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Venturing Past Harvard Yard

Harvard gets better the further from it you go.

By Mohib A. Jafri, Contributing Opinion Writer
Mohib A. Jafri ’21 is an Electrical Engineering concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

Leaving the gates of Harvard College was the best decision I’ve made in my college career.

When tourists and overzealous high school seniors ask what your favorite part of Harvard is, the “right” answer is that it’s the people who make Harvard worthwhile. But what does that translate to in practice? There are people, good and bad, at literally every institution, by definition. Why is Harvard worth fighting for over many other colleges? Three years into my time here, I’m happy to report that Harvard isn’t terribly special: It’s everything that the College enables that makes Harvard the place to be as an undergraduate.

I am thankful to have learned this lesson early on: Eight weeks into freshman year, after I had just joined the organizing team of HackHarvardCollege, an annual hackathon, a group of 10 Business School students approached me and my co-organizers with a pitch. They wanted our expertise to create an event like no other: a social impact hackathon held at the Vatican City with the support of the Catholic Church.

This was quite an oxymoron to me: Hackathons — events of innovation and rapid iteration — are the antithesis of the Vatican City — a theocratic bureaucracy known for being anything but innovative and iterative. The expenses, logistics, language barriers, and newness of it all made it a recipe for disaster. We foresaw months of planning, weeks of pursuing what would become dead ends, and days of insurmountable stress to bring life to this oxymoron. And yet, we saw what it could be: a future in which the Catholic Church, an organization with a reach on the order of billions, champions new technologies as a vehicle for social change. There was so much for the world to gain, and a lot for us college students to lose.

So, of course, we bit.

We somehow did it. We found 120 of the brightest minds across every continent and flew them all out to the Vatican in less than six months’ time. While it was great proving to the world that faith-based institutions like the Church have both the ability and the obligation to lead global humanitarian efforts, I learned another equally profound lesson: Business School students are rockstars. With their marketing and business experience and our hackathon logistics experience, we made the perfect team. The larger Harvard community, where ideas and skills merge to form a collective power, is strongest together.

In navigating Harvard’s cutthroat pre-professional scene, I also found that the most rewarding opportunities can from the most unlikely of places. In the lull of the sophomore-slump life, I found myself scrolling mindlessly through Facebook videos until I stumbled upon a video of a man flying a jet suit.

Flying humans — I felt another oxymoron brewing. It was time for another rodeo: this time in a term-time engineering co-op at Gravity Industries, a U.K.-based startup building jet suits. Five micro-jet engines (two on each arm, one on the back), a bladder of A1 kerosene jet fuel, and some fancy electronics give you the experience of untethered human flight. I didn’t earn any course credit, money, or Iron Man fantasies fulfilled during my time at Gravity — but every minute at this company focused both on future modes of transportation and inspiring the youth through STEM education was worth it.

Aside from the weird flex, the stories of VHacks and Gravity Industries are an invitation to question your time at Harvard: Where can you take a risk? Where can you do something stupid and crazy where failure is likely the only option? What can happen if you succeed? And, most importantly, how bad will it be, really, if you fail?

As I see it, Harvard is the safety net that should enable us to reach far past the gates of Harvard Yard. With guaranteed food and shelter, access to jobs and internships, and that sweet, sweet grade inflation, the College is comfortable. But being comfortable is dangerous — it can either make us very risk-tolerant, or very risk-averse. I implore you to choose the former.

In pursuing my off-beaten path at — or more precisely, outside of — Harvard, it is because of this safety net that I’ve felt confident to venture into new lands (and air). The College is just the beginning: As remarkable as it may appear, a look outside the hobbit-hole reveals something greater.

Mohib A. Jafri ’21 is an Electrical Engineering concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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