A Visitas Guide to Social Life

Let’s be honest with admitted students about student life at Harvard

Greetings, future member of the Class of 2015.

Let’s talk—I hear you’re considering Harvard. We all know it gets a bad rap in the social life department, but if you want the real deal before you make a decision, forget what you’ve heard. I’ll tell you a few things you need to know. But don’t flatter yourself, future ’15er, I’m not doing this just for you. I hope that this will also help current students speak with more specificity and insight about the things they like or don’t about Harvard. After all, you’re showing up on campus in two weeks and every Harvard student owes it to you to provide the 411 on life in the 02138.

First, the administration’s increasingly aggressive attempts to eliminate venues for underage drinking are robbing students of critical social outlets. Students cannot ask the University to condone or fund underage drinking, but from cancelling “golf” in Pforzheimer House to banning hard liquor served at off-campus House formals, the administration impairs House Committee programming without helping HoCos recoup the community lost as a result of these restrictions. In four years, I have not seen an effective or widely enjoyed program emerge from the Office of Student Life to replace programs and traditions that are disbanded. It is no surprise that students have turned away from the administration in search of social fulfillment.

Also, the lack of University-sponsored social programming is especially problematic for freshman males. One effect of the University’s crackdown on underage drinking is a growing inability of University programming to compete with final clubs. For all the (warranted) discussion about the impact of male-dominated social spaces on females, little attention is paid to the effects of this phenomenon on non-member males. Freshman males are often barred from entering, and so nights consist of wandering from one soon-to-be-shut-down room party to another. The final clubs can thus begin to acquire an importance of epic proportion in the minds of freshman males, seen by many as the ultimate antidote to nomadic nights of wandering. Every year the administration fails to provide social options for freshmen, they strengthen the appeal of the final club system.

You should also know that not all final clubs are created equal. Some clubs do more harm than others and are enclaves of sexual predation, objectification of females, and homophobia. Others are more responsible, less exclusive, and undeniably safer social spaces. The administration and groups like OSAPR and UHS should work together to evaluate the clubs individually.  As someone who stands fully behind the policies and procedures of my organization, the Fox Club, I see this as a way both to exonerate the clubs that are exemplary as well as hold accountable the organizations that do less to protect party-goers. Without being publicly scrutinized, these organizations have little incentive to work toward reform.


But, nevertheless, the decision to join a social group can define your social experience at this school. Upon admission, members of final clubs, sororities, and other societies enter a veritable wonderland of parties, mixers, open bars, and cocktail attire that makes freshman year seem like a bad dream. So, pre-frosh, if you have the option to join a final club, a sorority, a fraternity, or another organization with a strong social component (The Crimson, The Advocate, and The Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine, come to mind) I urge you not to turn the offer down. For many of us, membership in a social organization has been the largest contributor to our social satisfaction.

Therein lies a major reason why final club critics often fail to engage in meaningful dialogue with club members. Most members do not deny the inherent unfairness and arbitrariness of the system, and for years, I have struggled with persistent guilt about final club members’ embarrassment of riches. Nor do I deny the fact that some clubs are unwilling to confront the ways in which their policies and cultures allow for truly harmful behavior. Still, attacks on the very existence of the clubs as social organizations fail to resonate with members. From without, these organizations may appear one-dimensional and distasteful, but from within, they also represent friendship, camaraderie, belonging, and social fulfillment at a school where it can be hard to find those things. So, pre-frosh, if you take flak for joining a social organization that you love and cherish, brush it off as many of us final clubbers learn to do. Suggest that critics work to build alternatives and confront specific practices instead of attempting to discredit and dismantle entire organizations that form the foundation of hundreds of students’ college experiences.

So there you have it.

A few things to consider as you decide whether Harvard is the place for you. While I am a self-confessed Harvard booster who believes that this is an incredibly fulfilling place academically and socially, I acknowledge that the feeling is not universal and that there are serious challenges associated with social life at Harvard. This place can be both fantastic and endlessly frustrating. But current students owe it to you, our future classmate, and to ourselves to be able to speak honestly and openly about the problems we face. When you come to campus in two weeks, don’t be shy. Ask about these things and demand details. Let’s call it your first homework assignment as a Harvard student in the Class of 2015.

Tobias S. Stein ’11 is an urban studies concentrator in Quincy house. His column appears on alternate Mondays.