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Op Eds

What It Means to Fit In at Harvard

By David I. Gonzalez, Crimson Opinion Writer
David I. Gonzalez ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a double concentrator in Psychology and Economics in Kirkland House.

Harvard’s undergraduate population is egregiously unrepresentative of the broader American demographic. According to The Crimson’s freshman survey, over a quarter of the Class of 2025 comes from families in the 95th income percentile or higher. Nearly half of students’ parents earn more than twice the national average income. Harvard is a university where privilege is pervasive. However, for those like me, who do not come from such a privileged background, the adjustment to life here can be difficult.

For those less fortunate, privilege lies in smaller things: Not worrying about where their next meal is coming from, not having to work while in high school to support their family, and not fretting about asking their parents for money to partake in the little joys of life.

So whether we like it or not, attending Harvard means stepping into a world of privilege unlike anything we’ve ever encountered — a world that many of us never imagined we would inhabit.

Coming to Harvard is an adjustment for everyone, but those who come from wealth have a leg up: They already know how to navigate the nuances of an Ivy League school. I remember having conversations — or, more honestly, listening to others have conversations — where I was hesitant to talk because I was unsure of what was going on. “Comping” clubs freshman year feels daunting to everyone, but it’s much harder when you’ve never heard of a “comp” before.

Disparities in background become even more pronounced at the pre-professional level. Knowledge about internship programs and their application timelines, and skills like interview preparation and networking — whatever that means — require experience that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds often lack, necessitating a learn-as-we-go approach. Similarly, students frequently don’t have the money to purchase prep materials for internships and graduate school.

And on top of all that, less privileged students are less equipped to find advisors who could help them ameliorate these disparities. Harvard has a variety of resources to help students prepare for life beyond undergrad, yet these resources are often decentralized and hard to navigate. Simply knowing someone who knows what Harvard is like before you get here can provide significant stress relief, especially during freshman year.

Privilege also takes a social dimension. At the extreme end, wealth disparity can lead to students from less privileged backgrounds feeling the need to keep up with their more affluent friends. Extravagant trips to exotic places can serve as glaring reminders of this disparity.

However, Harvard, through both its academic departments and its student organizations, does a good job making opulent opportunities available to as many students as it can. From club retreats in Cape Cod to subsidized January term or spring break trips, there are many ways one can experience the world on Harvard’s dime. Yet for those of us unaccustomed to such luxuries, these experiences can feel strange. Even small things, like fancy dinners on campus, may be entirely new — we often don’t know how to dress, what to say or which utensil to pick up first, and I still forget sometimes — are all things we have to adapt to.

And it almost feels wrong to enjoy the wealth, because we are well aware of the myriad other ways that money could have been spent.

However, there is something, I believe, that people who don’t come from extreme affluence understand better than most: The stakes of being here. Most of us are well aware of the fact that Harvard can measurably change our lives, because we aren’t surrounded by people who have had such luxury. The spot we take up is one we undoubtedly deserve, but also a spot that could have changed someone else’s.

If this sounds like you, remember this: Just because your spot could have changed someone else’s life doesn’t mean that you need to work twice as hard to prove you deserve it. You do not need to take five classes every semester, join every club on campus, and push yourself to the point of exhaustion. Nor should you succumb to the pressure to do the thing that looks the best on a resume instead of what is best for your happiness. I plead you to have an honest conversation with yourself about how you spend your time at Harvard — the earlier the better. There are many things I wish I could have done differently, opportunities I wish I had at least known about my first two years here.

I don’t intend to make you feel guilty. Everyone has their own acclimation timeline, and it is not easy to settle in when you come from a very different world. Harvard was built for the elite and still embodies much of that past today, so those not from wealth have to learn the right mannerisms. But the spot you occupy is rightfully yours, and that you should never feel the need to go about your time here doing what others may expect you to do.

David I. Gonzalez ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a double concentrator in Psychology and Economics in Kirkland House.

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Op Eds