How To Harvard—Advice From 14 College Alumni
Harvard Magazine asked recent reunioners to reflect on their undergraduate experience: what they wish they had done, how could they have spent the four years better, and what advice they have for current undergraduates on making the most of their time at Harvard.
“I wish I’d taken even more CS classes.”
Susan D. Wojcicki ’90 is the CEO of YouTube. She concentrated in history and literature.
I took one computer-science class at Harvard, CS 50, and I didn’t take it until my senior year. As a history and literature major, a CS class was outside my comfort zone. But I took a chance, loved it, and realized I wanted a career in tech. Looking back, I wish I’d taken even more CS classes and recommend that all undergraduates take at least one. I’ve found that an understanding of technology opens up opportunities in nearly every industry.
Beyond CS, I wish I’d taken even more of the really interesting-sounding classes outside of my concentration—like archaeology or astronomy—whether or not they had a clear application for my future. The same goes for all the exceptional speakers that came to campus. If I could go back in time, I would attend more talks by visiting thought-leaders and influencers. At no other point in life can you explore such diverse perspectives and varied interests so freely. So take that fascinating class that has nothing to do with your concentration, attend the talk by the visiting world-renowned physicist, and don’t forget to sign up for CS 50.
“l wish I had kept up more of my pre-college hobbies.”
Lina S. Scroggins ’05 is the program manager on the Chrome and Android Partnerships Team at Google Inc. She concentrated in psychology.
Practically speaking, given where I have ended up career-wise and the kinds of problems I've been asked to solve along the way, I really wish that I would have gotten more formal exposure to law, computer science, and Mandarin in my coursework. Less practically, l wish I had kept up more of my pre-college hobbies, which I have since rediscovered, but neglected while I was at Harvard, like reading books for fun, really experiencing history, and making things out of paper with my hands. Maybe if I had integrated the people and things I knew outside of Harvard with those I knew inside better, I would have been more successful with the latter and thus feel like I hadn't taken a break.
As for advice for current undergraduates about making the most of their time at Harvard, I think this question is really hard. A lot of the advice that I got that turned out to be most truthful, like "Really explore while you're in college!" or "Take classes you wouldn't expect yourself to take!" or "Don't study so much!" was really hard to follow. It's also really hard to anticipate what you're going to regret until you actually start to regret it, and then the answer, too, will be different for each person. So I think the best thing that any of us can do, both in college or out, is to make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time, to not be afraid to make adjustments to plans as you get new information along the way, and just live on. It will be interesting in any case to look back and marvel at how far you've come.
“I wish I had not been so intimidated by my professors.”
Lynda Cohen Loigman ’90 is a writer who concentrated in English and American literature. Her first novel, The Two Family House, will be published in March 2016.
I wish I had not been so intimidated by my professors.During my first few years of college, I thought I was absolutely unworthy of their time. I never went to office hours because I assumed no professor would ever want to speak with me. During my junior year I had a one-on-one tutorial with a professor, and that completely changed my perspective. I realized professors want to connect with students.
When I look back, I wish I had been more aware of what a gift it was to have four years to study anything at all. I should have taken more risks with the classes I took. I took one religion class and I LOVED it—I should have taken more. I should have taken creative-writing classes, which I was always too afraid to try. I should have been more open to new experiences, but I wasn’t sophisticated enough to figure that out yet.
I’ve been an alumni interviewer for Harvard for many years, so I actually get this question a lot. My advice is always to connect and to take advantage of all of Harvard’s opportunities. Connect with the people you meet, connect with your professors and the graduate students who are your section leaders. It is not a mistake that you are there, so don’t waste time being insecure. There are so many interesting and amazing people all around you doing the most fascinating things—meet them and get involved.
“I wish I had studied a bit less and read more widely.”
Steven Erlanger ’74 is the London bureau chief of The New York Times. He concentrated in government.
Take a variety of courses in topics that interest you; you'll never have that luxury again, the chance and the time to become a broadly educated, cultured person. Folklore and mythology; comparative literature; English poetry; political philosophy; Asian history; art history; whatever. Take an economics course. Learn another language. Make sure you meet your professors, not just your teaching assistants. Spend time in Boston, at the museums, at the ballpark, in the slums. Meet some Nieman Fellows. Don't limit yourself to Cambridge. Get up to the Maine coast in the winter. Relax.
[I wish I had] studied a bit less and read more widely. Spent more time with people I didn't already know. I wish I had spent even more time with my thesis adviser, the late Judith Shklar. I wish I had pushed Bernard Bailyn and W. Jackson Bate (and some others) to sit down with me for a coffee. I wish I'd spent more time in the Fogg and less time in Lamont.
“Get really good at finding and asking for help.”
Margaret "Meg" Mary Campbell ’74 is the founder and executive director of Codman Academy Charter Public School, a poet, and a member of the Boston School Committee. She concentrated in history and literature.
I wish I had lived on the famous North House women’s floor, filed sexual harassment complaints, studied abroad, written for the Crimson, sung in a chorus, become fluent in Spanish, traveled in the summer, and had the courage to graduate as a single woman—I was married mid way through my senior year.
