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“Math 1B, B for the bonding.” We laugh. Our bodies are still recovering from senior years and gap years spent behind a screen while our minds recalibrate to a world of in-person programming and daily math homework — so banal, but so bizarre to a class that spent the last year in an antithesis of banality dictated by Covid-19. As we integrate over 2 a.m. integrals, we discover a way to navigate the superficiality of conversations cut short by schedules and diluted by social ambition. We forge friendships that run deeper than the standard Harvard introduction.
Some of us find our best friends over the worst problem sets. Some of us bond as we look out for each other on a Saturday night, so none of us have to comprise the terrifying statistics of campus assault we’ve heard floating around. The rest of us find our closest friendships in Harvard’s affinity spaces, tied together by commonalities grounded in marginalization and generational trauma. And if you’re lucky, a morning dining hall exchange gives way to an honest conversation about skipped meals, compromised hours of sleep, or the fear of a rapidly declining number on the weighing scale. The value of solidarity in our shared struggles is undeniable, and we don’t hesitate to leverage it.
For many of us at Harvard, our struggles function as much more than a social lubricant — they delineate individual identity. Even before stepping foot on campus, we’re made to internalize the idea that adversity is an asset at this school. In a sea of accomplished individuals with rounded passions, a flair for articulation, and untethered drive, how do you set yourself apart? Do you have a story of struggle to tell? A personal justification for your intended concentration? A nuanced narrative to hold your defining accomplishments above the tide of equalization? And as always, there are groups of students that feel a disproportionately heavier burden to justify their place here.
Harvard may employ affirmative action and contextual consideration when it chooses who walks through its doors, but it does very little to even the playing ground once we’re inside. Freshmen from underfunded high schools vie for the same spaces as their preparatory school counterparts in capped seminars, competitive club applications, and positions of leadership. For these freshmen, the competitive distinction of personal adversity isn’t an added feather in the cap, it might just be their way of keeping up with the tide.
We all come from different starting points but play the same game of numbers, and if you haven’t been exposed to transformative intellectual pursuits or exclusive extracurricular experiences, you fall back on the next best thing you can bring to the table: adversity. Academia is no stranger to the distanced fetishization of suffering, and Harvard is no stranger to academia’s fallacies. Harvard is also innately transactional. In an environment where time is outpaced by opportunity, we’re compelled to quantify the value of every experience. So, we commodify our lived experiences as activity spaces on a resume. Marginalization, financial hardship, and personal tragedy function as cover letters to our identity.
For one, I’ve been guilty of playing “the international card.” When being international means coming from the Global South, I’m told that my card is especially powerful at this institution. In bearing direct witness to personal adversity and social inequity, my card contributes more than ethnic diversity or international perspective. My card is multifold — I’m a woman from a country where menstruation is still stigmatized, my skin is generously melanated, and my lived experiences are the substance of much of academia’s forages into global disparities. “Use the card,” I’ve been told. I shouldn’t have to feel guilty, because these struggles were real, and deserve to be considered. The struggles that stripped me of power now offer it back to me, and it’s an opportunity I deserve to leverage.
In many ways, I understand — and perhaps reinforce — this power. As we share reflections in my freshman seminar on mental illness, I appreciate the personal encounters that drove each of us to this space. In conversations on health policy, I prioritize voices that have lost loved ones to the disparities we speak of in theory. I love the friends I’ve made over dissecting problem sets and deconstructing problematic institutions.
But this power isn’t an upper bound to the space I occupy at Harvard, or my identity beyond it.
At an institution where merit is the baseline and adversity the outlier, it’s tempting to define myself in terms of the latter, especially if it provides context to my lack of summers spent in labs or rigorous AP courses. I want to believe that this temptation isn’t binding to my right to opportunity. My insight into an issue may be informed by my lived experiences, but not contained within them. My belonging at this school is not the sum total of my personal essay on a defining obstacle. My connections to the people that surround me are colored by more than our ability to hurt the same or navigate similar hurdles.
It’s a steeper learning curve than a saddle point approximation, but I’m beginning to redefine myself outside of these bounds. I hope to do so in a space that doesn’t conflate my past with my potential, in an institution that recognizes adversity to equalize opportunity, but doesn’t paint it as a substitute for merit.
Sasha Agarwal ’25, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Pennypacker Hall.
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