It’s late at night on March 1, 2017. The midnight deadline is approaching fast, and I’ve been hunched over my laptop on my living room floor for hours. My fingers are flying across the keyboard in a frenzied effort to finish up the last few questions on my transfer application. The clock is ticking—it’s too late to edit now. I grit my teeth, and press submit with mere minutes to spare; it’s a shot in the dark. I’ll go back in the morning and realize the personal statement I wrote last-minute has nothing to do with the assigned topic, cry for a few minutes, and then console myself with the fact that I probably didn’t have a fighting chance with which to begin.
If you told me that night that exactly one year later I’d be publishing a column in The Harvard Crimson—let alone get accepted to Harvard—I would have laughed in both doubt and exhaustion-induced delirium. In truth, applying to Harvard was a spur-of-the-moment decision made to spite an ex-boyfriend who didn’t think I’d ever make anything of myself. That, coupled with the discouragement of an advisor at my community college, lit me on fire. Hell hath no fury like a woman doubted, apparently. I knew the statistics were grim; only about a dozen transfers are admitted each year, and I was pretty sure my very small, very rural community college wasn’t on Harvard’s radar. I didn’t even know anyone who’d gone to an Ivy League school. All I knew was that there were at least two people I needed to prove wrong. I didn’t give myself much time to think while I sped through my application, but once it was submitted, I wondered if I was taking things a little too seriously. Was I, in the infinitesimal chance I’d be admitted, prepared to leave my quiet, isolated corner of Virginia for urban Massachusetts? Could I survive in a city I’d never visited at a massive institution I knew almost nothing about? Would the pride of coming to Harvard be worth the struggle of transferring?
It was, but not at first.
On the surface, I hit the jackpot. I’d spent two years taking classes out of the same three buildings and packing my lunch every day because there was no cafeteria. There weren’t any restaurants or stores around campus—in fact, there wasn’t much of anything but mountains and trees. The lecture halls themselves were built into a hillside. Harvard was absolutely huge (and flat!) by comparison, and I was amazed by all the hustle and bustle; I’d spent a couple days in New York City when I was fourteen, and that was the limit of my exposure to city life. I was most impressed by the food. My first Harvard meal was a transformative experience, infinitely better than food out of a lunchbox or vending machine.
Harvard was at first glance everything I’d ever dreamed of, but the transition from small-town, small-college life quickly proved pretty difficult. My first day in Cambridge was symbolic for the comedy of errors my first semester would prove to be: I was running late for a transfer orientation dinner, and my parents, unsure of whether we were driving the wrong way down a one-way street, dropped me off on a sidewalk that was nowhere near where I needed to be. After a fifteen minute struggle to find my way to Dunster House, I got locked inside the courtyard and spent another fifteen minutes trying to find my way out.
Being so far away from home and living in such an unfamiliar environment was tough. I was embarrassed by my accent, I didn’t know anybody, and everyone already had established friend groups in which I just didn’t fit. I failed my first test so badly that I got a personal email explaining, in statistical terms I didn’t understand, how badly I failed (which prompted to me change my concentration—the first time). I fell through on most of my commitments and failed to maintain my budding friendships. I did the best I could, but the fear that I didn’t belong and never would nagged at me, and I continually questioned my place at Harvard. Ironically, being surrounded by so much life, activity, and opportunity made me wither.
By the time I’d scraped and crawled through the end of my first semester, transferring didn’t seem worth it anymore. I was a fish out of water, just trying to survive, and I wondered what had happened to that fire that led me to apply to Harvard in the first place. It took the entirety of the month-long winter break for me to gather my bearings and remember why I was here—or rather, why I even wanted to come here in the first place. My first semester had been overwhelming and sometimes flat-out miserable. The only sense I saw in returning to Harvard was that, instead of proving myself smart and capable to a couple of people that barely even knew me, I needed to prove myself wrong. I needed to prove that despite all the difficulties of transferring, I could survive and maybe even thrive here.
And so here I am. The initial adjustments are behind me and I’m having a little more success this time around. Coming to Harvard has been an invaluable experience, and I’d do it all over again, difficulties and all. It’s been hard, but that’s made it all the more worthwhile.
Emilee A. Hackney ’20 is an English concentrator living in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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