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In sixth grade, we were learning about family relationships when my teacher asked an innocuous question, “Will you raise your hand if your parents are divorced?” Out of the 25 or so kids in the class, only two kids raised their hands. I was one of them. The kids from ‘normal’ families looked around the room, attempting to spot the outliers. They zeroed in on me, staring at me with a combination of pity, disgust, and curiosity. I imagined that they were wondering how it felt to grow up as an unfortunate child.
Initially, I felt embarrassed, but as their stares lingered, I felt angry. I was in no way deprived. Despite being a single parent, my dad effectively filled both roles, making any sacrifice necessary to give me all the support and care I needed. But, based on the looks of my sixth-grade peers, I was missing something and that made me pitiful. I needed to show them that my life was not lacking. I decided the best way to prove this was to achieve academically. By achieving just as much, if not more, than kids from nuclear families, I could resist that pitiful stare. I set goals for myself and worked hard in school. I was determined to show my peers that my family circumstances had not set me back, that I did not need to be pitied.
Just a few years later, my dad passed away from health complications.
The loss was devastating and left me a husk of who I once was. And at one of the lowest points in my life, I remember receiving that same type of stare that I experienced in sixth grade. Hearing about my father’s death evoked a belittling, awkward look of pity that inspired shame in me. These looks brought me back to the promise I had made to myself several years previous and the emptiness that gnawed at me was buried by a reinvigorated drive to achieve.
My effort in high school paid off with a great reward; I was admitted to Harvard College. I thought I had finally proven to everyone who doubted and pitied me that they were wrong to do so. It was not until I moved into my freshman dorm that I realized that my approach was deeply flawed.
A week before moving in, my grandmother died. Despite the loss, I still moved away from home. My first few days on campus were incredibly difficult. I had to cope with another loss in a completely new setting. When I explained to peers why I was struggling, I saw a thinly-veiled version of the same look I had received my entire life.
As I sat in my dorm, alone in an unfamiliar place, I realized that I would never escape the stare. I could never prove it wrong no matter how hard I worked. There would always be that terrible moment because loss, no matter the form, inevitably evokes pity. There are no words or successes that can erase loss. And looking at my accomplishments I didn’t feel like I had gained much at all — I felt empty.
This emptiness triggered in me the realization that I had come to Harvard for the wrong reasons. I had fruitlessly tried to use my education to shape others’ impression of me instead of using it to enrich my own life and the lives of others. Remembering my dad, I knew his sacrifices were made for my happiness, not for me to convince others of it. I needed to let go of how others saw me and my circumstances, and had to start living for myself.
Many different motivations lead students to Harvard. Even without loss, the expectations of high academic achievement can make it easy to lose sight of or altogether miss the purpose of a Harvard education. Going through the motions of being a Harvard student to satisfy some external judgment or pressure is not enough. The occasional all-nighter, the paper you pour your heart into, and the problem set that tests your sanity should be done for you.
The emptiness left by loss will always be present, but by prioritizing my happiness throughout my Harvard education, I have begun to understand that piece of myself, unencumbered by the pressure to please others. Regardless of whether you have experienced loss, what motivates you throughout your time at Harvard should be deeply personal. “Do” Harvard for no one else but you.
Libby E. Tseng ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Pforzheimer House.
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