the Square, the lunch lady who personally greets everyone as she swipes their card, the child you tutor through PBHA, or the student that tutors you. We strengthen our strides this way—from admitting we are not perfect to recognizing we have much to learn from everyone. We progress from helping each other up as well, with the knowledge that we will all eventually need another hand to get us on our feet again.

If we put our successes and disappointments in the proper context, we might just be prepared to find real success outside the Harvard bubble. It is no easy feat reaching stage five and making it, cap and gown, to Harvard’s graduation. After four years of figuring it out, congratulations and welcome to stage five, Class of 2013!

Meredith C. Baker ’13, a former Crimson editorial columnist, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. She wrote a similar article for The Crimson after the first semester of freshman year. It has been revisited and revised to include all four years, to better illustrate ‘humbling” at Harvard and how perceptions of our time here can change from freshman to senior year.

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