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In Units of Character

I have a friend. Her hair is copper-colored like the wires poking out of my broken computer charger and she bikes down Mass. Ave. slightly too fast for comfort. She will receive a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge next spring and her thesis on histone deacetylase inhibitors—a synthesis of years in the laboratory—left me befuddled, occasionally, but also impressed, always. For a year, she managed one of the largest and most public student organizations on campus, the Harvard University Band, and her emails are now tinged with the maturity that comes from constant communication with people of authority.

I have no doubt that my friend will one day lead some of our generation’s most innovative and important medical research. She is ambitious, focused, and assiduous. But she is my role model for more than these qualities alone. As with all of the friends and mentors I admire, I look up to her because she is kind, generous, and sincere.

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From the very beginning of college, I quickly mastered speedwalking. More days than not during my first seven semesters, the rainbow blocks on my Google calendar stacked back to back to back well past sunset, and I tumbled from class to meeting to rehearsal to Crimson interview like the stereotypical over-committed undergraduate. Often, I had no time to stop by the band room before a Harvard University Band rehearsal, or I needed to run off directly after a performance. So I would text my friend, the musical chemist mentioned above and a fellow flautist, and request her to bring along my flute and music or take it back after rehearsal. Each time, she responded right away. “No problem, Radhika!” or “You got it.”

The task itself seems trivial; a flute is practically weightless, especially when compared to most other band instruments, and as a senior staff member my friend was invariably in the band room before rehearsal anyway. But for me the gesture was monumental, because it gave me a few extra moments when I did not have to make a choice—I could leave two colored blocks on that gcal back to back. And I will never forget that my friend did not complain once of the favor, nor make me feel that I had burdened her.

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Many times during college I have wondered what I have to offer, not just to my immediate community but to the broader spheres of influence that ripple ever larger as we get older. During crisis after crisis of self-confidence, I have looked at my peers at Harvard and judged myself small by their side: not as forceful, not as funny, not as athletic, not as eloquent, not as engaged in social justice. When I applied to medical school and nearly every university asked me to describe how I would contribute to its diversity, I struggled to articulate why I was special; I could think of nothing that made me exceptional compared to my fellow applicants.

It was my friend who reminded me that I should not always measure excellence by my position in the hierarchy or the breadth of my impact but rather by the moments of goodness I might share with others. To be good to each other is enough, we decided together during one of our many conversations. No, it is more than “enough”—it is the essential foundation upon which all else rests. I realized that I needed to measure my self-worth in the same way I did hers: first and foremost in units of character.

It is still so important to be ambitious, focused, and assiduous. To study at Harvard is a gift of enormous proportions, an opportunity to learn and grow at a place imperfect but also perfect because it throws us together to think and question and make it, ourselves, and the world—better. We should strive to be leaders; we should strive for our best. But in this striving I hope we remember to draw inspiration not only from the achievements of our role models and friends but also from the ways in which they have been thoughtful, empathetic community-builders.

Did I slow to smile when our paths crossed on the street today, or did I miss your eyes? Did I surprise a friend with a note today? Did I offer a critique gently, or was I disrespectful? Did I express gratitude for a small gesture? Did I ask for or assume consent? Did I revisit my vocabulary to iron out inadvertent microaggressions? Did I think twice about giving a favor? On this Commencement day, let us draw much confidence and pride not just from the diploma in our hand but from the fact that we anchor our lives around such questions.


Radhika Jain ’14, a former Crimson news executive, is a History and Science concentrator in Quincy House.

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