I was scrolling through 10 shirtless, mirror selflies that I took this past semester, staring into my unabashedly hopeful face—with eyes glaring up and down my body—when I realized that I’m not special.
For the past several months, I took time off from school to be at home in Southern California. While there, I tried something new for me but familiar to most in my community: I began a “bulking” routine.
Bulking in high school usually involved the “bros” eating a lot, weightlifting, and looking as massive as male rhinoceroses with surprisingly human-like features and backwards baseball caps. For me, however, bulking meant eating a lot, weightlifting, and looking like a skinny white dude with surprisingly large nipples.
Looking through my “progress selfies” at the end, I did see that my muscles grew a little bit. But my "gainz" were modest, especially compared with my sizeable pectoral pepperonis.
And then a strange thought occurred to me: “You know what? I’m not special.”
Let me explain. When I was first admitted to Harvard, I never felt comfortable believing that I was somehow naturally smarter or harder working than my peers at home. Time and distance from home made those feelings fade a bit. Yet, as I once again compared myself to those around me this past semester, I came to realize that my place at Harvard was, to a certain extent, arbitrarily determined—just like the arbitrary differences between vain, topless, selfie SoCal Dash and the (mostly) clothed Dash at school.
At Harvard, every student is supposed to be special. We all set ourselves apart from our communities by starting a charity, inventing a new tool, or doing something else impressive while doing well in our classes.
Yet, a lot of the things that “set me apart” in high school felt like happy accidents: Two off-the-cuff emails I sent one summer led to future job opportunities and recommendations I never expected. I became president of a club at a time when no one else ran for that position. And I tried out for the track team my freshman year only because a few friends pressured me to do it.
Sure, I still had to earn those achievements. But in those examples, there’s undoubtedly an element of circumstance involved. Plus, there are other “achievements” that I never had to earn at all. I was a white male in AP classes largely filled with Asians and females. On top of that, I had some legacy at Harvard. So, as if things weren’t easy enough for a white man from a Harvard family, affirmative action and legacy preference made it so that my background actually gave me an advantage in admissions.
We all have instances where luck helped us earn admission in some way. I know plenty of people at Harvard who have felt guilty because they believe athletic recruiting, family internship connections, skin color, or other factors unfairly led to their admittance. In addition, I know kids who didn’t get admitted to any other top tier schools before getting selected by Harvard from the waitlist, calling the merits of the whole system into question. And, more importantly, I know there are many deserving people out there who weren’t so lucky.
But I think these doubts fade over time. And there’s a reason for that: Harvard wants us to believe we are special. Grade inflation makes most of us into high-achieving A or B students. Politicians and famous people travel here to give speeches, making us feel important. And administrators constantly tell us that we are truly exceptional people.
Don’t get me wrong: Feeling special is generally good. It inspires self-worth, the confidence to take risks, and an onus to make change in the world. And yet, unhampered, it can distort perspectives. At a time when inequality is on the rise and equality of opportunity is being called into question, we might forget that the meritocracy of admissions is not perfect. We might forget that a few lucky circumstances helped us arbitrarily gain an advantage over some of our peers. We might forget that Harvard still struggles with its socioeconomic diversity. And, worst of all, we may forget that we have so much to gain from those outside the Ivy League community.
After three years here, I know Harvard students are incredible people. But being at home reminded me of all the kids who could very well be in my spot. There’s a tinge of randomness that stains every admissions spot at Harvard—a tinge that must be recognized if we are to be citizens who can know and navigate the growing inequalities of our world.
Anyway, those are just some thoughts from a Harvard kid who thinks he’s special enough to write a column. If not that, at least he’s got some very special nipples.
Dashiell F. Young-Saver ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.