An undergraduate in Cambridge discovers a new way of enjoying her "intellectual Wheaties."
Why am I, a 5-foot, 3.5-inch history concentrator from a quiet hamlet in New York who’ll take every half inch she can get and whose most violent act heretofore has been the butchering of syntactical convention by writing absurdly long first sentences, spending my summer in Cambridge researching a proposal to eliminate peace from our nation’s military doctrine? This was not the plan. I had filled out all of my applications early, agonized over cover notes, and diligently gathered my letters of recommendation, only to watch the rejections come pouring in. Five came in February. March came in like a lion and out like a lamb chewing on five more rejection letters. April was a slow month, only bringing in three, but May picked up the slack, delivering three more notifications of my inadequacy within a single 24-hour span.
Sixteen. Sixteen jobs, internships, fellowships, and scholarships all regretted to inform me that they would not be able to offer me employment for the summer. I was crushed. How could they all not want me? Does my being bilingual—English and Pig Latin—count for nothing? Didn’t my career counselor—my mother— tell me that I was too special to get rejected from everything? (I tried to fire her, but somehow ended up grounded.)
With a few weeks left to go in the spring semester, however, I decided that my lack of popularity with the check-writing set was really a blessing in disguise. I began to look forward to the vacation ahead, so empty that if I shouted it would take nearly three months for my voice to bounce back. It would be nice to see my friends and family. It would be great to eat home-cooked food and sleep in my own bed. I could catch up on those personal projects that always seem to fall by the wayside during the chaos of the school year (writing, running, sleeping past 10, watching every episode of House). While all of my friends were headed off to different corners, nooks, and crannies of the world to be forced to travel or study or—gasp!—work, I would be at home, productively accomplishing nothing.
But even that plan was doomed to failure. During the throes of reading period, I received an e-mail from a teaching fellow of a history class I had taken first semester. He “figured you already have something planned for the summer” (please, it’s not polite to laugh), but just in case that was not so, he wanted to know if I’d be willing to stay in Cambridge and do research for the class’s professor, Niall Ferguson [Tisch professor of history and Ziegler professor of business administration]. I waited two hours to respond—everyone knows that you can’t answer the phone on the first ring—and played hard to get (“Well, I’ll have to see what I can do”). Then I ran to his office to accept the job and insist on naming my first-born child after him.
My never-ending applications and interviews had accomplished exactly nothing, but through pure dumb luck I am now spending the summer as a research assistant to Niall Ferguson. I'm working on his biography of Henry Kissinger, which is intended to be the definitive work on one of our country’s most controversial individuals. Because the book has received its subject's blessing, Ferguson has been granted access to hundreds of thousands of archived letters, government documents, and even newspaper clippings that Kissinger’s father kept of his son; I’d like to think that some day my parents will send a historian newspaper clippings of their daughter, but a tee ball win-loss record may not have the same staying power as using ping pong to end an international standoff. By sifting through these materials and combing the vast library system for more, I have officially become a summer scholar.
Summer scholarship is incredibly different from rest-of-the-year scholarship. Where once there were tests and grades to obsess about, there is now only the goal of discovering new insights and information that could help my professor write his book. The libraries have morphed from buildings I grudgingly entered to find a quiet place to sleep study to cavernous repositories waiting to be explored on my own initiative. There is no predetermined question that arbitrarily limits the scope of my reading; rather, my job is to find books and information that have not been artificially set aside for study, books that could be anywhere. I’ve ventured to the Law School library—where I found that they have fantastic movies—the Business School’s Baker Library, and the Baker Historical Library. I strolled into the Loeb Design Library, declined the librarian’s offer of help, and set off on a pure intellectual adventure relying solely on my own expeditionary skills. Three days later, having chewed on the bindings of the first six volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica for sustenance, I emerged, book in hand. I’ve gotten to read government reports and private correspondence, college essays and student publications. I have even paged through Kissinger’s 385-page senior thesis, silently weeping at my previous pride in a 20-page essay.
But the best part about this exciting experience—aside from the facts that I get paid to read and that Professor Ferguson’s desk chair is remarkably comfortable—is that it is still summer. The cacophony from unzipping my backpack in Widener’s Loker Reading Room is still enough to earn me the evil eye and a solid batch of hate mail, but over the summer, my wearing of flip flops has been quietly tolerated (I did, however, manage to push my tablemates over the edge when I got the hiccups). Instead of taking only Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy and The Necessity for Choice to Lamont’s circulation desk, the summer allows me to add Gilmore Girls: The Complete Third Season to the pile. I get to wear shorts and drink iced tea. I even get to sweat profusely and wish it were fall once again.
“Summer scholarship” is a two-word phrase for a reason. Like mac and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, résumé rejection and me, the two concepts reinforce each other, proving that the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Were I “fortunate” enough to have been chosen for even one of the 16 jobs I applied for, I never would have learned about the strategic difficulties of the U.S.’s binary system of peace and war. I never would have been able to talk knowledgeably about Confluence, a magazine that Kissinger produced while at Harvard. I never would have gotten threatened by multiple eminent historians for “making a ruckus” when Landon Donovan scored the winning goal in the World Cup soccer match I had been covertly listening to on headphones.
I have always thought of myself as a fan of learning—a “nerd,” as the kids are calling it these days—but this summer has been feeding me my intellectual Wheaties in a way that term-time studying, constrained by the looming presence of grades, simply cannot. All year I thought the fates were conspiring against me, but now I see that they were lulling me into a false sense of despair in preparation for throwing me a killer surprise party. Well done, Fates. I am incredibly lucky to have been rejected 16 times.
But next summer, I wouldn’t argue if you hired me.
Brett Rosenberg ’12—5’ 3.5” and not a bit shorter—is
toiling away in Cambridge through the end of July.