College was over the minute my dad walked into my dorm in March. The room — by now restored to its original state — was too barren and impersonal to stir up any deep sorrow. My roommate had left a few days before, and I cried to see her go. My dad, the eternal optimist, in cargo shorts and a polo, greeted me with a hug. He surveyed warped floorboards, the furniture, the small bathroom, as empty as the day he moved me in. This is where my daughter has been, I imagined him thinking.
I was suddenly choked up. His presence felt like it was drawing back the curtain on some shadow world, as if I had been up to something nefarious. He looked at me with all the weight of paternal hope and expectation, and I geared up for the inevitable query: “So, how was it?”
We shuttled boxes to his car. Once my college experience was packed and secured to the roof with twine, I hopped in the car without hesitation. “Is there anyone you want to say goodbye to?” There wasn’t. Acquaintances, sure, but seeking them out for a tearful goodbye seemed about as genuine as promising to grab a meal sometime.
On the drive home, the few square miles where I’d spent the past six months of my life blurred by in just a few minutes. My dad put on a CD and handed me a packed lunch. As I ate, I scrolled through tearful farewell posts on Instagram with a straight face, finally able to admit my sadness was mostly vicarious and tempered with undeniable relief.
“Let’s grab a meal sometime.”
How many times did I hear this phrase last year? A benevolent proposition anywhere else, at Harvard, it’s become a nicety at best, and a symbol of everything wrong with social life on campus at worst.
Roey L. Leonardi ’23, a Crimson staff writer, readily admits she was a serial user of this phrase, or a variant of it, on campus. “Oh my gosh, we should get lunch,” she says in a high-pitched voice, mocking herself. She admits she rarely followed up on her invitations.
When I ask why, she admits to feeling “that those types of interactions were insincere,” and assuming “people aren’t really interested in my time, or me.” She adds a quick disclaimer: “Or maybe that’s a personal issue I have.”
Although we’re on The Crimson together, this Zoom interview is our first one-on-one conversation. It’s surprising to hear her doubt whether she’s worth anyone’s time. A well-dressed English concentrator, on campus she came across as witty and put-together — in my eyes, objectively interesting. I never guessed she felt insecure. Her words resonate with me, and I wonder: Why didn’t we grab a meal on campus?
Over the many months of quarantine, I sift through campus memories, trying to pinpoint what went wrong. Many of them center around Annenberg. When I first toured Harvard in high school, I was enthralled by Annenberg’s towering spire and stained glass windows, but even more so by what I imagined to be inside: brilliant students at Hogwarts-esque long tables, embroiled in intellectual conversations. The fact that the interior was off-limits to tours only heightened my romantic visions and fuelled my desire to get in.
My high school experience was an extended exercise in delayed gratification. The daily grind of classes and extracurriculars was made palatable only by the utopian vision of a better college experience — lifelong friends, world-class resources, learning for learning’s sake. Receiving my Harvard acceptance letter felt like an implicit agreement: I’d done the work to get in, and in exchange, I’d be guaranteed access to the “transformative power” of a Harvard education, as the College often advertises. But most enticing to me was the school’s promise that I’d belong. “Home at Harvard,” reads Harvard’s website.
PAFs and advisors all spoke glowingly of Annenberg: a place where you could sit down with strangers and, after a meal, have found a new friend. In those first weeks, I tried that strategy. And in retrospect, those conversations weren’t all bad. But they weren’t perfect either. Often the conversation would start with an exchange of information — hometown, concentration, extracurriculars — and then descend into a tense silence.
By Thanksgiving, this no longer seemed like an option. I’d go to Annenberg for lunch, step out of the servery with my plastic tray, and scan the rows of tables for a familiar face. Too afraid to sit with a stranger, I’d trudge to a table in the back and try to look busy, or dramatically gaze up at the stained glass windows and remind myself how lucky I was just to be there. Internally, I’d smile bitterly at how cliché it all was, how this was middle school shit. And I was convinced I was the only one.
My time on campus wasn’t bad, necessarily, but upon leaving, I felt dissatisfied — particularly socially. I had expected the admissions-brochure promise of lifelong friends and a community I knew I belonged in. Instead, finding friends felt like work. I made a few, but mostly made acquaintances I knew I wouldn’t keep in touch with after leaving campus. I spent a lot of time alone in my dorm, feeling like I was missing something, but not sure where to find it.
To be fair, coming in with such high expectations was a recipe for disappointment. I also had some bad luck: a missed pre-orientation deadline, a tricky rooming situation, and a truncated year due to the pandemic. But I can’t help but wonder if there’s something inherent to Harvard that makes connection so hard.
Noah D. Dasanaike ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an advocate for unstructured time. When we meet on Zoom at 3 p.m., he’s just rolled out of bed — unclear whether from a nap or a full night’s rest. When Noah got to Harvard, he remembers being surprised by just how busy everyone was. “I never thought I would ever meet people who schedule their free time in the calendar,” he remarks, laughing. “That was just insane to me.”
It’s my first time meeting Noah, and he comes across as friendly and laid-back. During our entire half-hour conversation, a smile never leaves his face. I ask him what he’s most looking forward to upon returning to campus, and he talks animatedly about hanging out at El Jefe’s with friends.
