This past weekend, two of my closest friends from high school, who both happen to be first-year students at Harvard University (yes, the Crimson, Legally Blonde one), graciously hosted me at their humble ivy institution. To me, the trip meant reuniting with two people who I missed dearly and immersing myself in a new environment after weeks of maize and blue-ness. Though, in my trek from the Leaders and the Best to the cream of the Crimson, I found myself having fun pretending to be a Harvard student for the weekend: climbing up and down the stairs of the ancient residence halls, eating in the famously Harry Potter-esque dining hall, buzzing around the brick streets of Cambridge trying to dodge parades of tourists.
I think the prestige of the Ivy League in conjunction with the inherently intimidating nature of the east coast played upon my “I’m just a white farm girl from Indiana” feeling of inadequacy, so, I never applied to Harvard. But, this weekend was my chance to peek “behind the ivy walls,” so to speak. In interacting with my friends’ friends and classmates, I was able to pick up on some of the cultural and social nuances that make Harvard feel like the ivy-covered kingdom of intellect that us, public-school mortals, are not a part of.
First, the entire place feels like a movie set. Unlike the UMich campus, with our endearing conglomeration of buildings and halls with architectural styles from different decades, when you step into Cambridge, you feel like you’ve gone back to colonial times. Like, at any moment, some white-bearded man in breeches is going to recite Shakespeare from a wooden box. Though, you see a guy vaping with his eyes glued to his phone and a gaggle of tourists sipping Starbucks frappes, and (in kind of a depressing way) you remember you’re back in 2019. Though, the feeling that you’re tiptoeing through a museum exhibit doesn’t really go away, because everywhere, and I mean everywhere, carries historical significance of some sort. I felt weird swearing or laughing obnoxiously or just doing normal teenage-type things with my friends on the same brick that guys like Theodore Roosevelt and Ralph Waldo Emerson walked on. The sensation that you’re trespassing on sacred grounds only worsens when you see hoards of tourists photographing and gawking at the place like it’s a castle. And the real Harvard students feel this way, too.
One of my Harvard-student-friends, Will, told me about a time two older women, who were presumably tourists, were talking about him literally behind his back as he was walking to breakfast. They were debating whether or not he was a student even though he looked “too short,” according to one of the ladies. The women proceeded to discuss the likelihood of his student status before finally deciding just to take a picture of him in case he turned out to really be a student. And my friend Will says that sort of stuff happens all the time. People will photograph him as he just exists anywhere and everywhere, like he’s an animal in a zoo.
I also have to admit that I was eager to check out the Harvard party scene. My first night on campus, I joined my best friend Stephany and her friends in going to a party held at one of the dorms in Quincy house, which, like most dorms on campus, was laid out like a small apartment with a common area and a bathroom (this sounds pretty boujee before you remember that these quaint apartments date back to the 1800s, so no air conditioning and no elevators. Not a single one). Contrary to what you might expect, I didn’t walk into a sophisticated gathering with men dressed in sport coats, smoking cigars while engaging in heated, intellectual conversation. The party honestly looked like any other thing you might find here at UMich, though, very, very, very condensed in a tiny space. And, instead of making the honorable pilgrimage down frat row, we were climbing multiple flights of stairs to find a dorm that would let us in. Instead of spilling party beverages on grimy wood floors of trashed houses, you were dancing while feeling the ancient floor creaking underneath your feet. Am I dancing on the same ground Mark Zuckerberg or Ruth Bader Ginsberg inhabited? I guess you can never know, and that indescribable sense of “I am someplace much more significant than I’ll ever understand” I experienced the whole weekend.
I think it’s easy to exocitize Harvard students as insanely intelligent creatures that come from another planet, especially considering the Harvard acceptance rate seems to be creeping lower and lower each year. But, this past weekend, when I had the chance to try and assimilate into the world of these seemingly alien beings, I quickly realized that, behind all of the ivy, and Crimson, and history, and brick, Harvard students are just like us, and the school is a school just like any other.