I think it came to me on a bleak November day, in the middle of an equally bleak economics lecture, as I perched high in the lofty wood bleachers of Sanders Theatre. If this were all I had, I thought—if this were the only community I belonged to—I would be miserable. It was there in Ec 10, miles away from the podium, surrounded by a collection of anonymous fellow students, that I understood why, for most Harvard undergraduates, being a member of an audience or a face in the crowd isn't enough.
At the time, only a few months into my freshman year, I was already finding ways to fill my non-academic time. I was halfway through my "comp" process at the Crimson, I was tutoring third-graders in Boston's Mission Hill, and I had tentatively committed to the Harvard AIDS Coalition, a fledgling advocacy group. We began our college careers with a blank slate, with just a few hours of scheduled classes a week. And regardless of passion for one's studies, most students found quickly that the purely academic life can be lonely.
When I looked at my peers, I saw a tapestry of diverse activities and interests. Among the eight students who would later become my blocking group, we had a ballerina, a concert violinist, a varsity squash-playing poet, two Crimson writers, a filmmaker, and two public-service groupies. It seemed that everyone I knew was involved in some sort of extracurricular activity.
Obviously, Harvard students are not chained to their desks. We find—we must find—ways to fill the time between classes and work, meals and sleep. And so we find communities and identities through extra-academic activities, which sometimes demand more time than our courses. From social clubs to political movements, our afternoons and résumés are filled with the groups and causes that define our non-academic lives.
"From what I have experienced, Harvard is not social the way high school was," says Jordan Thomas '04. "You interact with your roommates and maybe talk briefly to people in class, but...your class interactions with fellow students are nowhere near as involved as they were in high school. The intermediate degree of closeness is not there. So without extracurriculars, the social dynamic just is not there, except for a few close people and a lot of 'hellos.'" Or, as associate dean of Harvard College Judith H. Kidd says: "It's part of adult life to be lonely. It's a natural thing to reach out and find people to alleviate that."
Whatever their motivation—a sense of social responsibility, a desire to hone writing or editing skills, or a love of little kids—Harvard students flock to extracurriculars, usually from early in freshman year. Many juggle several activities and groups in the course of their time here, because we are in search of a cause and a community, a niche that distinguishes us from the 6,600 others and provides a smaller support network at school. By espousing political causes, participating in community service, or writing for publications, we find friends, we learn life skills, we explore interests, and—above all—we allay the loneliness of anonymity through activity.
This long-ingrained impulse to join and lead means that we tend to define ourselves not by what we do in classes, or by our House, but by the communities we seek out in our extracurricular endeavors. "Harvard is intense, and there isn't a built-in healthy social structure. Thus people have to find communities in other ways," says Andrew Golis '06, echoing Thomas. Then the social studies concentrator pauses: "Or, maybe it's the opposite: maybe extracurriculars take up so much time, people don't have time for socializing." Or maybe it's just a question of work style. "Lots of us probably function better with more on our plates," says my blockmate Molly Faulkner-Bond '06 (the ballerina, who also edits a nascent campus literary magazine). Golis himself is an extracurricular entrepreneur: he is a founding member of the newly organized Harvard Progressive Advocacy Group, which seeks to fill what its founders consider a gap between non-active political discussions and nonpolitical direct service at Harvard. They hope to attract students interested in direct political action through lobbying, research, and advocacy.
Although this social impetus may seem to belie the altruistic or educational motivations of extracurriculars, students take these activities seriously, committing themselves to hours of additional work a week. Many probably consider this pre-professional training of sorts, a way to boost résumés, not necessarily make friends. But to some degree our frenetic involvement in these endeavors is symptomatic of the value we place on constant activity and industriousness, combined with confidence and a sense of social urgency. Students are accepted to Harvard based in part on their impressive range and depth of activities. Having arrived in Cambridge, many continue to pursue what they did in high school, while others find themselves enmeshed in new endeavors as they define themselves by the activities in which they are involved.
Jordan Thomas, who works with Habitat for Humanity and volunteers at a nearby homeless shelter, says that besides the edification of helping others, he feels a special connection to the fellow students with whom he works. "I think students find communities in their extracurriculars, in their religious communities, and in their neighbors."
