Estimable Seniors

Incipient alumni showcase their talents

Every year, Harvard College unleashes some 1,600 fresh graduates, all full of the potential to bring their considerable education, talents, and sophistication to bear in the wider world. Such is part of the responsibility of admittance to "the fellowship of educated men and women."

Who are these young people, and what do they plan to do? The half-dozen highlighted below provide the barest glimpse of the abilities and ambitions of the class of 2003.

These seniors have explored diverse intellectual fields and outside activities: mathematics, women's studies, Latin American scholarship, dance, playwriting, and basketball, among them. All produced valuable work as undergraduates, and all revealed a passion throughout the process.

In a difficult period of political strife and global changes, one can only hope that these seniors and their peers, as future alumni of Harvard, will follow classmate Nancy Redd's advice and "rise to the occasion and take their individuality and do something really constructive."

Photograph by Stu Rosner

"Making little worlds happen" 

The year before Julia Jarcho came to Harvard, her one-act play Nursery, written as an independent-study project during her senior year in high school, was named one of four winners of the 2001 Young Playwrights Festival National Playwriting Competition and was produced at Manhattan's Cherry Lane Theatre. It is "about boredom and fantasies of violence," says Jarcho, "alienated New York City high-school kids dreaming a southern school-shooter into a kind of Peter Pan." New York Times critic Bruce Weber pronounced it "terrific stuff, stunning from a teenage writer."

Since coming to Harvard, Jarcho has produced three of her other, newer plays: Shrew, which she calls "an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew and of The Story of O"; Dr. Wallen in the Clear Season, "a play about the fetishization of the factual and how sex and other people are scary"; and The Highwayman, inspired by the Alfred Noyes poem, which she describes as "kind of about fantasies of containment and explosion, and about dealing with literature, and about relationships between desire and violence, and horses." Her narratives often revolve around "violence and the imaginary, and different kinds of fear." But most often, she says, her plays explore "talking, the way people talk and don't talk, how hard it is to say things, how elusive meaning is a lot of the time, and all the strange, impossible things we want language to do for us."

A first-semester senior (she took time off when Nursery was being produced), Jarcho is a literature concentrator and plans to write her senior thesis on "Wittgenstein, and philosophy as drama — the comic, tragic, and pathetic elements of philosophical rhetoric. I'm influenced a lot by Beckett, Sam Shepherd, Mark Wellman, and Richard Maxwell," she says. "I'm also interested in the sensational. The idea of that and foils to that: the mundane and the sensational, and sort of bringing that together, in awkwardnesses."

After graduation, Jarcho will either go back to New York City, where she grew up, or go abroad to write plays. Busy daily life offers little time for concentrated writing, she says, explaining: "I don't think of writing plays as a luxury, whereas this [taking classes at Harvard] is a luxury." None of the plays produced at Harvard was written while school was in session; The Highwayman was developed as a writer in residence at the O'Neill Playwrights Conference in Connecticut. (August Wilson was also in residence.) "I just really love making little worlds happen," Jarcho says of her passion. "I love the crisis of the live event. I like seeing other people try on my weird words."


Photograph by Stu Rosner

A multi-course feast 

By the time Matt Espy graduates in June, he will have managed to pack an entire extra year of classes into his eight semesters at Harvard — even while he takes time off to jet to exotic locales or go gambling with friends. Espy, an applied math and economics concentrator who will graduate with a master's degree as well, says he was so impressed by the University's smorgasbord of offerings that he helped himself to more — including high-level courses on game theory and international corporate finance and classes at the Business School and MIT. "It's not cookie-cutter stuff," he observes. Such dedication to academics is exceptional even at Harvard. But what has added a certain insouciant spiciness to Espy's undergraduate career are his frequent off-campus forays.

Early on he discovered airlines' last-minute Internet ticket deals that generally involve departing on a Saturday and returning Monday or Tuesday (he skips classes). It began simply, by making trips to see his family in Los Angeles, but after traveling in Europe last summer while holding down a job in London, he managed to rack up serious frequent-flier miles. His new status meant he could add more trips, receive upgrades, and enjoy himself even further. This spring, on a whim, he and three friends went to Las Vegas for a weekend of gaming and fun at the Bellagio. In fact, in the dark of the Cambridge winter, Espy could sometimes be spotted wearing a sun hat. "I like to be reminded that there are better, warmer places on Earth," he says. "I guess that I just do things a little differently."

While actually on campus, Espy has worked as a tutor, been active in the Black Men's Forum and the Phoenix final club, and served on the Undergraduate Council. Running as a protest candidate for council president last year, he espoused a two-issue platform: installing cable television in student dorms and Houses, and building a student center. "I am not a big fan of the Core or the advising system here," he said at the time, "but the biggest deficiency I see at Harvard is the lack of space for students to socialize." (If elected, he promised to resign in protest.)

 He also served as president of the undergraduate investment club, and will be working after graduation at a hedge fund. The job, he adds, is perfectly suited to his analytical skills and the complex economic computer modeling that he's learned to do in his many math courses — all of which have left him yearning for more. "I could do another four years here," he says, "and take another 40 courses."



