It's Not All About Harvard

A true confession: I didn’t read any advice pieces about graduating from the College until I was in my mid-thirties, so I don’t expect many of you to read this now. At this stage of your life, you have achieved what only a ridiculously few people on the planet have accomplished. You feel proud. You feel powerful. You feel immortal. (All good feelings, by the way.) So I won’t take it personally if you don’t really care what some guy who came to Cambridge in 1986 with an electric typewriter has to say. I get it. It’s cool.

But promise me this: Read the rest of this piece 10 years from now. Or 20. Or maybe even 30. Because at some point in your life, you will run into a obstacle that will feel unpassable, and you will begin to ask yourself, “What was this Harvard degree all about? Was it even worth it?”

When you do hit that obstacle (and sorry to reveal—you will hit an obstacle), there are always tools that will get you through it. Some of them will be related to your Harvard experience, while others will not. Knowing that there is often more to know than just what you’ve learned here is the first lesson of graduating from Harvard.

While you may think that Harvard is the center of the universe right now, it’s not, and it will never will be. For every Harvard alum or former roommate who will be there to help you, many other Harvard alums or former roommates will not. Add that to this reality: Graduating at Harvard can be like playing for the New England Patriots. Sure, you will have many of fans who marvel at your success, but the haters are often more numerous.

So be ready.


Be ready to feel embarrassed, out of place, disconnected, and even ashamed of your Harvard degree. Because in this world, there are more people who want to compete against you and see you fail than who want to support you. It will feel really lonely at times, and it might even feel like you will never be able to succeed again. And no Harvard degree (mine in is still up in my attic) will make it magically disappear.

Some of the friends who will graduate with you this week? You might not see them again for years, even in this age of digital connection. You might be seeking help from them before realizing they may not want to help.

And that’s okay. It’s more than okay.

It took me about 20 years to realize that Harvard was a special place for me in my life, so don’t expect me to push the myth that once you leave Harvard, all is taken care of. It’s not. In the universe of overachieving “type A” Harvard graduates (yes, it’s fine to be honest about this), issues of not “fitting in” because of who you are or where you come from still hit home. Harvard is a powerful place, an institution that can prop you up but also swallow you whole and make you into a marginalized impostor.

So if (and when) you read this, there are plenty of us so-called “successes” who doubted themselves at Harvard and never felt as if the University ever cared. It might not be a popular opinion to write about in public for Commencement issue, but it’s true.

Harvard can take you places, but it will never replace who you are. It can mold you, but it will never fully become you.

Nobody can ever take that away from you, and as much as many of us struggle to live up to the “Harvard Way” (whatever that means), we all find our place. For some, it takes minutes (money and privilege help). For others, it takes years. I choose to be with those who chose to take years. We are more fun at parties.

In all seriousness, don’t pressure yourself. Enjoy the now. Savor each and every day. Help others with no expectations, and don’t expect to figure it all out. I am about to turn 50, and I still don’t know what I want in life, but I do know that the biggest blessings are in the journey and not in the outcome.

Julio Ricardo Varela '90 is the co-host of the In The Thick podcast, founder of Latino Rebels, and Digital Media Director for Harlem-based Futuro Media.


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