What It Was Really Like To Study At Harvard


A recent piece entitled “Dear Harvard: You Win” has ignited something within me, and it’s angry.

I was not sexually assaulted, and am not claiming to have suffered as badly as this student, but my four years at Harvard College were the most lonely, pathetic, and borderline suicidal of my entire life.

During my sophomore year, I was diagnosed with depression. I subsequently felt ostracized, neglected, and ignored by the administration. Seeing a mental health specialist was an uphill battle, and getting academic assistance during this difficult time was at best a chore, at worst impossible. Over my final two years there, it became clear to me that Harvard was less concerned with helping suffering students recover, and more with making sure they stayed quiet.

I’m ashamed to be in any way associated with an institution that would let a student be raped, refuse to offer her support, and let her assailant go unpunished. I want to smash it, violate it, spray paint expletives on it. I want to hug this girl and tell her that she’s not alone. I feel so powerless, yet also feel a responsibility to help the students that feel like I did.

In light of recent events bringing all of these feelings to the surface, I’ve written some notes for the first draft:

1. Fucking Awful

Harvard fucking sucks. I imagine attending all Ivy League schools fucking sucks. Unless you’re an uptight, J.Crew-obsessed, masochistic sociopath, I don’t understand how you could be happy spending 4 years as an overworked, happiness-starved zombie. Part of that is the community and student body, but a larger part of that is an environment perpetuated by the administration.

Harvard is not some great, lofty beacon of learning. It’s a business, a factory in which the best and brightest are lured in by the promise of success, and beaten into insane little Wall Street machines. Anything that could damage that reputation — say, a sexual assault case — is quickly and promptly hushed. During my time on campus, I’d guess there were two suicides each semester, at least. You never heard about them on the news, and other than an “unfortunate accident” mass email, they were never spoken of again. God forbid we take those students’ deaths as a sign that we need to better mental health resources on campus.

2. Neurotic

In this respect, all the “top college” stereotypes are true: the population is largely Type A to the extreme. It’s a lot that’s obsessed with success, competitive to the death, and fetal post-failure.

This is only exacerbated by an appallingly weak mental health department, with only a handful of counselors, a disproportionate number of available appointments, and a tendency to freely prescribe. How can you monitor a patient’s reaction to a new drug, when you won’t be able to see them for another three weeks?

3. Isolating

When you first get into Harvard, all anyone talks about is how it opens doors. It took me a few years to realize that it also closes doors, and mostly social ones. Because I attended said institution for four long years, people assume that I:

  1. Have no real life experience, no concept of poverty or personal pain, and live in some kind of wealth/privilege bubble.
  2. Come from money, and don’t know the value of a dollar.
  3. Value education over all else, and assume that wherever they went to college (or didn’t), any education they’ve received is inferior to mine.

Of course, that’s not at all how I feel. In my experience, accepting that admissions offer has been nothing but detrimental to my health, social life, and even professional life. I wasted four years (1,460 days) of my life in a panic-ridden, highly stressful, toxic environment. I don’t like the person that I’ve become. After four years of social rejection, lack of sleep, and high levels of stress, the only things I feel I’ve taken with me are a handful of long-term friends, maybe two very memorable learning or class experiences, and layer upon layer of self-loathing. All of these comments about me being just like a population I resent, a group of people I was never accepted into, is beyond frustrating.

4. A Mistake

I came from a lower middle class, Midwestern family. Harvard was the unattainable dream, the beyond-dream-school. I literally (this is 100% true) wrote “You got into Harvard!” on a piece of paper and put it by my bed before I went to sleep that night, because I was pretty sure I was dreaming.

If I had been more courageous, I would have dropped out of college my junior year. Ironically, graduating from Harvard is one of my regrets, because I didn’t do it for myself — I did it for other people, whether to make them proud or prove them wrong. I think of these kids that are getting ready to graduate, those bright-eyed, brilliant high-schoolers, and it makes me so angry that after four years, many of them will feel like me. Some will be angry, and alone. Some will certainly be sexually assaulted. Some may even take their own lives. Why? Because this infallible, obscenely rich, corporate machine is willing to lie to them in order to make more money.

Harvard will always, inevitably be certain things. It will always be competitive. It will always be elite. It will always be an American institution. But it doesn’t have to be dishonest, or manipulative, or neglectful. It doesn’t have to be somewhere that young people are sexually assaulted, or depressed, or so hopeless that they take their own lives.

The administration needs to take a stand, and stop pretending to be perfect. It needs to boost the availability, quality, and promotion of mental health services. It needs to make a tangible commitment to the health and wellbeing of its students, and stop sacrificing them on the altar of reputation.

Because we won’t stay silent forever.

featured image – The Social Network