What College Taught Me

My time at Harvard taught me about how I really should be thinking about school and measuring my success in it.

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On a Saturday in June, I overpacked my blue suitcase and boarded a train north to South Station in Massachusetts. On the train ride there, I read a paper about how pigs and baboons are now being used to grow organs that can be grafted into humans in a cross-species process called xenotransplantation.

For the next two weeks in Cambridge, I lived in Harvard University’s recently renovated Dunster Hall, where I taped photographs of my friends and family on the wall, dragged a white trash bag full of dirty clothes down to the basement where I learned how to do laundry, ran 9:45 p.m. coffee runs to the nearest CVS with my roommates in the rain, and occasionally had a bag of Swedish Fish from the vending machine for dinner, even though the Pre-College program offered a full meal plan.

I slipped on my slides with socks as I picked up a chocolate Pierce Brothers coffee at Annenberg Hall every morning and chose a spot in Widener Library. Surrounding me were other rising high school juniors and seniors with identical crimson lanyards around their necks, all equally as excited, nervous, and hyped up on sugar and whatever was floating around in the Cambridge air that day.

My classmates and I visited our professor’s lab and saw mice, zebrafish, and axolotls, met in the basement of Dunster for gossip and study sessions, and had an after-hours dance party at Chipotle. It was there that we fleshed out the applications of CRISPR and stem cell research techniques as we had burritos and my friend from India had his first-ever taco. We keep in contact to this day, so I know that Taco Boy has an AP Biology test on Thursday that he’s worried about and that my friend who lives in Central California had her first ever date on Friday and is excited about her second.

Living an abbreviated college life as a high school student was in some ways like xenotransplantation. Before I started the program, college seemed distant. I had the impression that you had to reach a certain level of intellectual and emotional maturity in order to handle life away from home, and the people who could claim this sort of sophistication at the age of 16 or 17 were an entirely different species. But when I received my acceptance e-mail and an extremely generous scholarship to attend the program, I decided to take the plunge and take on the identity of a Harvard student for two weeks. This is what I learned.

College-level work is demanding. In an e-mail interview, Jacqueline Newcomb, the director of the Pre-College program, explained that the Pre-College program’s courses “are in line with the Harvard curriculum. Typically, we ask our faculty to cover almost a semester of work in the two-weeks, but with the understanding that when teaching daily, there may not be time to assign as much reading and writing as a freshman seminar would have. We ask that they assign two to four hours of homework per night. However, since the majority of our faculty are teaching Harvard students in the academic year, they model their summer course including the rigor after their semester courses.” As someone who wants to go into science journalism, I opted for a course on regenerative medicine and stem cell research, and I definitely felt the weight of the academics.

As a junior at Stuyvesant, I am all too familiar with what it feels like to be overwhelmed by school. Oftentimes, my classmates and I wake up before the sun rises and come out of school after it sets, and while walking home in the dark some days, it feels like high school is all we have. College is supposed to remedy the occasionally toxic academic community that being surrounded by three thousand of New York City’s top students creates. These students become desperate to graduate and get into college before they burn out.

Though I wasn’t falling asleep on my walks to class or crying at my desk at night, I was consistently challenged by my work at Harvard and had to put in long hours. One night, sitting quietly on the duvet in my dorm room with the lamp on and the door slightly ajar, I realized that college won’t solve my problems.

My classmates and I are running through our high school years with our eyes closed. We sleep in intervals of REM cycles so that we can maximize our nap time, sneak study guides into weightlifting class, and retake the SAT to bump the score up by 20 points. I go to a school of absolutely brilliant kids who push themselves to incredible lengths, telling themselves that once they get into college, they can pull the brakes on life and slow down a little. But college, and other institutions of higher education, can’t work that magic.

I no longer see college as a means of escape from the academic pressures of high school. The Spectator’s survey of the graduating seniors this year revealed that nine out of 10 seniors plan on going into an academia-based profession. But while studying to become a doctor, engineer, or lawyer is an admirable endeavor, none of us will be able to handle the necessary years of higher education unless we prioritize mental health over academic success, no matter how much satisfaction being able to wear a Stuyvesant or Harvard hoodie brings.

Because of this realization, I also came to think about why I love being a student here. Even though waking up at four in the morning to study for my daily physics quizzes is painful, I find a collective joy in meeting my bleary-eyed classmates in the morning. We cry together when school gets tough, and we celebrate each other’s victories because each one of them is so precious. My math tests are worth around three-quarters of my grade, but I care more about the teacher in front of the room and the gracious, quirky, and funny person she is than the number on my report card. The other Spectator editors and I stay up late at night to edit articles, but seeing our writers improve and distributing the papers when they come and seeing the smudges of dark ink on our fingers are worth 100 sleepless nights.

I’ll admit I felt a fleeting moment of pride when I received my crimson lanyard, but Harvard’s program has left a much more important impression on me than pride in the name of a school or the beauty of the architecture. I will remember how I felt when I ate lunch with my professor, how excited I was to learn about stem cell research, how satisfied I was after my partner and I presented our final project on nerve cell regeneration, and how heartbroken I was to leave my friends. Each and every day brought its own challenges, but I found a kind of strength in the support of the academic environment and my classmates.

We’re now scattered all over the world, but we all keep a photo of each other on our phones or on our desks so that we can remember what it was like to live unabashedly unashamed lives as biology nerds in Cambridge. When I look at my photos from that summer, I see a smiling girl with an overpacked blue suitcase who’s not as much of a stranger to the idea of learning to be a smarter, kinder, and more curious person anymore. Here’s to hoping that she will always be that way.