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​I Can’t Speak

By Zoe D. Ortiz, Crimson Staff Writer

I’m sitting in a classroom, surrounded by my peers, but I can’t speak. There’s a pit of uncertainty pooling deep within my stomach, growing larger with every expectant glance from my Teaching Fellow, and I can’t help but feel inferior.

It’s just another day in my Ethical Reasoning Gen Ed, where my peers effortlessly pronounce the French names of philosophers and politicians long gone. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Maximilien Robespierre roll smoothly off their tongues. They reference their multiple international trips and confidently reason with one another as the polished lawyers they say they want to become. Their diction is a plethora of words I only learned from standardized testing, words that no one from home ever integrated so essentially into their daily vocabulary.

A girl sitting next to me poses a question, and I know the answer. My mind erupts in a tug-of-war: Do I answer her or do I let it go? I feel the answer on the tip of my tongue, but I swallow it down, burying it deep inside. Better to stay quiet than to suffer the judgmental looks of everyone around me as they realize I’m different. Then they’d know; they’d know my weakness; they’d smell my fear of not being good enough.

I imagine what it might have been like to be born into a family of college graduates where money and experience could comfortably guide me towards a secure future. I wonder what it would have been like to be like them—the seeming majority of Harvard’s student body that, unlike me, isn’t first-gen, low-income, or a minority.

I entered into this institution without an ounce of experience when it came to how to interact with people who seemed more sure-footed than I. I didn’t know how to talk to my Teaching Fellows about the essays I was struggling to write or my professors about the newfound concepts I just wasn’t understanding, without feeling like I was wasting their time. I grew up thinking that the only reason students talked to their teachers was when they had a question with an answer. A divide existed between us that could never completely be crossed. Now, here in Cambridge, I was surprised to learn that conversations with professors that had no definitive answer were not only permitted, but also essential to a future of recommendation letters and connections. How did someone even do that? I wish I knew.

So many times freshman year I was struck with wishing—wishing I had known the things I know now. That all those “indispensable” books on the syllabus the professor says you need to buy are actually in the library for free. That moving away is hard, especially when you have to fit your entire life into 3 suitcases and decorate a room your family will probably never see. Maybe I would be better off if I’d known that it was okay to be imperfect; to be human in an endless sea of the seemingly special, perfect students who make up this place. But what could have helped me?

The chance to meet other students from a first-gen background, students experiencing the same adjustments as me, would have been invaluable at the beginning of the semester. I wish I had the opportunity to talk to upperclassmen who could have told me that no matter how inferior I could feel or how overwhelmed I may be, I was chosen to be here for a reason. I needed real advice on how to battle the mountains of readings that I had never been given before and how to balance my schedule. I needed guidance from the moment I stepped foot on Harvard’s campus, that went deeper than the network all freshmen are given. I needed a bridge program.

A bridge program for incoming first-gen, low-income students can only help realize the potential of the freshmen Harvard has taken a chance on. The freshmen who can’t look to home for advice on college life could look to a bridge program. Despite the lengths that Harvard has taken to level the playing field by not accepting college credits and providing generous financial aid packages, the institution must acknowledge the plight faced by first-generation students, especially those who are low-income.

The Freshman Enrichment Program (FEP) is an initiative that won funding by the Undergraduate Council last year. It is a bridge program that could provide the guidance I needed in the beginning, and it is a program that needs to become a reality as soon as possible. A bridge program like FEP could have provided me with the support, the advice, and the experience necessary to have had a smoother transition. Perhaps it could have even given me the voice and the confidence to wield my knowledge. I can speak; I just haven’t found my footing yet.

Zoe Ortiz ‘19, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Mather House.

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