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'Just' Visiting?

By Simon I. Döbele, Michael Gritzbach, and Asusa Sue Iida
Asusa Sue Iida, Simon I. Döbele, and Michael Gritzbach participated in the Visiting Undergraduate Program.

While Harvard is very proud that 12 percent of the newly-admitted students this year come from abroad, there is another group of international students many students don’t know about. Each semester, dozens of American and international students enroll at Harvard through the Visiting Undergraduate Student program.

When we received our acceptance letters to the VUS program at Harvard, our first reactions were immediately to be overjoyed. We called our parents and best friends and immediately started thinking about where this next step would take us. One of us imagined that they could finally work with Professor of Economics and Philosophy Amartya Sen, a world-renowned thinker at the intersection of economics and equality.

And we had done so much to get in: three letters of recommendation from important faculty and teachers, an extensive plan of study, exam scores, and more. We’re lucky to say the effort in applying paid off.

Our studies turned out great — we took classes with incredibly motivated students, and our professors asked questions we had never thought about before. However, we did not live the complete Harvard experience. As international students coming from foreign countries, one of our goals at Harvard was to be integrated into the Harvard community as much as College students are. However, this we could not achieve.

The living situation for students in the VUS program is extremely challenging. Some of us live in the DeWolfe housing, where some College students live as well. However, College students in DeWolfe are affiliated with one of the Houses for their social activities. We are affiliated only with Dudley House — the 13th House that does not offer anything close to the experience in the other Houses. One of the biggest aspects of being part of the Harvard undergraduate community is to be affiliated with these Houses. Harvard’s House system offers everyone a family to live with and be part of.

Such an affiliation should be feasible for students in the VUS program. As visiting students, we pay all University fees and tuition in full, and we would just as easily pay for on-campus housing to live in the Houses. Perhaps the College will be unable to offer sufficient housing for all the visiting students. But just some spots, along with an affiliation with the Houses, would go a long way to integrating visiting students.

Harvard should consider the experiences our friends had at MIT or Columbia University. Their universities offered them exactly what we want: an opportunity to stay with degree-seeking students. Before coming to Harvard, we didn’t realize how this would impact our lives. We miss the formals, dinners, and gatherings that are central parts of the Harvard experience.

There are other ways, most importantly in financial aid, that the University disadvantages visiting students. Harvard’s aim to bring a diverse group together should consider socioeconomic diversity. And they do — for degree-seeking students, for whom need-blind admission is offered. Students in the VUS program do not receive any financial aid. This shrinks the pool of students who can enroll to either individuals who can afford such an experience or students with outside scholarships. This tends to attract a certain type of student: Most have good economic standing and come from highly-developed countries. Seldom does one find a student in the program from less developed countries or who received a scholarship to attend Harvard, in our experience.

This, however, is important. The VUS program adds a lot to the layers of diversity found at Harvard. Sudents come from universities with different educational approaches, with different topics taught, from countries with different politics, with different customs and manners. Some students in the VUS program helped College students find internships, study abroad programs, or research contacts abroad. In that way, the VUS program promotes creative solutions and new ideas, the development of which is fostered by such diversity.

Given the range of differences in experiences and viewpoints between students in the College and in the VUS program, the University should take whatever steps it can to integrate the two groups, including through shared orientation or activities.

All of us are grateful to study at this wonderful University, but we VUS program students are denied basic parts of the experience. We lack certificates of program completion, advisors affiliated with our fields of study, and alumni email addresses, and we even have an earlier move-out day than College students.

Now back home, we look back at our time in Harvard as some of the most formative and fascinating months of our lives. While these issues leave a bitter taste, we hope future VUS program generations will be able to have the full Harvard experience and feel as integrated and valuable as their full-time counterparts.

Asusa Sue Iida, Simon I. Döbele, and Michael Gritzbach participated in the Visiting Undergraduate Program.

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