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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Off Harvard Time

March-April 2008

Many Harvard undergraduates give personal happiness and reflective decision-making short shrift in the race for academic accolades and pre-professional success: focusing on the seminar papers and section preparations, the problem sets and practice tests, the paperwork of fellowship applications, even the intensity of high-powered extracurricular commitments. At least, as the four semesters between my first ill-fated math set freshman year and the caffeine-fueled completion of my final sophomore essay flew by, that was the case for me.

Unsure of what I wanted to do with the second half of my undergraduate career, and still a bit startled by the first, I took time off for a bit of service and self-reflection, seeking an antidote to Harvard time in the languor of African time. Since September, I’ve made my home in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, a dusty, sunny, and rather quiet country of bleating goats, braying donkeys, and the second-highest prevalence of HIV in the world. I’ve come, appropriately enough, to work on a public-health project aimed at assisting primary- and secondary-school teachers in the fight against the HIV and AIDS epidemic in their classrooms.

At least, that was the plan. In reality, the first few months in-country found my stomach too often in my mouth for self-reflection, and whatever “service” I hoped to render seemed an exercise in futility: my poor command of the local language severely handicapped me; the grossly overworked government officials involved with the project had limited time and resources to offer; and what few results I did get left much to be desired. My enthusiasm for my work waned. I raided libraries to justify my growing cynicism and found, through an unfair fixation on the critical parts of otherwise nuanced books, enough validation to have me washing my hands of global do-gooding for life.

I should have taken a bus instead. “When does this leave?” I impatiently asked the driver the first time I did, leaning over the tightly bound and blinking chicken with which I shared my seat. “When it is full,” he replied with a leisurely smile. Some minutes later, a respectable-looking man sat down opposite the chicken, looked with amusement at my fingers drumming on the seat-back, and pointedly closed his eyes, falling into the endemic African trance-like state of endless patience. Two hours later, the bus was full, and my own impatience had turned to embarrassment. I realized that I had never really left Cambridge, never really left the world of deadlines and time-tables, of problem sets to be solved and turned in on time. I had a lot to learn, and Widener couldn’t help me.

 

I soon found other ways to be a student. Not long after the bus incident, I traveled with a team of community workers to villages outside Gaborone to test at-risk inhabitants for HIV infection. We drove past sun-burnt fields, worked by stooping women with babies strapped to their backs; past the spreading acacia trees where their husbands gulped cheap chibuku by the liter. Some trips to village health centers brought empty rooms and disheartening facilities; at other times, with a bullhorn declaring our presence and purpose for all to hear, our car was surrounded by eager subjects. Back in Gaborone, Western doctors working on the hospital wards introduced me to the maddening unpredictability—the needless deaths, the spectacular recoveries—of Third World medicine. For every excuse to doubt the future of this embattled country, I learned there was a reason to hope.

I had also hoped to teach. Gradually, the team of medical officers and social workers with whom I worked found its way to some schools. Our “workshops”—two-day marathons of lectures, questions (“Is it true that if I shower after…”), and discussion sessions—had been devised, long before I arrived, as a response to the growing number of school-age children with HIV in Botswana. If we have covered far fewer schools since my arrival than I anticipated, we have, at least, been welcomed with far greater enthusiasm than I could have dreamed.

Frequent lulls in this work have allowed me to continue my education outside Botswana. My wanderings have taken me through Swaziland, a beautiful but ailing country with the highest prevalence of HIV in the world, to the poverty of Mozambique; across Botswana’s riparian border with Zambia, where the endless line of truckers waiting to cross the Zambezi River forms, in the words of a doctor with whom I was traveling, the epicenter of the HIV epidemic in Africa; and through the rice fields of Malawi to Tanzania. Everywhere people in need, and everywhere, for better or worse, volunteers lined up to help them: Peace Corps types with their hand-rolled cigarettes and scraggly beards; Dutch relief workers on holiday; students, like myself, swapping job descriptions and mounting frustrations on terraced escarpments overlooking Lake Malawi; jaded one-time do-gooders who click cheap bottles of beer and toast leaving “Africa to Africans.” The experience has been invaluable, the conversations enlightening, the endless kilometers of bus travel immensely liberating.

Somewhere along the way—and for the first time in 14 years—I watched the Southern Hemisphere spring give way to summer without the startling rush of formal schooling. It’s odd, then, that my education has never been so intense.

 

The benefits of taking time away from school should come as no surprise. Students have long had the option of taking a “gap year” between high school and college, and the Office of Undergraduate Admissions has promoted it in their letter of admission for more than 30 years.

