The Circles We Keep

“I have learned that to be with those I like is enough.” ― Walt Whitman

College has done an alarmingly good job of making me feel like crap. Not all the time, but a substantial enough amount that it seems worth discussing.

Harvard is an elite kind of place, stating it as such almost seems redundant at this point. Perhaps we can’t fault the institution for its nature, not when its inception was based on curating the best and brightest (and by no coincidence, the most socio-economically well off). So instead, we like to celebrate how far Harvard has come since the days its student body had largely been comprised of white men.

My theory of the modern Harvard student, however, is that we’ve held onto our continuing legacy of wanting to be different and distinct, “superior” from the rest. Smarts, spirit, and a decision behind the closed doors of the admissions office have gotten us all to this same school. But how do you distinguish yourself from people who are just as smart and spirited, if not better?

The solution comes in the form of comp processes to get into clubs that pride themselves on the numerous hoops they can make applicants jump through in the hopes of securing a spot of acceptance. It’s possible that there is substance to “merit-based” organizations like the Harvard Lampoon, which has a comp, or the Signet Society, which has an application — surely they’re justified in wanting to select who they deem as having the talent to be involved in their respective circles.

But I’ve always found something more insidious about some social clubs on campus. For those not familiar, single-gender final clubs are select organizations that would have been easy to ignore if not for their blatantly present properties on campus, and the complicated histories tied to them. You can’t quite get to the Staples on campus without passing by at least one of these mansions, identified by some tacky flag hung from their doorstep. Every fall, these organizations on campus invite students to join them in a semester long “punch process” — a time-consuming cat and mouse game where the priority for serious punch-hopefuls is to demonstrate their commitment to the social club by attending every punch event, no matter how ridiculous the timing or place.


Objectively, it might not seem like a bad thing to commit to: A private party place on campus, notorious prestige, and an impressively strong alumni network. My first experience even interacting with this more obscure realm of campus life was on a phone call to solicit donations on behalf of Harvard, where a very loyal alumni of an unrecognized student organization ranted for several minutes about his refusal to donate anything until the College’s sanctions are removed.

At the time, and even now, I can’t help but wonder what the purpose of a “social club” is — what are their missions and values, do they even exist? What do they contribute to the student body beyond a gated social scene? And a darker question — what does it mean to be rejected from such an organization? It isn’t exactly the equivalent of a failed comp process or a botched performance. Rather, the reason why one does not make the cut, is often based on that person’s social capital on campus.

Of course members of these organizations would argue that there are cuts based on commitment to the punch process, but what’s the excuse then for people who go to every event and meeting, only to still fail at achieving membership? There isn’t much insight into the metrics for deciding if a person is fit to join a social club, but the rejection is a clear statement in and of itself — you’re not good enough. For us.

It is very easy to take these superfluous decisions to a personal level — to be socially rejected is an intimately hurtful thing. But it is just as important to remember that these “elite” organizations are only as special as we let them be. My own elite circle is made up of the best kinds of people: Art history nerds and computer science whizzes, friends who always save me a seat at lecture, and blockmates who never fail to make me laugh after a tiring day. My network is made up of teaching fellows who offer to stay past office hours and House tutors who love to geek out over comics. I’ve been awed to know people who unfalteringly share their truths, and been humbled to be with those who are brave enough to be vulnerable. Beyond campus, I am honored to know uncles who freely volunteer at masjids, organizers who rally to normalize mental health in their communities, and advocates who exercise utmost patience and compassion in supporting their siblings with special needs.

The people I’ve surrounded myself with are people who inspire me to strive to be my best self. They may not have accolades and titles, and they might not even want that sort of recognition. I certainly did not have to complete any punch process to earn their companionship. Truly great people, you see, freely and gladly share the warmth, intellect, and joy of their greatness.

And these are the kinds of circles I want to keep forever.

Tajrean Rahman ’20, is a History and Science concentrator in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.