Photograph by Stu Rosner

"It's a bifurcated life." 

Those who say it is impossible to be a serious scholar-athlete have probably not met Elliott Prasse-Freeman. The four-year starting point guard, who is the all-time assist leader in Harvard and Ivy League basketball history, says that without the sport, he wouldn't have had the sanity or the discipline for schoolwork. Recruited by a number of colleges, he settled on Harvard after giving up what he has called "the delusional dream of the NBA" in favor of rigorous academics. He chose the tough interdisciplinary concentration of social studies because it was one of the most "dynamic degrees." "People said to me, 'You're writing a thesis, so you must be quitting basketball,'" the senior says. "I told them, 'The only way I can write this thesis is by playing basketball.'"

And through last winter he managed, despite 20 hours of weekly practice and road trips every other weekend, to write the thesis, which was based on first-hand research conducted last summer in Southeast Asia. "It's a bifurcated life," he observes, "but it's one that balances out — if you let it."

Basketball has been a major part of Prasse-Freeman's life since he began competing in fifth grade, but his parents never overemphasized the game: they encouraged good grades and passed on to him a strong sense of social justice. He has spent much of his free time traveling around the United States and the world, often working to advance social causes. Last year, as a junior, he directed a tutoring program for teenagers in a Boston detention center, and he has twice helped build houses in Tijuana. His initial idea for a thesis grew out of his mother's campaign against bonded prostitution in Southeast Asia.

He went to Thailand to study the impact of Buddhism on the prostitution trade, but while there, he met a former U.S. Army ranger who was supporting resistance forces in neighboring Burma (Myanmar). The meeting sparked Prasse-Freeman's interest in the civil war there, now in its fifth decade; thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands more dislodged. Once back in the United States, he changed his thesis to investigate the ethnic conflict and its effects on internally displaced people. "I realized I'm neither a feminist scholar nor a Buddhist scholar," he reports.

Post-graduation, Prasse-Freeman is considering playing basketball in Europe to earn money for a return trip to Thailand and Burma. Ideally, he'd like to make a documentary film about the conflict. "If George W. Bush wants to do empire-building and stop human-rights violations around the world," Prasse-Freeman observes, "then Burma should be at the top of the list."



Photograph courtesy Ryuji Yamaguchi

Following his footwork 

In "Eulogy," a dance performed in silence, the unadorned, athletic figure of Ryuji Yamaguchi moves around the stage as an actor appears four times, as four different characters, each of whom reads aloud something new about Yamaguchi from scraps of white paper before crumpling the papers and throwing them on the ground. Toward the end, Yamaguchi is perched on a black box which he suddenly overturns, unleashing hundreds of crumpled white papers that spill across the floor. "The idea is 'Who is Ryuji? Who is anyone, really?' And that people can be seen from all sorts of different points of view," says Elizabeth Bergmann, director of the dance program at Harvard's Office for the Arts. "When you see it, it's a very powerful piece."

Bergmann has worked with Yamaguchi, a prolific choreographer and East Asian studies concentrator, for the last three years. "He likes to turn things around and is always full of new ideas," she says. "He's very talented and is always noticed wherever he performs — people want to know who he is. He has a following."

Yamaguchi has produced more than a dozen works while at Harvard; they have tended to focus on abstract ideas expressed in minimalist settings, without elaborate costumes or lighting. He prefers to work through strong, essential, physical components, Bergmann says. Brazilian capoeira — a form of dance, acrobatics, and martial arts with African roots — plays a role in his work, as does a certain Asian aesthetic. "I'm always searching for my style," he says, "but I think, in general, it has an East Asian flavor to it: slow, sculptural, sort of surreal....My favorite work is always my most recent one. I feel as if I'm growing so much every year."

Raised in Japan, where he pursued such diverse interests as violin, rugby, and juggling (which he picked up from a Tokyo University professor who moonlighted as a street performer), Yamaguchi came to the United States specifically to attend Deerfield Academy, where his athletic interests flourished with pole vaulting, wrestling, and water polo. Then he saw a video about Pilobolus Dance Theater, the troupe founded at Dartmouth in 1971 that features collective choreography and gymnastics. The style appeals to athletes, Yamaguchi says, because it doesn't conform to "your stereotypical men-in-tights image." Before long, he had popularized Deerfield's dance program by recruiting his friends — the "big men on campus" — and he had begun creating works of his own.

At Harvard, he plunged generally into the dance program, of which he is a vocal supporter, becoming a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dance Company and an officer of the Harvard Ballet Company. The arts at Harvard are very important "because every student can relate to [them], and relate to their own creativity in a different way," he says. "I'm not saying every student should graduate and become an artist — but I think there can be a few of them."

Yamaguchi hopes to be among them. Next year, he will leave Boston, where he finds the dance community too circumscribed, for New York. There he plans to "get a sense of the community and see what I can do with it." That would likely entail creating his own dance troupe, he says with a grin, "and everybody wanting to commission a piece with me."