Even as an increased number of study-abroad opportunities has created options for a more structured break, or at least change, from Cambridge, Harvard College’s dean of admissions and financial aid, William R. Fitzsimmons, says that there can be great benefit in taking unstructured time off as well: “Such an experience can lead a student in a very different direction from a personal, academic or vocational perspective.”

After a semester studying abroad in Tanzania, Travis Kavulla ’06 found himself as unwilling to return to campus as he was unable to remain in Africa. “I’d always wanted to do a community governance project,” he e-mails, “and I’d been involved in school politics in my town, Great Falls, Montana, when I was in high school.” So Kavulla used the freedom of time off to engage in some “unremunerated volunteer work” aimed at reversing a local school closure. It was, he says, a commitment undemanding enough to allow him to strengthen his family ties and appreciate some of the most rewarding aspects of unstructured life. “I spent most of my time catching up on fiction, and improving my pool game and alcohol tolerance,” he reports. “Time well spent, if you ask me.”

The decision to leave school is not easy. My two years at Harvard passed by so rapidly in part because I love the College so much: the classes, the students, the quiet study nooks in the libraries. Schooling, for better or worse, has defined much of my life to date—so much so that at times I have hoped never to leave this familiar world. Fitzsimmons, in fact, cautions that students “often find it very hard [to take time off] during college because they become so involved with roommates, friends, academic work, and classes.”

For others, however, this all-consuming and sometimes crippling involvement with the daily workings of Harvard is reason enough to step away. After transferring from the University of Pennsylvania to Harvard following her freshman year, Elise Wang ’07 found a different sort of campus than she had expected. “Maybe I never found the right group of people or the right classes,” she e-mails, “but sophomore year was very difficult. Everyone seemed to care [about] and be doing something, [but] it just seemed like everyone was president of their two-person club, rather than forming any sort of movement…I began to feel like this sort of attitude was all that was available if one wanted to become involved in an effort to change things, and it was getting depressing.”

In need of another change, Wang traveled to Taiwan, a country whose language she knew and where distant relatives lived, but which she had left as an infant. It was, she says, “a balance between striking out on my own and still feeling like I had somewhere to go for a meal when I was just too tired to go haggle at the market.” At first, she studied Chinese, taught English, and, like Kavulla, “enjoyed having the time to read all those books I’d always meant to read.” From Taiwan, she set off for Beijing University, where she supplemented her Mandarin studies with courses on immigration and Chinese history in an academic setting unlike anything she had seen at Harvard or Penn.

After further travels throughout China, Wang worked for Senator Barack Obama in his Chicago office, a job perhaps most valuable for allowing her to concentrate on her growing interest in immigration issues. “In a way,” she says, “a year away from doing ‘productive’ work was really what threw me into focus, so to speak. At the end of it, I was ready to begin again, not only with energy, but also with the knowledge that this wasn’t the only thing out there—that, contrary to popular belief, a world does exist on the other side of the Charles and past Porter, not just in a theoretical future way.”

 

After two years of living in Boston, I’m not entirely sure that I’ve actually been past Porter Square; I’m even less sure that any of the lessons I’ve learned while away will throw anything into focus for me back at Harvard. I am, after all, still in the midst of things, having written this on a dirty street corner in Dar es Salaam, to be sent overseas—the chaos of overland travel in Africa permitting—from my home in Gaborone.

I do know, however, that my newfound commitment to the worlds of public health and international aid is only one part of my time abroad. In some probably selfish sense, what I’ve done in my time off has mattered less than the simple fact that I did it away from Harvard. My work, although supported by a generous Harvard-specific fellowship, was not arranged by an established work- or study-abroad program or through any of Harvard’s international channels. It arose instead from a few simple e-mails to outside organizations I admired. This probably resulted in a more chaotic project than a formal Harvard program might have provided, but I’m not convinced that is all bad. In fact, it has allowed me to step away not just from the routines of Cambridge, but from the academic cocoon in which I’ve been ensconced for two years. I have been able to define my public-health experience for myself, in part by ignoring time altogether, in part by responding in my own way to the difficulties of the developing world. I still don’t know what I’ll do when I return to campus, but for the first time in years, I’m comfortable with that.

My African adventures do occasionally strike me as somewhat ridiculous. My knee-jerk cynicism regarding public-health work may have given way to a wary faith in its utility, but I harbor no delusions of the impact I’ll make in just six months. I’ve had my doubts even about the transformative power of travel. I find myself wondering—as often at work as on empty buses, waiting for them to fill with more than poultry—if the independence, the suspension of time, the break from the pressures and decisions of schooling that I have found in Botswana might just as easily have been found amid the comforts of the West.

But whether there’s more to my wanderings than a few good stories and a partially successful project is beside the point. What matters is that I’ve finally learned one of the more difficult lessons a Cantabrigian can: there is more to my education than Harvard.