Looking back, I could have better valued time getting to know women classmates. My Radcliffe friends are a treasure. At reunions, though, I am always struck by meeting women classmates I wish I had known and been friends with all these years. I was young and taken with “the men,” and at the time, there were four times as many of them.
My advice to undergraduates is to find out where your grandparents went to high school, because knowing your family history helps you weather inevitable storms. Make strong women friends. Get really good at finding and asking for help. Welcome feedback as a chance to better understand and improve. Fall in love with a Boston neighborhood. Leave our community better because you were here. Call home often.
“Try not to allow financial constraints to limit your experiences.”
Ellen Chubin Epstein ’90, J.D. ’93, is a federal prosecutor who concentrated in government.
Looking back, I am pretty satisfied with how I spent my time at Harvard. I pursued my passions, connected with others who shared those passions, and broadened myself intellectually, culturally, and emotionally. My only regret is turning down an offer I had received, through a Harvard lecturer with whom I had studied, to spend the summer after graduation interning at a U.S. embassy. I turned it down for financial reasons, but I should have tried harder to make it work. I had obtained various Harvard fellowships to study abroad during the summer after my junior year, stipends from the Institute of Politics for political internships in Washington, D.C., in earlier summers, and scholarship money from the Office for the Arts for voice lessons during college. My advice to current undergraduates would be to take full advantage of Harvard's resources and try not to allow financial constraints to limit your experiences.
“When rejected, always check the rules and try again.”
Martha S. Hewson ’77 is a freelance writer who concentrated in American history and literature.
The summer after freshman year, I came home and dumped all my stuff in my sister’s old room. My mother kept nagging me to clean up the boxes, but I didn’t want to deal with them. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go back to Harvard. That spring about 15 people had been accepted into American history and literature, and I wasn’t one of them. I was now an unhappy history concentrator.
One hot midsummer night, I finally started tackling my boxes and found a description of the various concentrations. I read about history and lit the way you might read an old love letter, full of longing tinged with sadness. And suddenly I saw these words: “Applications will be accepted in the spring of freshman year and fall of sophomore year.” I could apply again! This time I had a better paper to submit and I was prepared for the interview. While waiting to hear if I’d been accepted, I had to have my first meeting with my history tutor, who cheerfully informed me that we’d be starting with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I took the tutor’s syllabus and prayed I’d never see him again. I never did because I got into American history and lit.
My advice: First, clean up your stuff. Second, when rejected, always check the rules and try again. That way, when someone asks you years later what you would have done differently at Harvard, you can say: “Nothing. I was very happy there.”
“I wish I had taken a semester or year away.”
Adam Fratto ’90 is a TV producer who concentrated in social studies.
My time at Harvard was intense, magical (often), and all-consuming: a slipstream of intense activities, intellectual exploration, and sleepless nights. I wish I had taken a semester or year away from that time to understand the outside world a bit better and give some context and focus to my undergrad years. I could have done more athletic stuff. I would have been a lot healthier!
Don’t worry about the career path. Harvard is a smorgasbord; eat to your heart’s content and go back to the buffet as many times as you want, trying as many different flavors as you can.
“Get out of your head, ignore the hang-ups, and go meet more people.”
Viet D. Dinh ’90, J.D. ’93, is a law professor and attorney who concentrated in government and economics.
I worked a lot in college, which left fewer social hours, and I wish I had spent that time more engaged. My classmates at the twenty-fifth reunion were accomplished, yes, but also incredibly interesting and fun. So my advice to my undergraduate self would be: “Get out of your head, ignore the hang-ups, and go meet more people. These are your friends, and they will be for a long time.”
Undergraduates should “learn about themselves while they are learning about the world.”
Verna C. Gibbs ’75 is a professor of surgery at University of California, San Francisco who concentrated in biological anthropology.
I did everything I wanted to do when I was at Harvard. That is what made my four years in college so valuable and exciting. I would look in a course catalog to decide what I wanted to take and took almost whatever I wanted. At the time there didn't seem to be as many constraints on prerequisites, and I had already decided that I wanted to go to medical school, so I spent most of my years at Harvard studying everything but the sciences—because I knew I would be spending the rest of my life doing that. I took a government course, a literature course, a special elective on chimpanzee genetics, rowed crew, learned to dive, worked in the Peabody Museum library, and just did my required biology and chemistry courses to get that medical-school application completed. Looking back, I have no regrets.
What I see now among the undergraduates is that it seems they think they have to go to college to get a job or start their professional careers. They are all so focused on the next step that they are missing the greatest opportunity in their lives to be in the moment of their current step: to be where they are now. They are so busy, it seems, trying to fulfill the dreams and hopes of their parents or some societal expectation of them, now that they are at Harvard, that they are not being true to themselves. They also think that it's all in having a career or in having money or something structural, and it's so not that. The best thing they can do in the four years they have as an undergraduate is to learn about themselves while they are learning about the world. The hard part is trying to figure out how to do that—but if they don't even think that's why they are there, they can't even get started.
