When I was applying to Harvard, I thought deeply about what I would write in my essay. Of all of the pieces of my life, which of them seemed “Harvard-worthy”? How much of myself was I willing to share? I received plenty of advice from teachers and friends during the writing process — most of it unsolicited, and almost all of which said the same thing: to talk about my different identities, but to ultimately focus on the future; to showcase myself as someone who was striving ahead, not looking back. I ended up writing my Common App personal statement on movement: how the various states and homes I’ve lived in have impacted me. In addition to writing about moving forward, I did end up writing about looking back. And as I look back on that essay now, I look into a past farther in time than just my childhood — a past larger than just myself.
Histories are complicated, and especially at a place like Harvard, they are not spotless. Harvard’s role in colonialism ranges from direct colonization in Southeast Asia — where Harvard administrators and affiliates helped establish a colonial education system based on imperialism — to indirect colonialism through scholarship, like Louis Agassiz’s work into polygenism that aimed to separate, segregate, and rank different races, which furthered colonialist rationale.
My admission to Harvard follows painful histories like these — histories that directly impacted my ancestors and that I must now grapple with as a student here. As the daughter of Indian immigrants, I know the pain that immigration can cause — longing to see relatives in real life whom I only hear through crackly WhatsApp calls, wishing for the tangible support of having family close by, eating quickly deflating puffed puris in an Indian restaurant which remind me of people and places far away. At moments like these, I can’t help but wonder how colonialism in India, both direct and trickled-down, impacted my ancestors and extended family in ways that may have eventually contributed to my parents’ immigrating to America. The opportunities stripped from a homeland once so full of promise, the desire to achieve the American Dream as it was packaged and advertised around the world — these are likely a large part of why I am here in America, here at Harvard.
Prior to receiving my acceptance letter, I wasn’t aware of these complicated histories. After all, it’s not like they’re front and center on the admissions brochures. But after coming to Harvard, I took classes on colonialism and its legacy that forced me to reorient myself in the larger cacophony of time, space, and history. However, the irony is not lost on me: I’m learning about colonial histories at an institution that contributed to it.
I must now contend with how the legacies I’ve inherited by attending this university intersect with those I inherited from my parents. Not to mention the pressure to find the “right way” to talk about my familial experiences, to package generational trauma in a more palatable way back to the perpetrators. How do we cope under the weights of these competing histories?
In my college admissions essay, I briefly mentioned my family’s immigration history. Looking back now, I regret that I didn’t mention it more; it’s shaped me into who I am today. On the other hand, doing so risks using my heritage as a springboard into Harvard, even as that same springboard allows me to use the considerable resources and power concentrated at Harvard to launch myself and my family into a more comfortable future. When we launch ourselves to new heights, are we actually doing so at the expense of people who lived centuries ago, whose lives were lived in the shadows of colonialism? How do I reconcile these complicated histories with the kind of future I’m aspiring toward?
With such a springboard, you must also make sure that you have enough potential energy in the first place to actually launch you to your next endeavor; the alternative is complete inertia, a standstill. And when standing at the precipice, you must make sure that these complicated and competing histories do not ultimately compress you, the weight of legacy pushing down so much that you can never build back up enough potential energy to launch you forwards. As I contend with these histories, legacy full of complication, I try to maintain a balance between downward motion and upward launch. How do I turn an ancestral history tinged with pain into a future filled with joy, a historiographic alchemy?
While writing this piece, I tried again and again to find possible answers to my questions. Yet despite so many drafts, I wasn’t able to. I think that for now, I remain a balancing act.
— Staff writer Shanivi Srikonda can be reached at email@example.com.
This is one of six essays published in FM’s 2022 “Rewriting Our Harvard Admissions Essays” series. Read the rest of the series here.