A Part of the Institution

Outwardly, Harvard students present as innovators. To others, we’re elite college progressives who challenge the current system, demanding it to align with us and our values. We’re socially conscious learners, the “snowflakes” bending the storm to weather to our will. We write. We protest. We rally. We advocate. We scrape change out of this place and cast the remnants of an antiquated system from under our fingernails.

To some extent, there’s some truth to this perception. The people, education, and experiences on this campus force us to think beyond ourselves and imagine a future we actively design. But social politics on our campus tell a different story.

Within the ivy-covered walls of our ivory tower, we cling to generations of self-imposed hierarchies and rules, governing our roles and our leadership, generating the social stratification that drives many of our actions. This initial desire to change becomes difficult to see from the inside. Certain social circles are selective, closed; one must adapt to a culture and be vetted for the veneration that comes with inclusion. Some student organizations exist within hierarchies, often with seemingly hundreds of pages of rules — written or unwritten — that its members immediately adopt, take themselves, and fold into their personalities. We dive so quickly and so deeply into various facets of this institution that we become them. To ask these institutions, then, to change? How do we alter an institution and a system we find ourselves so deeply knotted in?

It’s interesting how this comes about. When we first arrive on campus, many of us hang on to the character whom we formed throughout our first 18 years of life. In our first few months in Harvard Yard, we stay connected with our high schools, our communities, our old friends — regardless of whether they are in Boston, Los Angeles, or Singapore.

But something changes near the end of our first semester, as we begin to cast off our old selves and fully begin to adopt Harvard for ourselves. We understand (or at least begin to) the campus, its people, how things work to get things done. We know which groups to join, which to avoid, which to look up to, and which to critique. Hierarchies begin to solidify in our minds. As a result, we begin to adopt the structures and strictures that the groups we comped our first semester impose on us. While it is critical to find a community here and make Harvard your own, there’s a limit to where you as an individual should shift yourself and your views to fit that of an institution.


These shifts aren’t necessarily bad, depending on the group and how we feel about it. But these changes within ourselves, and our new willingness to support different causes, values, or organizations provide an interesting look at how we adapt so quickly to our surroundings. Some of us come to this campus not knowing anyone or anything about its institutions, but by the end of our first year, we’re fully on board with the unwritten rules that make Harvard run. We adopt the precedents that prior generations of Harvard students have cobbled together over time, and we hold fast to them, as if we’d made them ourselves.

Rules and norms exist for a reason, often to fill a necessary void or gap within the way Harvard runs. And perhaps there’s an argument to be made about the strength of social networks or the cultural capital that one leverages when they adopt an institution and befriend its traditions and systems. There’s a history of others who followed the same path, saluting you as you walk it yourself, showing you that there’s value in upholding the institution as is. But there is a disconnect between the way our campus outwardly presents as a socially-conscious, activist-oriented place, and the ways in which we all respect and do our part to cohere to the traditions of students past, actively or not.

At times, when we intertwine ourselves so deeply with these institutions and their hierarchies, its effects ripple beyond constraining our intentions to enact change. It affects our social lives, our friendships, and even the way we interact with certain spaces on campus — and this can quickly become toxic if we don’t recognize ourselves and others outside of the circles we keep.

In order to reconcile our past and present selves, there is a need to divorce the individual from the institution. As individuals, as students, and as change-makers, we need to reflect on what our true goals are as members of our communities or institutions, irrespective of any larger group missions. We need to weigh what is important to us, and create the change that we want to see, and the future we want to be ours.

Jessenia N. Class ’20, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology concentrator in Quincy House. Robert Miranda ’20, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is an English concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Their column appears on alternate Thursdays.