Making It Work

On Wednesday, our third and hopefully final semester of endless Zoom classes will slowly become a memory.

Although much has changed since Covid-19 took over our world, even more has stayed the same. Absent from headlines, applications, bills, and deadlines still come due and our meritocratic machine churns forever on. And current Harvard seniors are now faced with the task of transitioning out of their undergraduate years into a job market and graduate school landscape marred by change and uncertainty.

Whether it’s getting a high school diploma, graduating college, or moving out of our parent’s house, so much of being a young person is working our way to the next big milestone. As our lives continue to be defined by deadline after deadline, work life and home life merge, and the things that make us humans become anathema to our productivity as students and workers.

In searching for the human perspective amidst these standardized way-posts, I spoke with a high school senior who will be entering Harvard College’s Class of 2025 this fall, and a current Harvard senior on the cusp of graduation to make sense of what comes next for students grappling with the global challenges of pandemic life while reaching the same milestones that generations of Harvard students before them have undergone.

Falina A. Ongus ’25, a high school senior from New York, NY who committed to the Harvard Class of 2025 this past week, spoke to me about her journey from Zoom classes to Harvard. As a first-generation college student, she was already at a disadvantage when navigating America’s complicated network of universities; plus, like many current high school seniors, she was unable to tour the colleges to which she eventually applied.


In her mind, the personal qualities that “really make a school,” like connections with current students, weren’t accessible to her because of the barriers imposed on all of us by pandemic circumstances. She described her college application process as essentially flying blind.

While Ongus is happy with how her college journey ended up, she’s “not sure how to feel” about starting Harvard in the fall because, despite the administration's expectation of in-person learning, so much of the College’s and the country’s future is shrouded in uncertainty.

Yet, other seniors, including some of Ongus’s friends, who didn’t get the admissions results they wanted, are confronted with uncertainty of their own. As Harvard and hundreds of other colleges announced record-low acceptance rates that would have been unthinkable a generation ago, unprecedented numbers of applicants are left down on their luck, asking themselves why they ended up in the most competitive applicant pool in history.

Ongus, who goes to a high school with one of the highest average SAT scores in America, knows more than a few students in her graduating class who were upset by Harvard’s decision to make standardized testing optional this year. The bane of some people’s application was the expected highlight of others.

According to Ongus, who is the co-president of her senior class, the emotional drain of the application process has, at least in some ways, been lessened by the absence of in-person high school. The college apparel days that were once sacred at her school (my alma mater) are made impossible by remote instruction and the ill-will and gossiping that often accompany college decisions aren’t as present in her eyes. For Ongus, the visible features of committing to a college have been reduced to “updating a Facebook profile.”

Cassandra Luca ’21, a Crimson Arts editor and current senior set to graduate next month, has embraced the bittersweet nature of graduating college during a pandemic. Like Ongus, Luca began her online educational experience halfway into her junior year. Currently living in an off-campus apartment, Luca has not lived in Quincy, her house, since Harvard went online last year. Taking online classes and applying to graduate school programs, the English concentrator felt disconnected from the institution during the year that was supposed to be the peak of her induction into Harvard traditions.

But despite the “weird half-setting” that online school brought about, Luca still feels that she has gotten the most she was able to from Harvard during her time here. Next fall she’ll be moving to Canada for her graduate degree program in English at McGill University. Like the uncertainty surrounding Harvard’s in-person future, Luca is prepared for the reality that the situation surrounding the pandemic could change at any time, and muddle the plans that the Canadian university has announced for the fall.

Throughout my column, I’ve set out to tell the story of meritocracy from the unique vantage point of Harvard students. I wanted to find out what it means to be successful in an economic reality that revolves around perpetual competition in a school that is the epitome of competitive. But, more importantly, I wanted to see to what extent the individuality of each student and the sum of their experiences conform to this ecosystem of endurance.

What the stories of Luca, Ongus, and the many others I’ve interviewed reveal is that so much of meritocracy revolves around the completion of life-defining milestones. Whether it be graduating high school, college, or working our first jobs, these milestones supposedly tell us what contributions we are capable of making to society at large.

Even though so much has gone undone during this past year, these milestones occur undeterred in the midst of too many emotional twists and turns, endured unsupported. And while individuals are constantly evaluated on the basis of their purported societal contributions, our society’s standardization of success has suffocated too many into feeling as though they can’t measure up when it’s actually the other way around.

Gordon J. Ebanks ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor. His column runs on alternate Mondays.

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