“I Am Not the Best Anymore”

Seniors reveal some unexpected lessons learned at Harvard.

As they scrambled to wrap up coursework and fine-tune their résumés, some members of the Class of 2014 took time to reflect on their experiences during the last four years. What had they learned about Harvard—and themselves? And what wisdom was gained that they will not only carry throughout the rest of their lives, but can also share with friends, younger siblings, or even with the parents of future undergraduates? Are there some concepts that can help students make the most of their time at Harvard?

Laszlo Ryan Seress, a chemistry and physics concentrator who will start graduate school in the fall, says he is inspired by the annual influx of “freshmen who come in with so much optimism. It’s invigorating for the community to see all those smiling faces.”

Yet it also reminds him of a campus joke. “Why is there so much knowledge at Harvard?” he asks. “Because the freshmen come in knowing everything and the seniors leave knowing nothing.” Many freshmen, he explains, arrive “thinking they are going to run the world—in a good and a bad way.” Their energy is welcome, but there probably isn’t enough recognition that “they are inexperienced and have a lot of growing up to do over the next four years.” Seniors, at least, have gained some humility. “They have realized the depth of their ignorance and that they now have a lifetime of learning ahead,” he reports. “So, it’s true: in the end, everyone does get smarter here.”

Academics: “Don’t compare, connect”

That’s what Seress took from a speech by Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, during freshman convocation. “Everyone sort of snorted and thought, ‘That’s silly,’ because you spent your whole life comparing yourself to other people and that’s how you got to Harvard,” he says. “But what I realized, over time, is that ‘Don’t compare, connect’ is so true.” As a freshman, it seems that everyone else at Harvard is successful at everything, he notes, but that’s “only because nobody gets up on a pulpit and screams, ‘I failed!’” The best mathematician he knows, for example, was afraid to go to Expository Writing because he found it daunting. “Maintain perspective,” Seress advises. “It can be easy to fall into a funk early on because suddenly half of us are in the bottom half of the class,” despite working extremely hard. “Learn to navigate ‘I am not the best anymore,’” he urges, “and accept the fact that this takes awhile to learn.”

But at the same time, he says with a laugh, “Study harder than you think you have to.” This is “un-fun advice,” he adds, but freshmen tend to coast, only to realize later that they have fallen behind. Everything is new, and there are significant distractions, he notes: “Living at home, you never had people knocking on your door at 2 a.m. saying, ‘Let’s go get a pizza.’” The workload, too, is harder than it was in high school. This was true even for Seress, who took multiple courses at nearby Ohio State before graduating from high school. “Here, you will not be at the top of the curve just by doing the minimum,” he says. “It can never hurt you to study too much, but many people I know have regretted not applying themselves as much as they could have.”

As a specific piece of advice with general applicability, A. Arcelus, an applied math concentrator, recommends that all freshmen take “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory,” a popular General Education course taught by Klein professor of Chinese history Michael Puett. “He is an awesome lecturer and person,” says Arcelus, who took the course last fall and wishes she had done it earlier because it “opened her up” to Eastern philosophy “and made me question why we are all so outcome-oriented.” That perspective might have helped her put less pressure on herself to “be better and ski faster” on the women’s cross-country ski team and focus instead on learning, training, and enjoying the process.

Professors: “More personable than you had imagined”

Office hours at Harvard are more formal than in high school, says Ginny Fahs, a class marshal. “They are a little awkward and confusing at first, but keep going, because they get better!” Professors put students in “the driver’s seat,” she explains. “Be ready with questions and comments. It took me awhile to realize that people actually prepared for office hours as they would for a class.”

Get to know professors personally whenever possible, the history and literature concentrator emphasizes. This can feel daunting, she allows, but push past that discomfort. Share tea or coffee in Harvard Square, or invite a professor to the semi-annual faculty dinners: great opportunities, she says, to dress up, enjoy a sit-down meal, and talk outside of class. Hearing stories of professors’ own trajectories—building a career, making difficult personal decisions, or managing periods of doubt, or even failures—is illuminating, she adds. “They are much more personable than you had imagined.”

“Look for mentors” among professors and graduate students both, Arcelus adds. The College can help with pairings, but the relationships “work better when you are interested in a topic and meet someone who is older” and find a way to work with them, she says. Upperclassmen and graduate students can be immensely helpful “because they are younger and often closer to your own experiences.” They can help find summer internships, research opportunities, jobs, and even travel fellowships. (Arcelus also highly recommends such fellowships, having traveled every summer and January term while at Harvard.)

Social Life: Too much, too little?

Arcelus warns against “fairy-tale” expectations about roommate relationships. “There’s a difference between being a good roommate and being a friend. Don’t feel pressure to be both,” she says. Blockmates often are best buddies—but there is no “recipe for friendships.” “Don’t put pressure on the living relationships,” she adds. “Just clean up the bathroom and public spaces and do what needs to be done to live well together.”

Don’t overdo the socializing freshman year, cautions Thomas Dai, even though there is a lot of pressure to “break into what you imagine the social scene to be.” True friends will emerge naturally. “It was helpful for me to realize that I didn’t need to meet everyone here; that everyone is doing incredible and interesting things,” says Dai, who balances his concentration in organismic and evolutionary biology with a passion for fashion design, and counts his blockmates among his closest friends. “At the end of the day, it’s not the social network that’s important,” he adds. “It’s the friendships, pure and simple.”