But on campus, he struggled to find others who shared his easy-going demeanor. He had trouble finding friends who were willing to hang out and weren’t “afraid of having free time.” As he sums it up, “the vibe was off.”
I realize, somewhat sheepishly, that I’d internalized that fear of free time while I was on campus. Or, more accurately, that guilt. In high school, I pretty much never had free time. When I did in college, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough or was being left behind. That’s another reason I never actually grabbed a meal with someone — one of us was always too busy.
That Harvard students care about their grades is no surprise. But the College markets the romantic idea that most learning happens outside the classroom, during precisely the unstructured time Noah claims most students fear. It’s a Convocation trope to mention those conversations in Annenberg, or those late-night debates in a friend’s dorm, as the sites of true education. But during my free time on campus, I found that supposed spontaneity glaringly absent. Where was I to find these free-spirited people to converse or debate with?
Jessica F. Wu ’23, a friend of mine, remembers feeling “pressured” to join pre-professional organizations during her first year. Hoping to find community, she instead found more work and a unpleasantly competitive atmosphere. “There’s a sense of competitiveness, because now for the first time, you’re surrounded by people who have the same interest,” she says. “I think it’s hard to let those guards down.”
For my part, I had never heard of consulting groups before college. Although I didn’t actually join them, I still felt their power. During the past couple months, my inbox has been flooded with emails from LinkedIn, asking me to congratulate distant acquaintances on their new positions at various finance and consulting firms. Sometimes I can’t help but Google how much their positions pay and let the shock run over me before switching tabs back to my journalism internship applications.
But even for those in non-pre-professional organizations, finding community can still be a challenge. Roey, an aspiring writer, hoped to find her place in literary organizations on campus, but was unprepared for “how many hoops you have to jump through just to do something you care about.” These hoops are called “comps,” essentially a semester-long application process for acceptance into an organization. Although some are completion-based, many make cuts.
Socializing during these comp processes — “bullshitting for approval,” as Roey describes it — can often be too goal-oriented to allow for real connection, both with other compers and with upperclassmen. “It felt like I had to prove myself constantly, rather than being wanted or welcomed,” Roey remembers.
Noah credits this environment of competition to the people Harvard attracts. Extracurricular ambitions, he says, are an example of students “existing for the sake of what [they] think [they] could achieve in the future,” rather than prioritizing enjoyment in the present. He feels lucky to have found friends early on who value chilling at El Jefe’s as much as he does, but admits he’s struggled to make new friends who share those values. Harvard students, he says, “are very much accustomed to looking ahead.”
Noah’s words remind me of another Annenberg memory. On the rare occasion I did catch a meal with a friend, I found it hard to focus. Perhaps it was the background noise or the high ceilings, but for whatever reason, I struggled to maintain eye contact. My eyes would flick away, left, right, always scanning, always comparing. Who just walked in? What are they laughing about? What do people think of me right now? And not infrequently I’d catch my companion doing the same. We’d sit there, grateful not to be alone, but not really present, one eye perpetually fixed on some made-up horizon.
After family dinner, I curl up under the duvet I chose from IKEA in ninth grade, next to my stuffed animal. The suburban street is quiet outside my window. When I open Zoom, my friend has my undivided attention. It’s trendy to complain about Zoom — its lag time, its choppy audio, human beings reduced to 2-D rectangles. And sure, it’s imperfect, but for me, Zoom has enabled an intentionality I longed for on campus: We’ve carved out this time for each other.
I talk to my sources for this article over Zoom. I turn off self-view, make them full-screen, and don’t open any other tabs. Though some of them are acquaintances, this conversation is the realest we’ve had, on-campus or off. It’s only near the end of the conversation that Zoom starts to feel restrictive. In person, we might sit in the afterglow for a while, feeling the new closeness. But on Zoom, we sign off quickly. I want to give them all hugs.
If and when we return to campus, the physical structures of Harvard will still be in place. Annenberg, with its long tables and high ceilings. Extracurricular activities, with their long-established comp processes. And students, with their ambitions and dreams. But I’m hopeful that something will change. After a year of distance and computer screens, perhaps Harvard students will come to value time with others more highly. On their packed list of priorities, maybe genuine social interaction will move up a few spots.
When Jessica comes back to campus, she wants to start over. She intends to prioritize social events over pre-professional ones and even over studying. She proposes everyone “mutually agree that it’s fine to ask people to hang out.” Noah wants to finally get that El Jefe’s with his friends. Roey plans to actually “make good” on her lunch invitations.
I’ve begun imagining what that first conversation on campus will be like. Perhaps it’ll be with a trusted friend, and we’ll hug, a little rusty, a little giddy. Or perhaps it’ll be with a semi-stranger. There will be that moment of recognition, remembering the other exists, takes up space; we’ll laugh about it. But it’s in that next moment, those seconds that stretch the bounds of common courtesy, that we’ll discover if anything has changed. Maybe we’ll grab a meal, or maybe we’ll keep walking.
— Staff writer Maliya V. Ellis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @EllisMaliya. This is one of eight essays published as a part of FM’s 2020 “Synapse” feature, about gaps and how we fill them.