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Harvard Without The Extra

Harvard students should avoid needless commitments to maximize having a fulfilling experience

In my junior year, I found myself deeply jaded in a way I never expected to be at Harvard. The feeling crept up on me starting in the trainwreck that was my sophomore year season, inadequately termed “sophomore slump.” Yet, I didn’t know how entrenched it was with bitterness and anger until a specific, surprising instance happened junior fall. I was chilling with my best friend who was scrolling on Facebook, when she came across a post that elicited a reaction of utter disbelief. Some poor girl, who unbeknownst to her quickly became the target of our private ire, had posted a picture of a memorable moment with her smiling radiantly and in her caption had likened Harvard to “heaven on earth.” Our honest confusion at why anyone would consider Harvard to be heaven on earth morphed into annoyance and then finally anger as we discussed her post.

First of all, was she sure she was referring to Harvard College? She couldn’t have been describing the same college I had been attending for the past two and a half years. Second of all, how dare she have such a positive otherworldly experience here? At this point, I was relying on the grace of God to carry me throughout each and every day as I struggled to survive the year. The strength of my feelings of offense were so surprising that I had to ask myself how I had arrived at this state.

For all I knew this random girl could be lying and putting up a front for her friends and family like most people do on their social media — only showing their highlight reel. But witnessing her supposed joy in the midst of my despair forced me to take a serious look at my disillusionment with my Harvard experience and come to the conclusion that I had no one but myself to blame.

While there are most definitely external forces that contribute to the toxicity in our culture as well as real-life issues and inequities that affect our experiences, as students here, we must admit that sometimes our own hands build the very cages that trap us.

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I chose my concentration. I chose the organizations that I participated in. I chose the people I surrounded myself with in my various social circles. Though I fully take responsibility for my actions, I had to further question why I did — and continue to do — things that inevitably put me in such a dark headspace that someone else’s happiness triggers a concoction of bitterness in me. It definitely took some mental and emotional work to interrogate my influences and deeply rooted impulses, but I was better for it.

I realized that under the influence of societal pressures I was forcing myself to live up to unrealistic internal expectations when outside factors will always affect the expected outcome of my decisions. I ignored warning signs (emotional and physical health concerns) and sometimes even advice from others, refusing to really learn from past experiences, with the belief that I could conquer and overcome even the most difficult situations. Though there is something to be said for experimentation as we go through college and the failures that may result from our decisions, continually choosing more than we can handle is as detrimental as it is unnecessarily “extra.”

I know I’m not alone in this either. I often joke around with my friends about how they are gluttons for punishment when they decide to take an additional class that is notoriously hard or once again involve themselves in multiple extracurricular activities knowing they have trouble balancing their commitments. Why are we almost compelled to be extra? The serious truth is that many of us take the path of most resistance just to say that we did. Because if we didn’t struggle, did we really earn it? Regardless of how hard we worked to get here and instead of just accepting the blessing of admission, we somehow now feel that we have to prove that our Harvard degrees didn’t just fall into our laps.

The irony is that real struggle — that we never planned for — will come: No life journey is without its challenges, even when we are doing everything right. So instead of inventing issues, maybe we should give ourselves a little grace when possible, fortifying ourselves for those inevitable moments of hardship. This simply means avoiding the unnecessary stress that come with overloading on obligations when our mental, physical, and emotional energy — not to mention time — is limited.

What would our Harvard experience be like without the extra? If we studied something we really loved? If we always took four classes? If we did one extracurricular activity we actually cared about? If we only became friends with people we genuinely have a connection with? Maybe we would actually fully enjoy our time here rather than fondly remember a few highs engulfed in a vastness of lows. To me, that version of Harvard sounds like heaven on earth.

Ifeoluwa T. Obayan ’19, a former Crimson Editorial Comp Director, is a Biomedical Engineering and Social Anthropology joint concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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