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Transforming a Community into a Family: What Harvard Could Learn From Home

Harvard has a lot to learn about building community, and the Pasefika value of family has so much to teach it.

By Gabrielle T. Langkilde, Crimson Opinion Writer
Gabrielle T. Langkilde ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

Back home, family is everything.

The value of family is evident in every aspect of life in American Samoa, as well as in many other Pacific islands and cultures. It is evident in the way that our people are able to trace our histories through family lineages. It is evident in the way that the concept of orphanages and retirement homes seem incredulous to so many back home, because of the idea that every child and elder must have a family and a home. And it is evident in our dedication to serving and supporting our families, when we gather together at family functions.

But not only is family everything — it is everywhere. For me, having grown up surrounded by aunties, uncles, grandparents, and tons of cousins, family was at every turn. But family is not only restricted to your bloodline. In fact, most of my aunties, uncles, and cousins are not even directly related to me. “Aunty” and “uncle” are your parents’ friends or really any other adult that you interact with at the store, at church, etc. “Brother,” “sister,” or “cousin” are your peers, classmates, and friends that you’ve learned and grown with.

Having been raised with this strong dedication to family and a kind of familial love that stretches across lands and bloodlines, my transition to life at Harvard was a difficult one. I didn’t understand why, when I struggled to understand course material or complete a p-set, my peers and classmates were hesitant to help me, and would often times leave me behind because I had nothing to contribute. I didn’t understand why people walked so fast and stared at me strangely when I smiled at them as I walked past. But perhaps most of all, I didn’t understand why I felt so lonely on a campus that preached community and inclusivity as some of its core values.

Harvard breeds a community of individuals and a culture of exclusivity. From its intense classes and extracurriculars (which literally demand and reward students for lack of sleep and self-care) to its emphasis on social networking and transactional relationships, it is no wonder why many here feel socially isolated and have no sense of community. Harvard has implemented programs and campus organizations to mitigate these problems and promote inclusivity within its community. And while many of them are amazing resources and have helped many people to feel more included, these things will only ever be a reactive treatment to a well-established culture of exclusivity, and will never be able to eradicate the need for inclusion.

As far as community building goes, I think that Harvard could learn a lot from Pasefika communities and their dedication to the value of family. Because so many Pasefika communities have a family-based model, where everyone is entitled to a type of love and respect that transcends boundaries, the concept of “promoting inclusivity” is so foreign because no one is ever excluded in the first place. With this valuing of family, which in many Pasefika cultures translates to a valuing of all members within their community, we pride ourselves on uplifting one another — not competing against each other. Because in a family, each family member benefits from the success and well-being of their brothers, sisters, cousins, aunties, and uncles.

Harvard has so much to gain from incorporating this same value of family, and the transcendent love and respect that comes with it. A shifting of campus culture in this way could result in a community that rewards its members for uplifting one another rather than the fostering of a culture of unhealthy competition. It could result in a stronger sense of belonging — or even a complete absence of one’s questioning of belonging here in the first place. It could result in the decrease of mental health issues related to stress, anxiety, and feelings of isolation and loneliness, because such a cultural shift opens up the possibility for a beautiful, expansive love for each of its community members. All in all, the incorporation of this Pasefika value of family opens up endless possibilities that could lead to the kind of community that Harvard has been preaching that it wants to be.

Gabrielle T. Langkilde ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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