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An Ode to Harvard

My farewell to a four-year love-hate relationship

Catch 22

I first arrived at Harvard not knowing if I wanted to be here at all. Unlike many accepted students, Harvard had never been my dream. Growing up, I saw myself attending Georgetown, living in Washington, D.C., and perhaps one day working as a speechwriter for a political campaign. But when my Harvard acceptance arrived, everything changed. Like many students, I felt that the offer was too good to pass up. I knew that if I didn’t attend Harvard, I would spend the rest of my life qualifying every conversation or job interview with the fact that I had been accepted, but turned the offer down.

After arriving on Harvard’s campus, I immediately regretted my decision. I felt out-of-place, intellectually inferior, and discouraged when my interests didn’t align with any of the new friends I had made. A few months into freshman year, I considered transferring to Georgetown. I missed the comfort of the small Catholic community in which I had grown up, where “Republican” had a positive connotation, and where everyone looked the same and held the same beliefs as I did.

Fortunately, I was either too scared or too stubborn to give up on the Harvard experience. Whichever the case may have been, I am thankful every day that I made the decision to stay.

Harvard has taught me so much. It has instructed me on topics ranging from Ovid’s influence on Shakespeare to theories of sexuality to the chemical composition of a chocolate soufflé. It has helped me to learn a language, write a novel, and pursue a career in journalism.

What I am most indebted to Harvard for, however, has little to do with my instruction inside the classroom. Above all, I credit Harvard for helping me to become a more socially and culturally responsible human being. I remember a time when I used to thumb through college pamphlets and the word “diversity” meant little to me. Thanks to Harvard, that is no longer the case.

What I realize now, and what I failed to realize back then, is that the more people you meet who are different from you, the more aware you become. As the product of a white Catholic community, there were certain injustices that I could not even fathom until I got to Harvard. Here, I received an education that could never be taught in the halls of a Jesuit school like Georgetown, where the majority of students resemble those I had grown up with my entire life.

Harvard forced me to befriend people with whom I had little in common, to have difficult conversations about race, politics, and religion, and ultimately to challenge my beliefs, thereby strengthening them in the process.

But lest you jump to the conclusion that Harvard is a shining beacon of social justice and political correctness, I’d like to end my final column with a few thoughts on how the university could improve in the future.

To start with the obvious, we have an exclusivity problem here at Harvard. Nearly every extracurricular organization requires an audition, an application, or some sort of qualification for acceptance. To all those Harvard students out there who may be reading this column, I ask you to consider this: The world is too exclusive for us to be impeding our own opportunities.

The world is also too patriarchal, too heteronormative, and too racially insensitive for us to be reinforcing those hegemonies within our social spaces. We need to consider who defines our social scene and why this may be the case. When we encounter the kind of elitism for which we have been heavily criticized and stereotyped, we must resist it, and make a concerted effort to carve out spaces where inclusivity is pervasive. If we can develop paradigm-shifting social networks and revolutionary chemotherapy drugs, I have no doubt that this is a feasible goal for the future.

But above all, we need to dispense with the competition.

At my freshman convocation, Dean Michael D. Smith used one simple phrase to tell the Class of 2015 all they needed know about succeeding in a competitive environment: “Don’t compare, connect.”  It was the first lesson I learned at Harvard, and it is the lesson I hope to leave my readers.

As Harvard students, we are told over and over again that we are privileged to be part of an institution with infinite resources and educational opportunities, and this is certainly true. But we are far more privileged to be in the company of passionate, driven, and extraordinary individuals who can teach us so much about the world in which we live. In the future, let us strive to be their advocates and not their competitors.

Let us also strive to be grateful for this opportunity we have be given, while keeping in mind that Harvard does not define us as human beings. It may be an important part of who we are, but Harvard does not dictate or determine who we will become. That part is up to us, and it is my firm belief that Harvard has given us the impetus to become the most conscientious, informed, and charitable versions of ourselves. Despite whatever reason may have compelled us to attend this college, Harvard’s gift to us is much more than a name—it’s a call to action.

 

Aria N. Bendix ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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