“Follow your dreams.”
Jennifer Lee ’90 is the founder and principal of OBRA Architects. She concentrated in English and American literature.
I have to say that looking back, despite my fears, regrets, and paths-not-taken, I thoroughly enjoyed Harvard due to the amazing people I met, the inspiring mentors I found, and the incredible friendships I have made that have lasted and grown stronger. So despite the fact that I did not find my path at Harvard, there is not much I would have done differently.
Caution to the wind!!!! After four years as a pre-med English major, suffering through organic chemistry, I finally gave a gift to myself and allowed myself to take a painting class at the Carpenter Center. This led to a summer at Career Discovery at the GSD, and an eventual discovery of architecture—despite my slight detour as an English honors student with my somewhat-structural-architectural-space-related thesis on reader-response theory and the narrative "space" in literature.
After five years for my B.Arch. at Cooper Union and the start of my own firm, I must say that rather than taking the lengthy detour, I might have spent my years better by finding architecture sooner. However, that would have meant no Helen Vendler reciting poetry, Philip Fisher and the novel, and Marjorie Garber teaching Shakespeare. Who wouldn't benefit from tasting the richness of life from these folks?
Follow your dreams. I know it is cliché, but whatever your dreams are, they end up disrupting your sleep enough—despite your efforts to suppress them—that eventually, they emerge despite, perhaps, the Asian upbringing of caution.
“Give yourself enough time to adjust to college life and recognize that you are surrounded by others who are also adapting.”
Renee Covi ’90 is an executive at Capital One Bank who concentrated in psychology.
When I started at Harvard, I was eager to keep up the level of extracurricular activities I had going on in high school, which was hard at first. The college academics workload is a step up from high school, plus you are learning how to be more independent, making new friends, and just getting used to living away from your family, community, and friends.
In my first year I was balancing running on the track and cross-country teams and trying to take on various jobs, from working in the Harvard libraries to doing some dishwashing. I learned a lot about how to spend my time wisely. I would say it took me until about mid freshman year to feel really good about how I was allocating time among academics, sports, social time with friends, and working five to 10 hours per week.
My advice to incoming freshmen is: Give yourself enough time to adjust to college life and recognize that you are surrounded by others who are also adapting. I would also highly encourage folks to join at least one extracurricular club or activity. There are so many amazing opportunities at Harvard. Many of my best friendships were with people I met in track, cross-country, or the Harvard Cycling Club.
“Develop your listening skills.”
Mitchell Dong ’75 is the managing director of Pythagoras Investment Management LLC. He concentrated in economics.
While I have no regrets, I wish I’d spent more time getting to know my classmates better. I wish I had learned everyone’s stories and developed deeper and more meaningful relationships with more of my amazing buddies. You can learn so much about yourself and the world by listening and interacting with everyone. Listening is more important that speaking. Develop your listening skills.
My best college experience, which I recommend, is to start a business. I started my first company as a sophomore with a Radcliffe freshman—it was an energy-consulting firm. Oil prices had just shot up and we did energy audits for building owners, to help them reduce their costs of heating, cooling, and lighting. It was a fledgling startup but I learned so much about starting and building a company and how to develop a business (and romantic) partnership. I joked with friends that I didn’t let Harvard get in the way of my education since I spent much more time building the company than I did studying economics, physics, and chemistry.
I recommend that everyone transform themselves, rather than seeking a transactional experience—in the words of Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana. I started out premed and took Chem 20, Physics 12, Math 21, etc. But I was not very good at these subjects compared to other Harvard students. I got a C+ in Chem 20, which derailed me from being premed. I had dreamt about becoming a doctor for my entire life so I was devastated. But I took Ec 10 because of distribution requirements and it was really interesting and I was relatively good at it. Fast forward to my twenty-fifth reunion, when I bought a big house in Harvard Square and a friendly neighbor knocked on my door, welcomed me to the neighborhood, and introduced himself as Frank Westheimer. I almost fainted. Westheimer was my Chem 20 professor, who derailed my childhood passion! I told him the story and he apologized profusely. He observed that I had done okay despite not becoming a doctor. I thanked him for giving me that C+, for as a result, he helped me find my true calling in life.
So, be open, be curious, seek opportunities to transform yourself in college. It’s fine to say that you don’t know what your major is, or you don’t know what your career might be: this keeps you open to discover your true calling in life, as I did.
“Trust your intuition and eat your vegetables.”
Katherine “Kitty” Margolis Montuori ’77 is a jazz singer, songwriter, arranger, producer, educator, and co-owner of the indie label Mad-Kat Records. She concentrated in visual and environmental studies.
I might have gotten more mentorship from older advisers. I felt very much on my own there, probably somewhat because of my unorthodox choice to start a parallel track, playing professionally in a band that had nothing to do with the Harvard community. I was happy to be invited back to sing with the Boston Pops for my twenty-fifth reunion as a featured alumna along with speaker Bill Gates, who coincidentally dropped out at the same time I did.
Trust your intuition and eat your vegetables.