The Undergraduate: “...On to Plan B”

I cannot remember the exact moment when I decided it was my dream to be a Rhodes Scholar. I think I was in fifth grade. It was around the time the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen movie Winning London came out on home video.

For the uninitiated, Winning London follows the classic model of the Mary-Kate and Ashley travel film. Two sisters, who look exactly alike but have entirely opposite personalities, find themselves in a foreign setting and, with wit and charm, negotiate their way through the myriad issues that face the everyday privileged teenaged girl. In this variation on the theme, the twins, California blondes named Chloe and Riley, are seniors in high school who make it to an international Model United Nations conference in London. Their team is set to represent China until it turns out another group has laid its claims on the country. Re-assigned to England, the Americans struggle in the 48 hours before the competition to become experts on their new realm, using a whirlwind visit to significant sights—Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral—to do so. In the meantime, the brash Americans brush up against stuffy English social hierarchies on the polo field, at tea, and in the Model UN competition.

Ultimately, the Type-A sister, Chloe, leaves with a handsome, Oxbridge-bound boyfriend and the knowledge that winning isn’t everything when teenage love is at stake. Riley, who goes to England in her more successful sister’s shadow, takes home a renewed sense of confidence and the conference’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. In short, they win London.

The movie is objectively terrible, and I loved every second of it when I was 11. It fueled my brief spell of Anglophilia, with the Harry Potter movies, my older sister’s British pop music, and Pride and Prejudice kindling the flames. The fire cooled over the next year or so, but one piece stayed with me: going to Oxford—more specifically, as a Rhodes Scholar, a Type-A American girl winning not just London but the entirety of England—became my dream.

During the past three years, this fantasy crystallized into something more concrete: I could apply for the Rhodes. I had a decently high GPA, leadership positions, and a unique project in mind. I thought the fact that I am from Louisiana, a chronically underrepresented state, would give me traction, and I spent countless summer hours writing draft after draft of my recommendation requests and personal statement.

Our House tutors informed us all, of course, that the Harvard nomination process is nearly as cutthroat as the Rhodes competition itself. Of about 100 prospective applicants, they would endorse fewer than half to submit their materials to the Rhodes committee.

But I had faith. I could envision myself in front of the Rhodes interview committee, wearing those penguin-esque robes to Oxford matriculation, walking on the shores of the River Thames, engaging in spirited debates with accented men in pubs. And, impossibly slim as I knew the odds were, logically, I thought that wanting it as badly as I did would be enough to see me through.

At 11:28 a.m. on Friday, September 13, after 15 hours of pacing my room, attempting fitful sleep, and checking my e-mail so much my phone battery was half-drained by the end of my 10 a.m. class, I received a short message from my House fellowships tutor informing me that Harvard would not be endorsing my application for the Rhodes. My tired brain registered what this line meant. Not only had I not won the Rhodes, I wasn’t even allowed to apply. I stopped reading after the second line. Instead, I behaved exactly as I would have in fifth grade: I called my mom and burst into tears.

My mother’s response, too, was the same as always. She reassured me that life is not always fair, but this didn’t mean no graduate school anywhere would accept me. When my heaving sobs dwindled finally to a quieter form of crying, she reminded me, “You can’t win every time.”

In the abstract, I know this is true. Realistically, we can’t win every time, and both common wisdom and psychology tell us that it’s better if we don’t. And certainly, the fact that we can sit around at a world-class university reflecting on even having the opportunity to apply to scholarships like the Rhodes is evidence that we’ve already won some sort of cosmic lottery. But it can be hard to remember this at a place like Harvard, which is full of people who win pretty much all the time—or, at least, do a good job convincing the world that they do.

In every history seminar I’ve taken at Harvard, there’s a point at which someone has brought up contingency. What would have happened if Franz Ferdinand’s driver hadn’t taken that wrong turn onto the Sarajevo side street where his young assassin shot him? Or if the Taino inhabitants of Hispaniola had not reached out to Christopher Columbus and his crew as the Santa María sank into the Caribbean?

