Visitas has concluded and reading period has come again, signaling a time of endings and beginnings. With the entrance of the Class of 2021 comes a conclusion for many members of the senior class, encouraging moments of reflection and making each minute spent that much more savory. As a junior myself, the winds of change are hitting me too, as I prepare for the “last of firsts” era that is senior year. In this time of reflection, I sit here pondering my three years at Harvard College, and I find that I continually ask myself the question: Is it worth it?
This past year at Harvard has been turbulent, to say the least, and it has put parts of my identity in conflict. In the fall, when the Harvard University Dining Services strike caused a 22-day stagnation of food services, I was of two minds. On the one hand, as a low-income student and the son of a single-mother who worked in housekeeping, I viscerally sympathized with the HUDS workers who I’ve come to know and admire—and who have helped me adjust to school. Yet, on the other hand, I also felt the effects of the strike on a personal level. While my friends were able to eat out on a consistent basis, I didn’t have that opportunity, which meant going hungry some nights. The Crimson Cash stipend didn’t help much either, since it was only available for use at a small subset of vendors in the Square.
Around the same time, I also began experiencing minor depressive symptoms, which were only heightened by rejections from several job opportunities and fellowships. In those moments of rejection, I felt suffocated under the weight of being the first in my family to go to (and hopefully finish) college.
While I am grateful to attend what is arguably the best university in the world, being the first in my family adds a special kind of pressure. Being “The Only One” means that success is not a luxury, but a mandate. And it means that the comforting words you hear all the time on campus—“You shouldn’t put that pressure on yourself!”—don’t apply to you. Where I come from, there’s less than a 10 percent chance of attending college, which means I am here not only for me, but for the people I grew up with, the people who raised me, and the children who look up to me. I have the chance to return home, and represent the small possibility that, yes, it’s possible to succeed. (If you’re curious about the link between neighborhood and college attendance, put in your zip code here. Mine is 10454.)
This spring, Harvard rejected a bridge program that could’ve helped students like me have an easier time adjusting to the fast-paced, pressure cooker environment that is Harvard University. Though I understand the logic of not wanting to “single out” a subset of the student population, to paraphrase Pierre Bourdieu, particular habits privileged at this institution aren’t given to all students. For students who didn’t attend an elite boarding school or live in a Northeastern city or come from a college-educated lineage, Harvard brings unique challenges. These challenges only continue to grow and become more unbearable as one ascends through the ranks of Harvard. The additional expectation of being able to handle it all leaves little space to fail, and therefore no room to learn. Education becomes a formality, extracurriculars a career, and “hey, how are you?” a question whose response we have no investment in.
All these factors and more weigh heavily on my mind as I consider what I want from my last year at this place. Though the name “Harvard” is empowering and I have definitely felt myself grow into a better person while here, it has not come without difficulty. And there has not been a week where I have not asked myself “Is it worth it?”
To be honest, I still don’t know. But with one more year left, I hope I can find the answer—whatever it may be.
Robert Rush ’18 is a Social Studies and African American Studies concentrator living in Pforzheimer House.
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