My Harvard Education

A wall of formal portraits, five representing white male Harvard faculty and administrators, one representing a black undergraduate woman
Illustration by Chris Beatrice

You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable…The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Between the World and Me


There is a man in front of me and he is talking about the apples he has grown. One of the apples was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite. Another is the original, real Granny Smith. You won’t find these in the grocery store, folks. He is talking about seeds and grafting, about history. Did you know that hard cider was the Founding Fathers’ primary method of hydration? Did you know that they were all drunk pretty much all the time?

The man grows the apples on his property in central Massachusetts, and he is thrilled to be back in his Harvard House, Lowell House, to hand out them out to students during dinner time. He has his class year, which, as I recall, begins with a “6,” written on his nametag. He is standing in front of me, and I am standing next to Jonathan, my lovely, gentle, kind Lowell House tutor.

The older man is still talking, and I am beginning to notice that, even though I have introduced myself, he has not looked at me since the start of the conversation. His body is pivoted towards Jonathan, who is pale and male and perhaps more visibly engaged in the process of looking at the apples. I am distracted. His historical factoids about hard cider have gotten me thinking about a drunken Thomas Jefferson wandering around Monticello, and this image makes me sick and scared in a way that the two men next to me will never understand.

I cannot be sure why he isn’t looking at me. Maybe I’m unaware that there is a terrible glare behind my face and he’s got to protect his eyes! But maybe it’s because Jonathan feels familiar, feels like the men he walked these halls with many years ago, and I do not. Maybe I am just woman enough, just brown enough, to be rendered invisible. It might all be in my head, but isn’t that sometimes just enough to make a moment uncomfortable?

There is a distance between my body and the bodies this place was built for. I feel it every day in Lowell dining hall, when I look up at portraits of white men and wonder if they expected me to be here. Here at Harvard, I learn in the ways I expected to learn—from my textbooks, from my professors, from my classrooms. But I am also learning what it means to be a walking disruption.


I am taking an economics class on libertarianism. I don’t consider myself a libertarian at all, so I took the class to challenge my thinking. I listen to Professor Jeffrey Miron espouse the libertarian perspective and carefully consider the ways in which it aligns and diverges with my values and beliefs. This is an important exercise for me.

One day, we are talking about the consequences of drug prohibition. Libertarians believe that the negative effects outweigh the positive effects. I’m sympathetic to the viewpoint, and I’m glad this policy debate is a topic of discussion. Professor Miron briefly lists “increased racial profiling” and the resulting “racial tensions” as a negative consequence of drug prohibition laws. He moves on—he has other slides to discuss, other lines of argument to explore. But I am stuck, still thinking about what it means for him to name “increased racial profiling” and “racial tensions” without naming Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland…I want to stand up and scream about how the things he is talking about tear bodies apart.

I wonder how many students in that very white classroom are feeling what I feel in that moment. I look to my left and right and see students jotting down notes, continuing on to the next stage of the cost-benefit analysis. I send an innocuous and unrelated text message to a friend—I think I just want to feel less alone. It is so alienating, that feeling when a moment hits you deeper than it hits those around you.

I want to be clear here: I’m not asking my professor to re-write his lecture. He is teaching a class that doesn’t center on my experience in every moment, and that’s okay. This isn’t necessarily about my professor or my classmates or my syllabus. This is about what it means to not fit into Harvard’s mold, what it means to know that any moment might twist your stomach into knots. There’s no easy fix for this, for Harvard, for America.

I am talking to my friend. He has had a tough couple of days. He is telling me about a class on race and gender that he is taking. He is feeling the course material in his body, he says. The readings are causing him pain. In my philosophy section later that week, we are talking about racial profiling, mapping the argument of an author who is defending the practice. I am thinking about the time when my uncle’s neighbor called the cops on him because he dared to walk in his own backyard. Because he dared to exist in the space that he literally owned. Because he dared to exist at all. Section is causing me pain. I want to tell my friend I understand.

I see all around me students, my friends, who are willing to be made uncomfortable by words and ideas all the time. 

In their recent Atlantic article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt warn us: “A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” They scorn students whom they see as cutting off important discourse for the sake of their “emotional well-being.”

I could critique their piece on several grounds. But one of the first things I thought when I read it was, “Where is this movement, and how did I miss it?” Because here is my truth: I don’t see a ton of liberal students trying to “scrub” Harvard’s campuses “clean” of offensive or uncomfortable ideas. Instead, I see all around me students, my friends, who are willing to be made uncomfortable by words and ideas all the time. I see students who willingly walk into classrooms that will make them, in the words of my friend, feel the course material in their bodies. Lukianoff and Haidt are worried about the social-justice-oriented student who seeks to limit free speech and staunch the flow of ideas so that they can feel more comfortable or safe. But I simply don’t see this happening. Instead, I think that students whose eyes are open to oppression are constantly forced to contend with uncomfortable ideas by virtue of their very presence here—in dining halls, in classrooms, in libraries.

Some people go through this place without having to ask and answer hard questions about the spaces they occupy. I have had to constantly articulate and question my relationship with this institution: the way I fit into its history, and the way I feel in its classrooms. I have not had the privilege of being able to not think about my body, of being able to not physically shake in a classroom.

I have learned to see this institution for what it is—not a safe haven from the evils of the outside world, but yet another location where they exist and have always existed. Sometimes the evils are more blatant—they manifest in disturbing sexual-assault statistics, in instances of overt racism. In instances that prove just how physically unsafe some students are on this campus.

But sometimes, the danger comes in a different form. This is an institution where students practice the detached indifference to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and elitism that they will likely continue to practice throughout their lives. And I think perhaps the core of this indifference lies in the way we move through our daily lives and commitments here. Some of us experience this place through our bodies, and others have the privilege of engaging only on the surface level.

There are days when this detachment seems appealing, but I know I would never actually want it. Because I would rather be awake than blind. I would rather bring my full humanity into the classroom than leave it at the door. I would rather experience the world of academia in my physical body than pretend that the two are separate.

And this, more than any problem set or paper or classroom discussion, is my Harvard education.  

Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow Jenny Gathright ’16 is thankful for good friends.

Read more articles by Jenny Gathright
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