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Columns

Confessions Without Absolution

By Serena G. Pellegrino, Contributing Opinion Writer
Serena G. Pellegrino ’23 is a resident of Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

Post-campus eviction, there’s no better place on the internet for Harvard students to revel in college nostalgia than the Harvard Confessions Facebook page. Advertised as a place for “your deepest secrets,” the page allows students to anonymously post hopes, memories, regrets, frustrations, and anything else rant-worthy. Mid-lockdown, I started following the page, and feeling slightly delirious from isolation and likely overly sentimental, I admittedly found myself living vicariously through these angsty snippets of college life. Some posts told of moments from CVS or J.P. Licks and chance encounters in Harvard Square. Others mourned the loss of staring down dining hall crushes daily – crushes that posters claimed would have blossomed into beautiful relationships if only time had allowed. And some reminisced watching the sun come up from a Lamont Library window after a night of intense stress and study, which now in hindsight seems quite charming. These lighthearted recollections and other ironic, even nonsensical posts would make me laugh and uplift me – even if just momentarily – during dreary days of Zoom and banana bread baking.

But as I continued scrolling, other posts snapped me out of this romanticized Harvard. Posts recounting on-campus loneliness, isolation before quarantine, relationships or acquaintances lost to distance (but which couldn’t be recuperated for fear of looking “desperate”), academic failures, and social anxieties came up all too often. Some posters were angry that their political views were being dismissed, that beliefs they held weren’t in line with those of their friends, that they urgently needed to “shout into the void.” Some of the more concerning posts even expressed suicidal thoughts, descriptions of sexual assault, and abusive relationships. In all posts, though, what stood out most was that Harvard students were tremendously afraid to confess their truths and vulnerabilities without the safety of online anonymity. They didn’t want to speak directly to each other; they wanted to be heard free of judgement. And with a following of well over 3,000 people, the page is not just for a struggling minority. Our community members are paying attention — and they’re most likely relating to some of the content, too.

The truth is that we Harvard students are terrified to project any weakness without the veil of anonymity. Fear of failure practically runs in our veins. It’s no surprise; to get here in the first place we had to be perfect, avoiding failures at every turn. Some fear of failure is normal and beneficial in order to motivate us to accomplish the amazing things we do. However, being unable to admit emotional weakness to one another is unnatural and unhealthy. Students are rarely willing to admit “I don’t know.” Instead, we are enthusiastic to share interests and talk about what we’re good at — our campus is vibrant and diverse because of this.

But rarely do we want to tell our friends why we’re stressed (about something other than a problem set or paper, of course). We don’t want to pile heavy emotional baggage on friends because it might get them down, too, or even worse, they might not care about it as much as we do. To our own detriment, we see our unhappiness as emotional failure. The student who constantly thrives academically, extracurricularly, has plenty of friends, tons of connections, and never struggles emotionally is the perceived perfect Harvard student. But this ideal is probably not an entirely genuine person, if he or she exists at all. Rather, this perceived idealized persona makes campus toxic because we are striving to be someone who is essentially impossible to be — that is, someone who only succeeds and never feels, doubts, or gets discouraged.

Harvard Confessions is the only platform bringing this problem to light. Certainly, it’s a useful outlet for students to get anything off their chest. But it shouldn’t be the case that we only feel comfortable being vulnerable when anonymous. We need somewhere else to turn. While some students may well be expressing their concerns more privately, that so many concerns are voiced so often online reveals that our community is not open enough. Not all students feel free to have direct personal conversations; retreating into anonymity feels like the safer choice. But receiving words of encouragement or consolation in the comments section of a post is not sufficient to overcome one’s difficulties. The short term satisfaction of confessing on this page will not address deep rooted frustration. And while the pandemic has made human interaction difficult, this detachment between students began long before March moveout. Whether we are on campus or off, together or apart, we’re afraid to admit we’re not always happy.

The name of the page is likely a harmless joke, yet the language itself sadly but perfectly conveys a campus culture of self shaming. We need to stop seeing our insecurities or shortcomings as “confessions” and sinful secrets. Harvard Confessions isn’t the enemy, but we should be able to admit struggle to one another and ourselves because undoubtedly, every one of us has felt weak at some point. We need to cultivate a culture of acceptance in which we can be competitive and eager to succeed, but receptive to the reality that we might not. Rejection is not necessarily a fall from grace. It’s okay not to conform or be perfect or feel constant validation. It’s okay to be occasionally directionless or lonely. Shouting into the void is fine, but drifting serenely through it is fine, too. If we want to create a healthier campus, we need to stop typing and get talking, names and all.

Serena G. Pellegrino ’23 is a resident of Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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