Realizing you miss college after a summer abroad

Also see "Subtraction and Decision," Spencer Lenfield's "Undergraduate" column in the September-October 2010 issue

For harried Harvard undergraduates during spring semester, all the rounds of applications and competitions for travel funding and internships can make it seem as though summer opportunities are in very short supply. This is hardly the case—and it can be a little too easy for us to forget that these are often options that don't exist for the vast majority of American college students.

In fact, they're opportunities that most students outside Ivy-League-like schools probably don't even realize they're missing. Most of the students in the state university near my hometown in Michigan go home for the summer, go to the beach, and work to make tuition money. I remember being pretty shocked during February of my freshman year, when suddenly it seemed that everyone around me was concerned about finding ways to spend time exploring other countries or advancing career prospects. I was just looking forward to being at home again, where I wouldn't need to worry about getting locked out in the hallway if I forgot my key when I went to the bathroom.

So, as my roommates headed off to Japan and Peru, respectively, I spent the summer at home, just like the previous 18 summers of my life. I should explain that I was never one of those kids who wanted to go off to summer camp, probably on account of a low tolerance for mosquitoes and a lack of the hand-eye coordination that counts for so much among the preadolescent male set. The closest I ever got was a piano camp after my junior year of high school. It was, I guess, my first extended sojourn away from home, albeit in conditions so extensively monitored that we could only cross the street in groups of at least three. (If you've ever been to a camp full of teenagers who spend several hours per day in padded practice rooms, this policy may make sense to you.)

I've also been openly scornful, since a remarkably early age, of cheap jingoism for a pretty ephemeral experience or association, and so the idea of "camp songs" or "camp identity" always got on my nerves. (In the grand scheme of things, no one will ever ask whether you went to Camp Oswego or to Camp Ottawa, next door. No one will ever care.) I was one of those kids who had a hard time cheering for my high-school football team, mostly on the basis of the empirical indefensibility of the absurd statement "We're the best."

Anyway, this past sophomore year, a little more experienced and a little more used to the habits of Harvardians, I, too, took part in the great springtime hunt for summer plans, and have ended up spending the summer away from home—not just for a month or even two, but basically the entire thing. In June, I had the good fortune to learn about art history in Paris by taking extensive notes in incredible museums, to practice my French, and even have the occasional amazing pastry; in July and August, I've been studying English literature at Cambridge University, which brings me up to the present. And now that's nearly done and summer's nearly over, and it will be a very quick week at home that cushions the time between writing essays in libraries here and writing them once again in Lamont or Widener back in the other Cambridge.

Except I've been finding that, homework aside, I miss school nearly as much as I miss home. I find myself thinking about all the friends I'm looking forward to catching up with, and planning movie nights with them again; the professors it'll be nice to say hello to; the librarians and the Eliot House staff, and getting to know a new set of House masters. I start daydreaming about pacing clamorous, crowded Mass. Ave. from the Barker Center to Dunster Street in the fall; holding out a completed stamp card for a free BerryLine frozen yogurt; wandering the library stacks to get to the quietest and most secluded reading rooms on frigid November afternoons. It's easy to romanticize—those are all things I feel I never have time to do when I'm actually at school—but half of memory is usually delusion, and often the better half.

What's striking is that I didn't really feel this way at all last summer. Sure, there's always some excitement that comes with going back to school, but it was hardly this real longing to get back to a place for no reason other than that it simply means so much to you. We have a word for that feeling when its object is home—homesickness—but no corresponding word for anyplace else. It's not just a feeling of "I miss the office"; it's something more than that, because college—though a miserable and anxious experience at its worst—can, when things are going well, really fulfill all the palaver and propaganda about becoming a second home, if only for a short time. Freshman year is probably too short a time to develop that connection; it seems plausible to me that, if it's going to set in, it'll be after sophomore year. Two years can forge a meaningful friendship; two years can change your mind about something. It may take only one year for a place to work its way into the memory of your feet and legs until you can walk it like second nature, but it's two before you start to miss it.

I'd think these were just my own impressions if it weren't for hearing from classmates that they, too, have been spending long afternoons curled up with a laptop, browsing the course catalog online, and have even been quietly (this admission only comes with some shy embarrassment) counting down the days left in August ever since the month began. Granted, there are probably some people who would prefer a few more weeks in August—or even a second August—before heading back. There are probably even some people who would rather not go back at all, and I can understand that. It's a stressful place; not everyone enjoys it, and not everyone fits in. Frankly, not everyone should "fit in." The world thrives on people who don't fit into molds and people who are discontented. You could note, sardonically, that Harvard produces a good many of both.

But the thing that surprises me most about the past two years is that they've taken me—the skeptic who had never really been away from home before and couldn't stand the identity-cheering of high schools and summer camps—and softened me a little bit. After deliberately leaving every piece of Harvard clothing I own at home this summer, I think I'll go back and wear that two-year-old T-shirt with a little more enthusiasm. After all, this is the school that doesn't just keep you in class; it houses you and feeds you and gives you the opportunity to go remarkable places in the summer. And it's important to remember that not every school does that. Okay, to be fair, Yale might. But we've beaten them at football for the past three years. And, irrationally but honestly, I somehow feel kind of proud of that.

I might even cheer this year. 

Spencer Lenfield '12 is pretty sure his enthusiasm will drop off a
bit when midterms roll around, but will enjoy it while it lasts.

Read more articles by: Spencer Lee Lenfield
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