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My Virtual Semester Tested Positive and Transformative

By Cameron M. Stone
Cameron M. Stone ’23 is a Computer Science concentrator in Mather House.

I’ve tested positive … for a great virtual semester! I write today to share silver linings I have seen as byproducts of the unfortunate COVID-19 crisis. Someday, masks will go. By the time my blue light glasses break, I doubt I’ll need to replace them. However, being removed from the traditional campus environment has helped me see my college experience differently, especially regarding what I want to pursue during it. This new metaphorical lens that I now see through affords me 2020 vision. Pun intended.

First, I recognize that my experience with COVID-19 has been mild (literally and figuratively). In July, I actually did test positive for the virus, but was mostly asymptomatic. Other aspects of my life were affected in ways standard to most students: my classes are online, I’m not living on campus, and I spend vastly more time alone in my textbooks, since collaborating with classmates requires juggling time zone differences. I am blessed to not have had any immediate family members die from the virus, and grieve for those who cannot say the same thing. All that said, I hope that my experiences may relate to each person reading this, in some fashion.

Being removed from the campus environment enabled me to see that I had experienced a form of groupthink — the phenomenon in which individuals modify their opinion to match that of a group — during my freshman year at Harvard.

In a speech to my fellow freshman and me at the beginning of the year, Dean Rakesh Khurana advised us to avoid entering college with a completely hardened idea of what we want to pursue. Those who go in with these preconceived notions often treat their classes as “transactional” in nature, getting them from where they are to where they perceive they need to be. Rather, he argued for us to make it “transformational” and to be open to exploring new ideas. His speech gave me the assurance that I could afford to take time away from my expected concentration to broaden my horizons and experiment with classes I otherwise may have forgone.

That freshman fall, I took four classes in fields completely unrelated to each other. I was excited to run the gamut and see more of what the world had to offer. However, I quickly entered a semester consumed by friends and friends of friends recruiting for investment banking and consulting jobs. Over the course of a few short months, my vision of what I should go into narrowed to those two paths. Additionally, getting As began to supersede actually learning the material I was passionate about.

Don’t get me wrong. Investment banking and consulting are amazing career paths, which set you up fantastically for other opportunities afterwards. They pay well. They push you. There is a reason why there is such a premium on them and who knows, I may pivot later and pursue one or the other after all. Regardless, in this environment, it was easy to feel that I could not afford to branch out and focus on anything else. Being entrenched in a community so engrossed by these two career paths, made me want to pursue what everyone else seemed to be pursuing.

Now, I do acknowledge that my favorite part of my Harvard experience has been exactly this, being surrounded and inspired by greatness. However, the reality set in for me, that though I thought these were my interests, I had not given myself the opportunity to step back from the group mentality and evaluate if investment banking or management consulting really lined up with my true passions and aspirations.

The isolated COVID-19 environment and the opportunity to take classes online have afforded me this much-needed chance to step back and evaluate what I really want out of my Harvard experience and beyond.

With more time at home by myself to think, I was able to explore different career paths and analyze my natural strengths and interests. I rediscovered a love for computer science that I’d fostered in high school. I know that in studying computer science at Harvard, I will be challenged. I recognize that in doing so, I may not leave college with a transcript as “unscathed” as I would studying something else. However, having been fortified by these experiences off-campus, I feel the courage that I need to take a road “less traveled by,” as Robert Frost describes. It’d be a shame to miss opportunities that I personally wish to explore, because of the fear of failure or the fact that those around me are not pursuing the same.

When “two roads diverge” in life, consider the advice of others, but ultimately proceed to where you personally are excited to go. I’ve found that as I make decisions intentionally, understanding my personal reasons for it, it no longer matters whether others are doing the same or not. Not that I’m studying something super niche — I’m concentrating in computer science, the second most popular major at Harvard. Call me basic! My point is that I’ve had my most fulfilling semester yet (regardless of it being via Zoom) because it has provided me the time and the space independent of others and their opinions to comfortably and confidently know why I am pursuing the course that I am.

Every one of us has heard something like the statement, “honestly, in the end, it doesn’t matter what you major in if you graduate from Harvard.” Do we trust that enough to be honest with ourselves and pursue what we are truly passionate about? I recognize that I haven’t done this perfectly myself, but do know that the increased satisfaction which comes from reevaluating what we’re pursuing and why is universally available to us all. While I absolutely love the faculty, students, and opportunities for learning that Harvard offers, I believe the online learning environment offers a unique and perfect opportunity to hold this personal assessment away from the influence of a classroom or peers. May we enter 2021 with increased clarity, even that of 2020 vision. Semper veritas!

Cameron M. Stone ’23 is a Computer Science concentrator in Mather House.

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