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A Wrinkle in Harvard Time

A tale of two Convocations, three years apart.

The Harvard University Marching Band plays the “Fanfare for the Class of 2019” as students and adults stream into Tercentenary Theatre on a sunny Tuesday afternoon.

This column rarely plays host to popular campus opinions, so it is probably unsurprising that its author quite enjoys hearing the Harvard Band play its medley of Crimson fight songs at sporting events and major university ceremonies like Convocation and Commencement. I genuinely enjoy the raucous energy of “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard” (as well as its less respectable counterpart) and the joyfully archaic melodies of “Fair Harvard.”

Those delightful booming bass drums and rattling snares rang out as I passed through the Yard just before the start of Freshman Convocation for the Class of 2022 a few weeks ago. Despite the usual confidence and slight aggression with which I usually walk through the Yard, I must have looked terribly awkward and touristy as I paused to listen and watch as the first few throngs of well-dressed freshmen strode into Tercentenary Theatre, jacket lapels and summer dresses adorned with newly acquired class pins, faces shining with excitement and perspiration.

For the first (and surely not the last) time during my senior year, a twinge of nostalgia tugged at my thesis-distressed mind and rapid walking pace as I tried to recall what must have been going through my head as I walked into Tercentenary three years ago for the Convocation of the Class of 2019. The same delight at Harvard Band antics was there, as well as some amount of trepidation and hesitancy.

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I’m quite skeptical of many elements of Freshmen Opening Days, but my classmates and I did confront, however timidly, genuine concerns and fears about entering an instruction so globally recognized and renowned. Were we worthy of the prestigious Harvard mantle? Would we prove valiant stewards of the opportunities afforded to us? At once, these questions reflected an acknowledgement of the ultimate honor and privilege that we had been given, but Opening Days also instilled a peculiar tendency to dance around dropping the “H-bomb,” to constantly “check our privilege,” and almost to fear Harvard’s very shadow. Community Conversations and its assorted counterparts seemed to assume that we were fragile creatures in need of every possible source of comfort and support, and that Harvard’s imposing reputation would crush us.

Thankfully, the following three years silenced the voices whispering that I wasn’t worthy of a Harvard degree, and strengthened a resolve to seek the best liberal arts education I could. (Not always the easiest task given the chaos of the General Education system.) I’ve become less tentative about owning my place in the Harvard legacy, and allowed myself to revel in the tradition and pomp and circumstance of this grand collegiate story. I am happily not the same person who walked into Tercentenary behind the Greenough banner three years ago.

Even as my classmates and I confidently inch ever closer to donning our caps and gowns one (hopefully) fine day in May 2019, we may often find ourselves feeling more like we did in August 2015 as President Bacow begins penning a new chapter in Harvard’s history. Once-familiar faces in the administration, Houses, and academic departments depart to begin their own new chapters, and new faces fill their place at a rate seemingly faster than usual. House Renewal projects (admittedly much needed) chip away at the repair and restoration of historic Harvard. A new course schedule promises to alter the very essence of the Harvard College experience as punctuality is no longer optional.

My conservative attitude towards change can’t help but wish for four years of relative constancy. But as much as I’ve yearned for the constancy that Harvard’s standards, legacy, and traditions usually produce, I’ve learned that Harvard remains an institution very much in flux, constantly changing. Paradoxically, our time here is essentially moving through a revolving door, but is an experience that promises to transform our very selves.

It will be a challenge this semester to resist the current that bears us ceaselessly back into the past as Harvard Time wrinkles and the University’s next pages begin. My time to linger in the Yard, enjoy the last refrain of Ten Thousand Men, and roll my eyes at stars dying in the firmament (Fair Harvard’s baffling new last line) will one day expire and run out, and I will leave this place. But not yet — there’s thankfully at least a few more columns’ worth of the Harvard experience for me, and unfortunately (fortunately?) for you all, much more opining to come.

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

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