Photograph by Stu Rosner

Reigning Southern belle 

One visit with Nancy Redd and it's clear why Glamour magazine last year named her one of America's top 10 college women — "most likely to succeed — at anything!" Smart, organized, and accomplished, she contributed to The Girls' Guide to the SAT (Princeton Review) — tips for closing the test's gender gap — and she travels around the country as a speaker for 4-H Club programs. Her senior thesis, which she hopes to turn into a book, focuses on the historical correlation between women's concepts of selfhood and the evolution of self-help culture. "Young women have a sense of autonomy, but they don't always know what to do with it," says the women's studies concentrator.

Too often women are given a limited choice of role models, she adds. "We see Condoleezza Rice and Tyra Banks, but you don't see a combination of them," she explains. "I think you have to fight for the ability to be both. I hope in this century we're going to see a lot of great women rise to the occasion and take their individuality and do something really constructive."

Redd could easily be talking about herself. As she grew up in rural southern Virginia, she says, the cultural emphasis was on "being a lady." She counts herself lucky to have a mother, Amanda H. Redd, who was also a businesswoman. "I saw her on the phone with these tyrants telling her to 'sell this and do that' and she just handled them in her own 'southern belle who grew up in the 1950s' way," which was very effective, Redd says. "I want to emulate her and be a role model for the twenty-first century."

Driven though she is, Redd's personality washes over you like a sugary tidal wave. Speaking in a drawl sprinkled with lots of laughs, she addresses friends as "honey" or "doll," and her e-mails typically end with a line of smiley faces. "Well, I am Southern," she says, chuckling sweetly. "And I like people."

She has often been tapped to sit on government councils and to represent youth groups. But luck, she says, has had little to do with it. "Organizations don't just gravitate toward me," she says, "I work like a dog to put my name in the hat. I'm on the phone constantly — you should see my phone bill — and I'm on the Internet, I'm always sending out applications for things. The day I sent the Glamour application, I sent five more to other competitions that I didn't get. What my mom and brother have instilled in me since childhood is that 'luck equals opportunity plus preparation.'"

The adage paid off when Redd appeared last year on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? She had never even watched the show before she decided to audition, but her Yalie brother, Sammy, is a big fan. "We watched tapes of all the shows, strategized about when to use the lifelines [the people contestants can call for help]," she says. "I learned trivia and I practiced everything — I made a 'fastest finger template' [the button pressed to answer a question] and practiced with my lifeline typing on the Internet to get answers."

In the end, Redd won $250,000, part of which she donated to her church and the Henry County 4-H Club, with which she was involved from age 10 to 19. (Her mention of the organization on the show netted her the unpaid spokesperson job.)

When asked about her own future goals — at least one friend has suggested the U.S. Senate — Redd replies: "I wouldn't mind being Miss America...or becoming president of the 4-H organization. Either one would make me happy."



Photograph by Robert Adam Meyer

Mainstreaming marginalized languages 

Of Uruguayan descent, Nicole Legnani grew up in Manhattan, attending the United Nations International School and acquiring a certain global awareness. At Harvard, her interest in foreign cultures led her to spend a summer at an archaeological field school in South Africa. Unexpectedly, the experience exposed her to fifteenth-century sailors' accounts of South Africa's native cultures, which, in turn, piqued her curiosity about other colonial writings — a curiosity facilitated by her gift for languages. During her junior year she spent time in Peru, studying with a specialist in Andean linguistics. She stayed on an extra semester to intern at the Peruvian Ministry of Education, where she prepared materials on bilingual education and long-marginalized native languages.

The breadth of her foreign studies made choosing a topic for her senior thesis difficult. Initially, she wanted to write about bilingual education. Then she recalled her curiosity about colonial writings. In particular she remembered a narrative of the Spanish conquest of Peru, told from the point of view of an Incan prince, which she had read in a Spanish literature class taught by associate professor José Antonio Mazzotti.

To translate and annotate the 1570 legal document, which the prince had dictated in a mixture of native languages to a mestizo scribe, Legnani had to use sixteenth- and seventeenth-century dictionaries of the indigenous Andean languages Quechua and Aymara. She says hers is the "first full English translation and modernization" of the text. "She manages to conjugate a range of interlocking disciplines, including history, politics, and stylistics, in an organic way that demonstrates not only the richness of [the] text," one evaluator wrote, "but also the richness of Latin American studies when practiced with the wisdom and sophistication that Nicole exhibits here." Mazzotti has asked her to write a long foreword to the thesis with a view toward publication.

An adamant believer in the value of studying abroad, Legnani last semester became the first person to graduate with a concentration in Harvard's fledgling Latin American studies program. "I learned so much from my time in Peru," she says. "I couldn't separate the experience of studying there from my overall Harvard experience." The benefits of studying abroad "go beyond meeting the 'needs' of Harvard students who are interested in subjects which are not offered at the College," she explains. "I would hope that all Harvard students would be required to immerse themselves in a foreign educational system for at least a semester."

Legnani herself is now back in Peru, working at a nongovernmental organization. Future plans may include graduate school and academia — or something entirely different. "I like writing a lot. I'm a bit of a poet," she says. "I've also considered — perhaps in the future — writing screenplays." 


Read more articles by Garrett M. Graff or Phoebe Kosman

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