Full Circle

True story: Three and a half years ago, when I was still an anxious, green freshman living in Thayer, my then-boyfriend and I happened to be walking along Bow Street. Boyfriend, who was a jaded Dunsterite fifth-year senior (don't ask), remarked casually that the building to our left was Harvard undergraduate housing. I had not quite shaken off the fetters of my Minnesota suburban upbringing, so some part of me still expected anything that was housing to have wood siding and right angles. I gazed in awe at the tall, ornate, wood doors, curvy palatial design, and elegant wrought-iron grates over the French windows. "Ooh...," I breathed, not quite fully believing Boyfriend yet. "It looks like a castle!" "It's part of Adams House," was Boyfriend's unaffected reply. Today, I live in that same building--Adams House A-entryway, Westmorely Court.

Freshman year, I also spent a significant majority of my time in Boylston Hall (or at least it seems that way when I think back). The language lab was in the basement, and the dimly lit study carrels reminded me of the library at my high school. I took great comfort in going straight through the listening tapes for my first-year Russian class, doing all the exercises, even those that weren't assigned. It certainly helped my Russian grade, but that brand of near-obsessive compulsion so unique to Harvard also helped get me through freshman year. Today, Boylston Hall looks the same on the outside, but the inside, after a renovation, is quite different. The language lab isn't there anymore--it's been relocated to Lamont Library. Yet I still spend a lot of time in Boylston's basement--now home to my concentration, literature. Again, it seems I'm back to where I started. Harvard has a funny way of bringing us full circle like that. We end up where we began--but with a vastly different perspective.

The best example of this pattern in my own experience has been my relationship with my concentration. At times, this relationship has felt more like a spiral than a circle. I chose literature in the spring of freshman year, after toying with such exotic ideas as psychology, anthropology, and religion, because, well, I liked to read and I'd taken a couple of literature classes and really enjoyed them. At the time, that seemed to me a really bad reason for choosing a concentration: shouldn't my choice be something practical that would contribute to my employability? (I realize now that "just liking it" is a perfectly valid and even economically promising way to choose a concentration or a career, but that's another column altogether.) In any case, I toyed idly with the idea of graduate school during a sophomore-year career crisis, and even picked up an informational packet on Harvard's graduate program in comparative literature. Gradually, though, the unflagging and seemingly superhuman effort demanded by my classes convinced me that graduate school was something I never wanted to put myself through. Frustrated by the lack of concreteness I saw in my concentration courses, I chucked that informational packet straight into the trash and focused instead on journalism. Though I remained in the concentration, I vowed to fulfill only the minimum requirements and to avoid philosophical conjecture at all costs.

Eventually, though, I ran into a couple of professors who believed in me. Paper writing got easier as I did more of it. I was able to stop comparing myself to others and recognize my own strengths--and even make an abstract comment of my own once in a while. Thus, I spiraled back to the love of literature that had originally landed me in those courses, and even arrived at acceptance of everything that had once bothered me about the concentration. Sitting in a circle of my sorority sisters at a chapter meeting in April, I listened to the other Delta Gamma seniors give short presentations on their theses. When it came time to present my own, I was struck by how abstract it was. My thesis did not comment on the facts of history or the accomplishments of one person's life--at least, not in a direct fashion--the way I felt the archaeology, history, and English theses did. Instead, it played with ideas and theories, interweaving them to tease out unexpected connections. This was exactly the sort of endeavor I had hoped to avoid at the outset of the thesis process. I was reminded of how, in the spring of my junior year, I sat silent, frustrated, and thoroughly stymied in a seminar as the graduate students around me expatiated on the nature of human existence. Wasn't this supposed to be a course about literature? At times, I wondered whether they were even speaking English.

But at some point during the past year, my interest in this kind of creative rumination was piqued. I may have approached from the other side, but I do believe I met those graduate students midway between ungrounded speculation and specific textual observation, between making things needlessly complicated and dumbing them down. My senior thesis was nowhere near as concrete as I'd intended it to be--and I'm very happy about that. What's more, I've come to believe that the type of life I see my professors leading--reading great books no one knows about, conducting research in foreign lands, and then writing about their discoveries--is exactly what I'd want for myself a few decades down the road. So yes, I'm considering graduate school in the near future--just don't tell my freshman-year self that, or my junior-year self, for that matter. I think they'd both keel over from the shock.

