Two years ago, I was in the same position many of you are in now: admitted but unsure if Harvard was the right place for me. As I weighed financial, geographic, and academic factors, I remember waiting for a sign that there was something different, something better, about Harvard.
I thought that I found that sign during a Virtual Visitas Q&A. Amidst the standard replies to questions about food, concentrations, and classes, one answer stood out to me: When asked what their favorite part of Harvard was, a current student enthusiastically replied “the people.” This answer tipped the scales and instilled the confidence I needed to accept the offer of admission.
But after spending two years at Harvard, I have lost faith in that simple answer.
During my freshman year, I always assumed that “the people” referred to my peers. I imagined that I would be accepted into a supportive, accepting community of learners where every person is pushed to be a better thinker. In reality, I joined a hypercompetitive, toxic, and superficial community.
Harvard students love to compare themselves to each other. Exam scores, summer plans, leadership positions, and even the number of colors on your Google Calendar are all fair game — and obviously, every student wants to win. Harvard’s grind culture is impossible to escape, and pausing to take a breath from your four to five classes and handful of organizations just means that you’re falling behind.
Of course, the feeling that you’ll never measure up to your peers is why many students struggle with imposter syndrome. These culture problems would be made easier to bear with a strong group of friends, but so many relationships at Harvard are transactional. People interact to get a project or a problem set done, and when the work ends, the relationship often does as well. Combining these issues with blatant student racism and transphobia, it’s pretty clear that the students are not the high point of Harvard.
Maybe then, I reasoned, “the people” that make Harvard special are professors and administrators. Harvard’s professors are one-of-a-kind minds whose work has redefined their fields. Harvard administrators lead what is often regarded as one of the best universities in the world. Even if the students fall short, these adults must measure up.
Scandal after scandal has shown me otherwise. Some instructors use their knowledge to advance racist agendas. Others use their power to sexually harass students while the administration idly stands by. A lack of institutional support has proved common. This past year, graduate students called for non-discrimination protection and raises adjusted for inflation, leading to a three-day strike — and it was only after eight months of negotiation and a second strike threat that the administration and the graduate student union finally reached an agreement. Additionally, although Harvard undergraduates have significantly higher rates of anxiety and depression than the national average, Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services fail to meet this demand.
I’m not sharing my recollection of the past two years to convince you that the people of Harvard are exceedingly bad. I would just argue that they are exceedingly average.
Toxic culture, apathy, abuse of power, racism, and sexism exist everywhere that people exist. The Harvard community inevitably reproduces these issues. We aren’t better, and we certainly aren’t immune. The word “Harvard” carries with it a certain social weight, supported by billions of dollars and hundreds of years of history. But, truly, this power is undeserved. Before you accept (or decline) the offer of admission, you need to come to terms with this reality.
Regardless of where you attend college, be ready to hold your peers, professors, and administrators accountable. Be selective with your friends, and keep in mind that their beliefs, attitudes, and choices affect you. Hold onto the people and groups who bring you joy.
If you were to ask me now what my favorite part of Harvard is, I would say the HUDS oatmeal raisin cookies because I no longer know how to answer the question in any other way. I hope that in the next two years, my answer will change.
Welcome to Harvard, Class of 2026. A transformative college experience awaits you.
Libby E. Tseng ’24, a Crimson Editorial Comp Director, lives in Pforzheimer House.