This past summer from June 23 until August 15, I lived on the campus of Harvard University as a member of the Secondary Student Program, taking two courses for undergraduate credit. Harvard is the perfect combination of rustic New England and modern technology. The Yard and outlying grassy quadrangles are reminiscent of A Separate Peace.
Freshmen dorms are, for the most part, located in the Yard. There are double rooms as well as suites inhabited by several students. In these cases, there are four or five small bedrooms and a large common room. True to tradition, the dorms haven't changed much from when they'd been used as army barracks in the American Revolution. Spartan is an accurate description.
Facilities at Harvard are extensive. There are huge libraries, as well as departmentally- specialized libraries. IBM-compatibles as well as Apple/Mac systems are available to students. The Student Union cafeteria is large and multi-roomed. The food isn't bad, either; there's always the salad bar, too. The only unfortunate aspect, we found, was that it wasn't open when we needed midnight snacks.
Harvard is a miniature city spread out over a large area. Each area of study has its own cluster of buildings and grounds, including the divinity school, law school and business administration school, among others.
Harvard, however, is a very small "town" compared to the city of Cambridge where it is located. From the peace and quiet of Harvard Common, which we found was great for occasional football games, to lively Harvard Square, outside campus, there's a typical bustling and busy city. Street performers are an integral part of the flavor of Cambridge, from mimes to musicians to stand-up comics and chess players.
Classes at Harvard range from large lecture halls like the Political Philosophy classes to small, personal classes like "Creative Writing: Science Fiction & Fantasy," the second class that I took this summer. The creative writing classes this summer were taught by professional writers, and classes were small. The SF & F class was taught by two science fiction writers/editors/consultants and had only twelve students. Then we broke into two smaller groups.
Professors were, for the most part, friendly. We often found ourselves dining with them, and learned that they dined with students during the school year. My professors had regular office hours, and I had several one-on-one meetings with them. Other friends of mine taking advanced math classes discovered that the tales of horror about working with teaching assistant graduate students were entirely false. The graduate students turned out to be helpful, dedicated and caring.
The proctors were Harvard students, and the first impression that I got was that there's no such thing as a typical Harvard student. As it turned out, my proctor, Nick, was a local Boston student. An art student, he had broken his arm while skateboarding during the school year and as a result was making up his work during the summer. Nick's activities included extensive work on the "Harvard Lampoon" as well as a job as Reggae DJ of a local radio station on Sundays.
All that proctors had in common was a definite sense of competition, even during the summer, when it wasn't as fierce. Group and clique factions were easily noticeable, as was the seriousness of each proctor towards his work. That was another difference. Harvard students don't focus on classes themselves as much as they focuse on their work. It seemed that each proctor transformed an academic interest into a hobby, and that the work they did went beyond classroom requirements.
Spending the summer of my junior year at Harvard was the experience of a lifetime. It gave me, and about 1500 other high school students, an early chance to be college students. For most of us, it was important since in high school we're highly competitive, this gave us the chance to relax. Yes, we took classes and studied, but we also fed the squirrels with plums and seeds from the Student Union. We climbed up the Harvard Crimson Stadium at four in the morning and stayed until 6, watching in awe and wonder as a black night full of twinkling lights transformed into a brilliant pink horizon; then we finally witnessed dawn's arrival with blue sky and puffed clouds.
I made friends quickly with people who shared many of my interests, goals and, yes, even problems. Spending the summer of one's junior year at any college is a rewarding, exciting learning experience - one that I'll remember forever. n
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.