A River Runs Through It

Was Harvard everything you dreamed it would be?

“Was Harvard everything you dreamed it would be?”

A dear friend recently queried me during a meal in the Mather House dining hall, with Cambridge glowing crimson during another spectacular spring sunset. I could only smile and chuckle gently as I attempted to collect my thoughts. Where to begin? Where to end? Who to thank? What to lament? What to celebrate? What pithy summation or epithet to offer? The best I could do was laugh and say, “I’ll have to get back to you with a Crimson column!” (For which I got an eye-roll and bemused sigh.)

Now the moment has come to deliver that response. As with every column I’ve written, I’m afraid I won’t ultimately be able to utter the words that are truly on my heart, only mirages and flickering images that will not do justice to the realities they attempt to represent. This likely won’t be a very traditional opinion column, for I do not wish to comment on policies or procedures, chastise, critique, or condemn. I do not believe that it will tend compellingly towards artistic or eloquent either. Whatever it shall be, this column will not come close to capturing my four years here.

But I must try to do so, at the very least to celebrate the friends, mentors, scholarship, trials (yes, even hardships), and triumphs that shaped my Harvard experience. I think the best answer to my friend’s question starts is a simple story from the woods and barracks of Fort Knox, Kentucky. Lest you should think from that introduction that I was out with the U.S. Army stoically soldiering or learning super-cool tactical maneuvers, I was not.


For most of that brief month before my senior year I was trying desperately not to fall asleep on my security watches, marching a few miles every day, and listening to my stomach growl for the M&Ms in my next ration. My body was on full auto-pilot, leaving my mind free to wander far, far from Fort Knox. In usual flashes of missing home, I often thought of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado or how my family was celebrating July 4th without me.

I soon realized I was also homesick for Harvard. On those long marches with nothing else to do but think, I’d pass the time by imagining, as vividly and viscerally as I could, walking back from the Science Center to Mather House in the cooling September twilight, counting every step, conversing with a few dear friends on my way back to the concrete jungle. Or I’d visualize biking across the river to a rugby practice in the crisp autumn afternoon and greeting every one of my teammates, or running along the Charles during sunrise joking with my cadets.

These moments added up, and I realized with joy how much I loved Harvard and the seemingly small and most routine elements of my existence here. Every day, I heard laughter and impassioned debate ring out in whatever dining hall I was in. Every day, I saw people greeting each other in between classes with hugs and high fives and smiles (even in the worst of weather conditions). Every day I ran into a friend, instructor, teammate, unexpected freshman acquaintance, someone who made my day better for having seen them only for one moment. Every day, I read about a classmate who had made a major academic or athletic accomplishment and felt a flash of genuine pride.

If I were to comb through the history of all the time I’d spent here, I do believe that I’d find something good in every day. Now, we’d almost be forgiven for believing that nothing good ever happened here, because no one writes op-eds or protests or petitions or becomes an activist to celebrate the good that does exist at Harvard. This is not to say, of course, that there weren’t bad days or bad weeks or even bad months for us here. There remain many aspects of Harvard life that are challenging, restrictive, and overwhelming, and we nobly attempt to try to set such a world aright.

It is perhaps only now in the bliss of senior spring that I can write that the side of Harvard that contains authentic joy, friendship, spirit, and pride is more pervasive, more powerful, and more profound than we might imagine. I cannot possibly hope to thank everyone who has made Harvard such a place for me.

To my all friends, coaches, professors, and Crimson editors who helped me share so much of my journey here, I could never have imagined how much of an impact you have made on me — thank you. My final answer to the question that my friend raised is thus: Harvard wasn’t what I dreamed at all, for how could I have dreamed of an adventure whose twists and turns I scarcely could have imagined?

Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.