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How Harvard Becomes Home

Earlier this year, in April, on the second day of Visitas, there was a moment in which I, as I tend to be at that time of year, was in the midst of giving an impassioned speech to a group of pre-frosh, explaining why Harvard is superior to Yale, in every single way — and yes, that’s taking into account some of the uglier buildings on our campus — when, in one of the (rare) moments when I paused for breath, one of my friends interrupted me.

“But Shireen, don’t you hate Harvard?”

You see, when I’m mid-argument, I’m like a train, barreling on and on, and usually nothing can stop me; I just roll over any and all objections and I keep on going, and well, in the moment, my friend’s comment was no exception. I quickly dismissed her (valid) point by explaining that it’s not Harvard I hate, it’s the general culture of the Ivy League, and this culture thrives at Yale too, and, well, if someone is going to subject themselves to it, they should do so at the superior school.

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(Which, of course, is and always has been and always will be Harvard.)

My friend laughed and the pre-frosh laughed and just like that, I was off again, train barreling top speed to my ultimate conclusion: Pick. Harvard.

But later that night, when I was walking back to my dorm, I thought about what my friend had asked. Because she had a point — mostly that she and everyone else who knows me had listened to me complain about Harvard, constantly, for all of sophomore year. And yet, it was somehow impossible for me to fathom the idea of another school being better.  

For me, once the wonder of freshman year faded, the monotony of sophomore year set in. I was over my 14-hour days, tired of running from class to meeting to class to meeting to class, every single day, rinse and repeat. I felt other, like I was doing less than everyone else when really I knew I was doing too much. I felt other, stifled by a cutthroat campus where even friendships are made with the intent of networking. I felt other, out of the loop when my peers already knew the arguments of Thomas Hobbes or when they mentioned multitudes of friends at other Ivy League schools.

I still feel all this. But not always.

Sometimes, I walk through Dexter Gate, and I enter to grow in wisdom. Sometimes, I shop thirteen classes and end up desperately wanting to take nine of them. I go to lectures just to listen, I explore courses at the Divinity School and the Law School. I swipe into The Crimson, and I remember my own Visitas experience, how awed I was by even the prospect a college newspaper that had its own building and its own printing press. And I feel so lucky.

Sometimes, I pass by Annenberg minutes before a thunderstorm, and I stop, as if I’m a tourist, raise my phone and try to capture the beauty of my own freshman year dining hall, framed by the backdrop of thundering clouds. Sometimes, when the end of my day coincides with sunset, I walk back along the Charles, in the wake of a pink sky, and I feel at peace. And on the busiest days, if I have a few spare minutes, I climb up Widener steps and sit on the ledge so that my feet are swinging over nothing. I watch the tourists walk through the Yard, and I feel tall, and larger than my 5 foot 3 inches’ worth. And I feel at home.

Harvard is not an easy home. After all, I am still other. Many of us are. We did not go to fancy private (or fancy public) schools. We do not have parents who went here or even went to college at all. Harvard was not our legacy. And even barring the struggles of imposter syndrome and loneliness, these past two years have been tumultuous for me. There have been (many) moments where I think that if I could go back, I would not choose Harvard again. And yet, there have also been moments where I feel nothing but gratitude, nothing but wonder for this place that is ever growing and changing, and this place that I am growing and changing alongside.

Gratitude finds me in the most ordinary moments — every time I write this column, as a part of the organization I thought wouldn’t accept me freshman year. Or every time I warn a freshman of the perils of Ec10, and realize how far I’ve come. Or even every time I rush down Mass. Ave, running to yet another meeting, and for the first time in two years, don’t trip on broken up streets. Every one of these small moments is a reminder that finally, I too have found my footing.

And so, as someone who is known for “hating” Harvard, I want to say that I love being here. Yes, I criticize Harvard often and loudly, but its beauty and wonder still captivates me, and I hope always will. It is within these twin realities, of hate and love, of brokenness and beauty, that I have carved out a home for myself. And though I remain other, now, in many ways, I feel less so every day.

Shireen Younus ’20 is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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