I don’t mean to say that any moment in my life carries this sort of gravity. My self-delusions haven’t taken me that far. But that Friday afternoon, as I sat on a bus to New York with my best friend (a trip planned, luckily, several weeks previously), I thought, through the thudding headache left over from my hours of crying, about how much the last three years have been defined by contingency. I don’t just mean by chance, but by flat-out rejection.

During my sophomore year, I applied for a prestigious grant to study in England for the summer. The interview felt more like a tryout for a dating show than for an academic fellowship: early on in the roughly 20-minute conversation, one of the donors asked me to describe my perfect day. I blanched and scrambled together some nonsense—at one point, I definitely mentioned that this dream day would involve eating a croissant. And it only got worse. In the second half, the other donor tried to start a debate with me about Turkish politics, a subject on which he and I clearly did not agree.

As the painful interview came to a close and I rose from my stiff office chair, the “perfect day” interviewer handed me a brown pastry bag from Starbucks that had been sitting on the table during the interview: her own declined breakfast. “A croissant,” she smiled. “For you.” I demurred, but she was insistent. I walked out of the Office of Career Services, the croissant bag crinkling in my right hand, and headed straight for the office of The Crimson, where I figured someone would eat it.

The altogether unsurprising rejection letter came and I panicked about my summer plans. Then, out of nowhere, a former Crimson photographer sent out an e-mail saying that she couldn’t return to her job documenting an archaeological dig in Turkey—would anyone be interested? I e-mailed right away. A few weeks later, when I found out I had gotten the job, I signed on immediately.

In the beginning, everything was miserable: I was the youngest and least knowledgeable person there. Despite my two years of Turkish, communication could be hard, and dinner-table discussions—in English—about archaeology, a subject I knew nothing about, were even more impenetrable. But I grew to relish even the frustration of posing each object, making slight alterations as if they were my models, and to appreciate the way the stars—the only lights in the sky—shone over the columns of the Temple of Artemis.

Then, in my junior spring, I knew I would spend half the summer doing thesis research, but my plans for July were up in the air. When I sent my application to an advanced Turkish program, my professor assured me that I had a great chance. Without any foreboding croissant offerings, I didn’t quite know what to expect, but the “regrets” e-mail—bcc’d to every reject—came anyway.

So I followed up with a teaching fellow who was planning to take a student with him to the field, and spent half the summer in the Caucasus, surveying the stunning landscape of the Armenian highland for possible archaeological sites and then digging at a millennia-old rock shelter in Georgia. I learned to take pleasure in the long days in the field, and in the notion that I was uncovering—not just photographing—what had been in the ground for thousands of years. But I also realized that, for me, what makes archaeology is the relationships built around it: between archaeologists and the communities where they work, between objects themselves and those who are vested with the authority to tell their stories to the world.

That September Saturday night in New York, I was walking in the Bowery with my best friend. The trip was a pause in our stories at Harvard, we had decided—a way to stop and contemplate what the ending might be. But as we headed down Delancey Street, I could look up and see the Williamsburg Bridge ahead, bathing the Lower East Side and East River with its light, the overpowering kind that doesn’t exist here in Cambridge, or in the Temple of Artemis, or in Oxford.

And I thought that maybe this was all a sign, that next year New York will accept me into its folds like the millions of young, uncertain people who came before me. With the same overactive imagination that allowed me to place myself in Oxford—somewhere I have only ever seen in pictures—I envisioned myself rushing down the crowded sidewalks to class, volunteering at the Housing Works bookstore downtown, running across the Brooklyn Bridge on a sunny day.

Or maybe New York, too, will send its regrets, and then the contingency plan will kick in. 

Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow Jessica Salley ’14, a
joint concentrator in history and Near Eastern languages and
civilizations living in Dunster House, still watches the occasional
Mary-Kate and Ashley film.

Read more articles by: Jessica Salley
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