Coming from a small liberal high school, where I was encouraged to partake in as many extra-academic activities as possible, I felt the same urge when I arrived at Harvard. I chose my activities with the same scrupulousness with which I shopped for my courses, well aware that these choices would in many ways define my undergraduate career and shape not only my schedule, but also my future. When it came to deciding how I would spend my time outside classes, the only question was whether to jump into a long-established institution or make my own extracurricular opportunities.
The culture of improving one's own experience, of branching out instead of working up, is part of a trend that Harvard's administrators largely support. "The current theory is to let a thousand flowers bloom, as long as we have the resources to sustain it," Judith Kidd says. "We would consider it unusual and worrisome if a student were to come and do nothing." Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross '71 says that, even if limited resources are a problem, students should be encouraged to take the initiative. "Students have to take their destinies into their own hands," he says. "We're not a hand-holding institution. This is a time when people are developing life skills and figuring out what they want to do." And so we join groups, we settle into our niches. But the questions remain: Could we do more? Could we start something new and better? Could we be leaders? Sitting with a group of friends, I raise my eyebrows at the laundry list of student groups, new and old, that people tick off. It's enough to make me feel slightly abashed at my one-line identity: "I'm a Crimson writer."
Government concentrator Matt Glazer '06—a pre-med, an Undergraduate Council member, a coordinator for visiting fellows at the Institute of Politics, and a volunteer with a new tutoring group that prepares people to take their citizenship tests—acknowledges an underlying thrust for control. "People here are proactive, they don't like to not be in charge. If they don't like the way something's run, they'll want to start another group. People here are so ambitious, they get frustrated. They tend to have a low tolerance for inefficiency," he says. Students who are accustomed to taking charge sometimes find it hard to decide whether to surrender control and join groups, rather than seek to lead them.
We are quick to recognize shortcomings in what the College can offer—we have a firm belief in our capacity to make our experiences better for ourselves and for others. But this unwillingness to take one's place in the extracurricular pecking order might be symptomatic of another Harvard tendency: the will to power. "If we're trying to teach you how to become a member, we're going to teach you how to take your place in the hierarchy, to find your way in larger groups and try to change them if they don't make you happy, not leave them," Kidd says. "There is a great push to lead—students here weren't encouraged to be members, they were encouraged to be the president." As Gross says, "Everybody here is a leader or wants to be a leader."
Although he is cynical about the tendency toward self-aggrandizement in some groups, Jordan Thomas thinks most new groups are formed because students feel the need to serve a specific cause. "Extracurriculars give [students] a chance to get away from schoolwork and still feel 'productive,' and the overachiever in all of us likes feeling productive even while doing something non-academic," he says.
Rather than just hang out, we like to have a cause. In a culture of high standards, it seems it may not be acceptable to be unoccupied. "I don't believe that Harvard kids are the types who did the activities solely for their résumé," Thomas says. "They probably believe that extracurriculars have come to define them and their lives feel rather empty without them."
I learned quickly, after a few lonely lectures and breakfasts at Annenberg, that Harvard is a place where you have to make your own community: it's not spoon-fed to you.
I admire my friends who push the envelope, spend their Saturday nights writing mission statements for new activism groups, challenging the status quo in their own way. In my case, having tested the waters, I dove headfirst into the Crimson, where I found that I was content to take my place on the ladder. It's not because I don't care about politics, public service, or social justice—I do—but because I have found a community that, despite its flaws, is established but malleable. I have a capacity to change and improve what is already there.
The community at the Crimson, and even the building itself, have become somewhat of a safe space for me. Despite all the time I spend working there, I find myself there on weekends, too. Is it professional training? Yes, it is. Is it gratifying to see my name in print? Without a doubt. Is it a place to go, a community to belong to outside of lecture? Absolutely. It is the look of recognition I yearn for when squinting at the Sanders Theatre podium.
Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow Rebecca O'Brien '06 is a reporter and an editorial artist at the Harvard Crimson.