My Harvard experience will be “transformative,” they said. Freshman year would be a good time to explore my academic interests freely, they said. Well, I tried. I met lots of friends, experienced lots of academic challenges, and got used to studying in the United States — I’m an international student, by the way. It’s true that a lot of things have changed in my life this past year in college. But in terms of my academic path, the only transformation that I have gone through is that I have become more confused than ever.
I still remember how during the first semester of freshman year, everyone was very enthusiastic about asking each other about future concentration plans. Back then, we all had easy answers — none of us knew what to expect, so we would just tell each other about any academic or career path that sounded impressive or interesting. Nowadays, when someone asks me what I want to concentrate in, I do have a default answer that I give them. They say “oh, nice,” and move on to some other random topic. What I do not tell them is that I honestly have no clue. The fact that I halfheartedly answer that question does not at all mean that I know what is going on in my life. I don’t. I used to think I would be able to do this. I used to think that I would be able to do well in those particular classes that ensured A's and A-'s to students placing in the top 50 percent of the class. Now, all I know is that I am lost. I’m constantly jealous of my friends that manage to keep getting good grades and have a clear idea of what they want to do in college and what kind of job they want.
A lot of us feel so much pressure to succeed, or at least to look as if we are doing well. For me, this comes from mainly three sources: myself, family, and peers. I am expected to make choices that would lead to a lucrative career, and there is an implicit belief that ending up with certain jobs that are not well-paying or socially respected would be a waste of my Harvard degree. Showing signs of uncertainty and being honest with academic struggles is shunned by many students; sometimes, I don’t want to admit that I’m not doing well because I’m well aware that doing so would lead to a banal string of comments from the other person that are seemingly supposed to make me feel better but in reality do nothing to solve my uncertainty. I’m internally scarred when I see that other people try to relate to my hardships in a certain class but actually cannot understand my struggles because they find the class very manageable. I’m not trying to fault others for making me feel bad — I just want to point out the emotions I experience in my everyday life, especially when I think that I’m not working hard enough, that I’m not as talented as my friends, and that I have no idea what to do with my life. In fact, even I don’t know how to offer genuine words of encouragement to my peers going through similar problems because no matter what I say, it wouldn’t be anything new or profound. The burden ultimately falls on us to reflect on ourselves and escape from this trap of negativity.
What is ironic is that although we worry a lot about our future plans, our lives are so busy that we rarely have time to stop and think about the future. At least for me, my day to day thoughts are centered around preparing for an upcoming exam, thinking about how much of my essay I should complete today, and so on. It is when others ask me about my life looking forward that I realize that I have no plan and have to scramble for a general answer. It is only afterwards that I am left with a feeling of emptiness and start reflecting on my life to make sense of what is going on.
I would like to ask you to take a moment in your daily life and think about whether you are studying a field because you like it. If you already figured out what you’re good at and want to do later on in your life, I commend you for that. I would love to be at that stage in life. But if you find yourself in doubt about whether the concentration you intend to choose or the career path you say you want to take is genuinely what you want, think about what makes you dissatisfied. It might be the less-than-optimal grades you are getting. It might be the burden of success you have, forcing yourself to choose an area of study because doing so would give you a better chance at that prestigious finance career that everyone else is dying to attain. Whatever realization you come to, you will have reached a better understanding of what drives your choices. Maybe having this time of self-reflection and realization about what you truly want is part of that “transformative” experience that we were promised as we entered Harvard.
Daniel Kim ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Leverett House.