 

Anyone who's ever gone to Harvard or has known anyone who's gone here knows that Harvard has a way of breaking a person's confidence. For whatever reason, the eventual happy ending is less frequently recounted. At some point, that confidence begins to rebuild itself, albeit in a new form. All of us Harvard students have similar pasts: used to getting everything we wanted as high-school students, we all applied more or less indiscriminately for scholarships, programs, and positions, whether we really wanted them or not, just for the prestige and the added length of our respective résumés. For most of us, that changed drastically when we began hanging our hats at Harvard. There are still a slew of opportunities available--internships, scholarships, fellowships, public-service programs--and every one of those, even the campus-based extracurriculars, has an application. Recently, more than one Crimson columnist has bemoaned this multiplicity of applications, arguing that such a culture bars interested students from contributing valuable service to campus organizations. (Officers of such programs say that limited resources require their organizations to be selective.) Personally, I think the application process serves a useful purpose: it forces us to be selective.

Overachievers that we are, it's habit for us to apply for anything we think we might have a chance at. But in this neck of the woods, unlike the way things were in high school, there are a few thousand other straight-A types. The natural result is that we no longer get everything for which we apply. Yes, your self-esteem takes a blow, and a big one at that. But a funny thing happens: soon, you stop applying for so many things. At first, out of sheer discouragement, you throw your hands up in surrender and vow never to apply for anything, ever again. But then, one day, an opportunity comes along that's just too good to pass up--it's a perfect fit for you. That's why, instead of diluting my energies applying for everything in the Harvard College Guide to Grants, I applied for one--just one. It was the only one that really suited what I wanted to do and, by golly, I got it! I'm sure there were a few people out there who also genuinely wanted the same fellowship and didn't get it, but the point is that, sooner or later, you do get what you want, because finally you actually know what that is.

At a place like Harvard, most of us come in knowing almost no one. This, so the logic goes, gives us free rein to be whoever we want to be once we get here. The possibilities are endless, and intoxicating. As we enter college, we're exiting the insecurity of adolescence, but it's still fresh in our minds and most of us are eager to be that person we always wished we could be way back when we were teased and our collective lunch money was stolen. At the activity fair during freshman week, I added my name to nearly every list in the tent. But the activities I wound up with were remarkably similar to what I did in high school. I've dropped all the random extracurricular activities that just didn't feel right, and I'm back to my old staples. I wanted to branch out from my high-school newspapering, but before long, I ended up at the Crimson. I went from having no male friends in high school, to having mostly male friends, but found I missed the company of women so much that I joined a sorority.

So is Harvard an exercise in getting stuck in a rut? I don't think so. You see, talking to my mother on the phone earlier this evening, I realized that I've come to find a Minnesota accent (sorry, Mom) comforting again. I had to leave Minnesota in order to be able to hear the accent, and in order to find the jokes in the movie Fargo funny. So I guess Harvard doesn't really change who we are--it just reveals us to ourselves. It seems to me that the lesson can be summed up with the old platitude "Wherever you go, there you are." Yes, we are right back where we started--but now we know why we're here. We've chosen to be here, so we don't feel trapped.

A video of my high-school friends and me made almost exactly four years ago shows us dancing to our favorite '80s pop songs. Our movements are jerky and imprecise, and though we are having fun, we are clearly slightly uncomfortable before the camera. Among other things, Harvard has taught me to dance with confidence and reckless abandon.

Elizabeth Gudrais: Latvian, multilingual, Catholic, writer, lover of literature, quick to laugh, leader, runner, Minnesotan, likes to dance. I was all these things four years ago, but they weren't yet attributes I'd chosen as parts of my lifelong self. The writing was already on the wall; it was just in invisible ink. 

By the time many of you read this, Berta Greenwald Ledecky Fellow Elizabeth Gudrais '01 will be in Riga, living with a host family and studying at the University of Latvia on a Radcliffe Fellowship for Graduating Seniors.

Read more articles by: Elizabeth Gudrais

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