Conversely, be on alert for feelings of disconnection or isolation, especially in the first year. Elizabeth “Libby” Felts is a peer adviser; she has been trained to reach out to fellow students who may be struggling with anxiety and depression, or are floundering in other ways: feeling, perhaps, “that you have lost control of your own life, that you cannot keep up with things, as if you cannot stop what you are doing or everything will fall apart, or that life is going on around you but you are just going through the motions.” Talk to somebody, she advises: friends, roommates, proctors, therapists at University Mental Health Services—or go to the confidential peer-counseling care center, Room 13, in the basement of Thayer Hall. “Or call your parents,” she adds. “Sometimes touching base with home can help you feel you have a bit more control.”

Home and family: “A sense of displacement”

Know that relationships with home and family will change, and visit more often—or not—to preserve relationships. “I avoided going home at all,” says Dai. “I regret that now.” When he did, however, things seemed to be changing without him, which led to “a sense of displacement.” “It’s unclear whether going home more would have solved that, but I think it would have given me more closure,” he says. “Understand that, in general, distance really matters and that ‘home’ will not just stay there in a neat little box that you can lift out again and experience exactly how you used to feel in high school and growing up.”

Personal Growth: “Don’t be afraid to trust yourself”

For Dai, this is crucial, because four years at Harvard will not necessarily result in a neat sorting of one’s life, career, relationships, and passions. Personal and professional growth is not linear, nor should it be. “I grew comfortable with contradictions,” he explains. “I can go to the lab and spend hours studying entomology and butterfly wings and then go and spend time editing a fashion magazine.” He has faith that life will ultimately “turn into something clean. You will have a job and get basic things taken care of. But in the meantime, it is OK to be a little all over the place.”

Felts agrees. “The most important thing I’ve learned is to define my own idea of success,” she says. The earth and planetary science concentrator grew up in England, and likes studying earthquakes and doing fieldwork. She spent last summer at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, and wrote a thesis on seismicity in the Kilauea volcano system, despite the absence of a Harvard professor in the volcano seismology field. “If I am not happy with what I am doing, then I am not going to be successful,” she explains, “regardless of whether I am getting good grades or ‘doing things well.’” She learned that painfully in freshman year when she took a challenging math course. “I found the teaching style difficult and struggled to keep up. Poor advising had convinced me that this was what I should be doing, so I stuck with it for an entire year. Despite doubling my effort, I was left miserable, and with a mathematical knowledge that wasn’t even applicable to the field I was interested in.”

It is scary, she concedes, to deviate from traditional paths linked to certain rewards. But “we’re paying so much to be here in this resource-rich, culturally rich place, and it’s such a large investment of time and effort,” she says, that it’s critical for students to figure out for themselves “what they actually want to put all that time and effort into.”

Extracurriculars: “Harvard can be a big place”

Harvard social life, notes Fahs, most often revolves around extracurricular activities, clubs, and campus organizations such as The Harvard Crimson, where she is a staff writer. “Being part of a committed group of people who are all working together on something they care a lot about,” she says, “is really important.”

Seress sings. He began in the Harvard University Choir and Harvard Glee Club, and in senior year joined the Krokodiloes. That group’s historic relationship with the Hasty Pudding Theatricals involved him with a new social group, and also enabled him to travel and perform in Europe in January. “It was an amazing experience, to go to Amsterdam, Paris, and Berlin,” he says—something he would never have done with his peers without leaving the lab occasionally and joining a performing-arts organization.

“Join a sport,” recommends Arcelus. Varsity sports have their own tryout policy for walk-ons; club teams hold open tryouts, she adds. She had enjoyed cross-country skiing in high school, and became a member of the women’s team. “I wasn’t very good,” she says, “but it was a lot of fun and very humbling to be embraced by my super-fit teammates and coach. Harvard can be a big place sometimes.” It helps to have a support system with people to see every day, she thinks, especially during freshman and sophomore years, when students are finding a niche. And, she adds, sports help structure free time, ensuring less of it is devoted to procrastination.

Exploring Harvard’s arts and science collections, along with the lesser-known corners of campus, such as the lower depths of Widener Library and tucked-away gardens, also provides respite from the daily routine. While writing her thesis, Fahs worked in a different library each day, discovering many “hidden gems,” including the Fung Library in the basement of the Knafel Building.

Fahs also advises freshmen to take advantage of the many stimulating events happening on campus nearly every day. She attends at least one a month, such as the lectures offered by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “Disneyland is cool, but I feel like this is the most magical place on earth,” she concludes. “Try to remember that, when you are pulling all-nighters and are really sleep-deprived and just feel exhausted by this place.”

Felts, the peer advisor, points out the benefits of community or public service, mentioning the many programs run by the Phillips Brooks House Association. It’s a way to get outside yourself and your own daily experiences to help others.”

Also helpful is getting off campus and exploring Cambridge and greater Boston, including Harvard’s own natural reserves, such as the Arnold Arboretum or Felts’s favorite place, the 3,000-acre Harvard Forest (dedicated to ecological research) in Petersham, Massachusetts. A freshman seminar took her to the property, where she went snowshoeing and met with scientists studying climate change. That led to a summer there, working with researchers studying the seasonal cycle of plants. “It’s nice,” she says, “to get out and appreciate the living world.”

Read more articles by Nell Porter-Brown

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