My friend Lisa is a sophomore at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
What did it feel like going from having your own room at home to living in a college dorm?
I felt like I was transported to a foreign country . . . everything was different. I lived on the fourth floor of a dorm that faced one of the busiest streets in Cambridge. At night I heard street musicians, car horns, buses, you name it. At home I lived on a quiet dead-end street!
What did you expect when you met your roommates?
I spent the summers after my sophomore and junior years of high school on college campuses, living in dorms and getting to know many kids. Those roommates were really fun people, and we had so much in common. I guess that is what I expected for my college roommates. I forgot the whole "I'm stressed-I-have-eight-hours-of-homework-and-papers-and-midterms"thing.
Describe the ethnicity on campus.
Harvard really prides itself on its diversity, and has strong affirmative-action policies to ensure that minorities have a place in each class. My first year, I had a black roommate and a Latina roommate who was from the Dominican Republic via Miami. It was the biggest culture shock I've ever experienced.
Sometimes I got really frustrated and disillusioned. I was mad that the United Negro College Fund paid for my roommate's education, both at Harvard and at her preparatory academy. It's funny because in most of my classes of 50 students, usually ten are black. Everyone says there's a low percentage of African-Americans in college, but it's higher than I expected.
What are the differences between high school and college?
My college classes have had as few as 10 people and as many as 300. In the large classes, no one cares if you go and most professors just lecture for the hour. There is little interaction, and if there is, it's usually an obnoxious question asked by a self-congratulatory student trying to stand out. The smaller classes have been wonderful.
My favorite class was an expository writing class. We met in a living-room setting and didn't even really take notes. We just threw out ideas and talked about the reading, which were New Yorker and New York Times Magazine articles. We had a few theory articles, but nothing very heavy. We all knew each other's names, which was awesome, though rare.
As for professors, Harvard hires the absolute best in their particular fields. Every year several receive MacArthur Fellowships("genius grants" of $500, 000 for contributions to academia and pure brilliance).
Most professors are extremely left wing, to the point of exhaustion. One economics professor invented trickle-down economics and"Reaganomics. " One government professor was Bill Clinton's roommate at Oxford when they were Rhodes Scholars. And another literally invented the punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution. These people are superhuman. Yet at times it seems like none has any real-world people skills. They were taught to study and be brilliant, but not how to teach a group of 20-year-olds. Many are out of touch with students.
As far as attitudes and people? Name an attitude and at least 100 people have it. I know about 15 students who intend to run for president, and others who do not hide their desire to be CEOs. I know some who want to live the life of an academic. Everyone's out to prove him or herself, to stand out from this mass of incredibly talented people. It's intense, competitive and busy, but most thrive from the pressure.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in high school?
I would have joined the newspaper staff. I am writing for it now and have discovered something I really love! I used to be too intimidated to join clubs or take classes that sounded daunting. Harvard students don't test the waters, instead they jump into activities and their studies. If you waste your time contemplating decisions or feeling incompetent, you get left behind.
If you were in charge, what would you change?
Hmm, I would increase recruiting from the Midwest! I feel like many students there are pressured, financially and traditionally, to consider only huge state universities.
I would change Harvard's policy that students have to submit applications for certain concentrations, and can so easily get rejected. For example, the interdisciplinary field of History and Literature requires an application and an examination. How ridiculous!
What is your major?
I'm a sociology concentrator, which means I study groups of people, how they interact, and what theory and policy says about these groups. I'm specifically interested in media, women's issues, and work/family integration.
Do you see people with stupid majors?
I have received a lot of ridicule for being a sociology concentrator. There are no dumb majors! I really believe in a liberal arts education. I know a Sanskrit major and a folklore and mythology major, and they both love their areas.
Your major doesn't have to determine your career. I feel like I have many options, I don't necessarily have to be a social worker. My advice is to study what you like, or at least something palatable.
Why did you pick your major?
Sociology is a small department with a lot of personal attention. If I need to talk to my head tutor, he is accessible. Other concentrations must go through layers of staff and grad students to get what they need.
What are your plans after college?
At this point I don't want to go to grad school. Because it sounds so new and interesting, I'd love to tackle the business world. I want to wear a power suit! I think it would be cool to work for a big advertising firm, but that's just my thought of the day. I change careers daily in my head! Journalism also seems very fun.
Any advice for people planning to attend college?
Follow your dreams! When applying to college, don't just take the advice of anyone from home. Do your own research, help yourself, discover all that's out there. Don't go to college-bound consultants. I don't think anyone, including me, believed I would get into Harvard, but I took a chance on a long shot and it worked. You don't have to be the smartest, you just have to work the hardest.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.