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On Community

By Catherine Y. Zhang, Contributing Writer

Freshman spring, I joined a sorority because I wanted to find community at Harvard. Besides comp completion “parties” that involved late-night scavenger hunts and questionable Carly Rae Jepsen karaoke, the extracurricular activities I had involved myself with during my first semester of school here didn’t really have a social component. We went to meetings, discussed business, and left—sometimes spending semesters together, but never really knowing each other’s names. I had close friends at Harvard, ones who made me feel warm and loved, but by December they had become elusive, buried under stacks of p-sets and growing lists of commitments. Gone was the admissions-tinted glow of fall, when everyone had infinite time to lounge lazily on cramped common room floors and enjoy each other’s company, intoxicated by the notion of just being at Harvard.

So when the spring came, I strapped on my high heels and walked over to the Sheraton Commander in the bitter cold, begrudgingly subjecting myself to hours of giggly small talk. Name, dorm, intended concentration: I dispensed this information as freely as Harvard dispenses condoms during Sex Week. After three days of smiling, nodding, and making trite quips about Wigglesworth, I received a golden ticket to an organization that was supposed to be my home—until I realized it felt too structured, too traditional, and too impersonal.

Then, early this fall, the punch invites came. Hoping a female final club would be a more casual, tight-knit alternative to a sorority, I spent my afternoons dressed in cocktail casual, my name prominently displayed on my chest. “PLEASE ACCEPT ME,” my name tag seemed to say. At each event, I ate finger food and sipped on fruity lemonade. I said my name, dorm, and intended concentration (again). And finally, after some searching, I found a community of women whom I felt deeply connected to, and whom I thought liked me too. But few days after the first round, I received an email explaining that the club had chosen to cut me. At the time, my blocking group of five had failed, for the third week in a row, to find time to eat together—something we had been meaning to do since the first few days of school. So when I got the email, all of the loneliness that had accumulated over the past few weeks became unbearable.

Harvard is an easy place to feel lonely. I could blame it on exclusivity and a lack of adequate social spaces, and while both things are true, the real issue is bigger, more all-encompassing. Two weeks ago, I asked two freshmen in my Statistics office hours how they liked it here and they responded, “I like Harvard, but people are too busy to hang out with us.” And it’s true. Every Harvard student seems to be either at a meeting, running to a meeting, or programming a meeting into their color-coded Google Calendar. It gets tiring when your primary form of social interaction is a meal, rescheduled three times until finally, by some miracle, both parties show up.

But the main problem isn’t even that we’re busy. It’s that we don’t talk to each other. We convince ourselves that we have the time and energy for yet another extracurricular commitment, but not for the people in our Government section or our House or even the room across the hall. Last week I sat down across a stranger in Adams D-Hall, and he wondered aloud if I was a tutor because “only tutors sit with strangers.” We had a lovely conversation about his computer science research, but afterward, I thought about all the times I had entered the dining hall and, upon seeing none of my friends, hid behind my laptop, refusing to engage anyone else in conversation. Later that week, at Carpe Noctem (Adams’ Stein Club), I walked into the Lower Common Room and noticed everyone standing in stout, impregnable circles. Even Adams, with its endless teas and study breaks and community-building events, can feel less like a community and more like an aggregation of blocking groups that happen to live together.

A lot of times it feels like we as Harvard students don't care about people outside our immediate core. We need an allegiance to an established organization and a lengthy selection process to feel connected to other people. Within the sorority system, it’s perfectly acceptable to reach out to someone you don’t know for coffee or J.P. Licks. Outside of the sorority system, less so.

But this isn’t how it has to be. We don’t have to resign ourselves to four years of communicating in halfhearted head nods with our entryway-mates or relying on outside organizations to give us the sense of belonging that we don’t feel like we have. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I believe that we can make things better. We can make Harvard feel like a community—a place where we’re not just individuals with our own isolated struggles, but a group of people who are experiencing the highs and lows of college together.

So ask people how their days were, actually. Attend study breaks. Sit with someone new in the dining hall, even though Annenberg feels like a century ago. Harvard doesn't always have to feel so lonely.

Catherine Y. Zhang ’19 lives in Adams House.

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