College, 9 to 5

An undergraduate enjoys Cambridge on a saner summer schedule.

As a sweet and naive high-schooler, I foolishly believed my teachers when they described to me the wonders of college—a legendary paradise where intelligent adolescents roamed free and did as they liked.  Away from home and out from under adult supervision, they mastered the art of cool.  They read Tolstoy and Dumas.  They wrote poetry and cured cancer.  They grew beards and threw around words like “meta” and “quinoa.”  But the best part, my teachers told me, was that most college students take only four classes each semester, leaving three and a half tons of free time for other activities.  I was thrilled!  In that magical land called college, I would be able to do my homework in the afternoons and leave my nights free to boogie.

For the college kids reading this, my gullibility was such a joke that this delusion doesn’t even warrant a punch line.  As soon as I entered the hallowed hall of Wigglesworth for the first time (after an accidental detour into the slightly less hallowed hall of Weld—Harvard dorms can look a lot alike), I quickly realized that the college day really never ends.  After you wake up in the morning, brush your teeth, shower, notice that in your tired stupor you forgot to take off your socks before crashing into bed, dry your socks, get dressed, brush your hair, and scarf down some breakfast, you have to bolt to class.  And all of this before the crack of 1 p.m.  There’s some time to breathe after class, though, right?  Hogwash.  There’s homework to do, e-mail to read, Facebook to check, underprivileged youth to mentor, languages to study, Facebook to check, rehearsals to attend, dinner to eat, procrastination to partake of, sports to practice, Facebook to check, problem sets to complete, and maybe a little socializing to throw into the mix.  Before you even know it, it’s tomorrow and you’re back in the shower, gradually coming to realize that once again, it’s time for a fresh pair of socks.

But guess what?  The frenetic pace of living and studying at Harvard is nowhere to be found during a Cambridge summer.  The dorms still look alike, but something more fundamental is completely different.  As a full-time research assistant (part reader, part writer) rather than a full-time student (part reader, part writer, part caffeine imbiber), my workday theoretically has become appreciably longer.  Instead of spending only three or four hours a day in class, I begin work at 9 a.m. and do not head home until 5 p.m.  But during the summer, work ends when it’s supposed to.  There is no spillover, no messy run-off.  There is simply a flick of the light switch, a turn of the doorknob, and a resounding slam as you walk off into the limitless freedom that awaits.

Not having experienced such an abrupt break in my day before, I initially approached this transition with caution.  At 5:01 p.m. of my first day of work, I unthinkingly reached into my backpack to pull out my books and start my homework but came up empty-handed.  I spent the rest of the evening in bed, feverish from withdrawal and aching with phantom pains in my writing hand.  The next day, I ran to the library in hopes of checking out any 500-page history book or Gray’s Anatomy, or even Grey’s Anatomy, but the building had locked its doors at the stroke of 5:00.  Returning to my apartment, I tentatively picked up the remote sitting next to the TV and, after fiddling with several thousand buttons, managed to turn it on and get it stuck on the Spanish network.  After nearly 20 minutes of Corazón Salvaje, however, I discovered that ¡me gusta Telemundo! (Later, Spanish QVC was on—did you know they have fantastic deals on a knife set?  Really, it has six pieces and includes a complementary sharpener.  And it comes in four different colors!)  With this encouraging experience under my belt, I decided to grab the spontaneous bull by the unscheduled horns and I did the unthinkable: I invited a friend over to cook dinner.  Then we went to the movies.  Then we ate some ice cream.  Then I went to sleep.

Since that fateful night of impromptu fun, I have been living on the edge.  My friends and I have picnicked on Cambridge Common and played Frisbee after dark.  We’ve planned a trip to the beach, although the actual trip has yet to materialize (the change of seasons isn’t quite enough to destroy my nearly two decades’ worth of procrastination skills).  I even cut out of work at 4:53 once.  One of my primary reasons for choosing to attend Harvard, aside from the stellar academics and the abundance of waffles, was Cambridge itself, but the always-on pace of the school year keeps us from taking advantage of the city’s incredible quirkiness.  During the summer, I’ve been able to participate in a city-wide dance party in the middle of Central Square, moonwalking to the dulcet tones of a Michael Jackson tribute.  I’ve explored the historical yet lively city of Boston, walking the Freedom Trail before watching local bands battle at Downtown Crossing.  I even trooped out to Davis Square to ponder the wonders of the Museum of Bad Art, appreciating the grandeur that is Sunday on the Pot with George.

The beauty of a 9-to-5 job is its precise demarcation.  When 5 p.m. arrives, the day is mine.  I don’t have homework to complete, papers to read, novels to write.  I can do what I want to, and I can do it better than during the hectic pace of term time.  Course notes have vanished in favor of my satire blog, Notes From a Mockraker.  Bolting down cereal for dinner—the most efficient mad-rush meal known to mankind—has disappeared, for I have taken the time not only to cook, but also to complete the Boston Cannoli Taste Test between Mike’s and Modern Pastry (Mike’s wins due to superior shell quality and sweeter ricotta filling).  I barely recognize the relaxed, productive person that I’ve become during my Cambridge summer.  I’m down to checking Facebook only twice a day, and my e-mail level has been downshifted six degrees from “obsessive” to “bordering on anxiety separation.”  I only occasionally reach down to type a paper that is not due on a laptop that is not there.  I’ve showered without incident for six weeks now.

But when next term rolls around, I’m still going to invest in an extra pair of socks.


Brett Rosenberg ’12, currently wearing flip-flops, is living it up after 5 p.m. in Cambridge until the end of July.

Read more articles by: Brett Rosenberg
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