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Teresa Hsiao

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What Harvard's Like

Posted: 07/08/2012 8:04 pm

Back in 2003, a college interviewer asked me what my favorite movie was. In any other situation, the answer would've been easy: Miss Congeniality, a story about an undercover cop-turned-beauty queen who saves Miss Rhode Island from exploding onstage as William Shatner serenades the crowd. A true classic, in my opinion. However, in that moment, I reckoned that my bespectacled, tweed-suit-sporting, 70-year-old interviewer (at one point, he actually offered me a butterscotch candy) might not appreciate the fine artistic merits of Miss Congeniality. A Beautiful Mind, I decided, was a safer bet. It's my favorite movie, I said, because it depicts how Nash overcame the psychological struggle within himself to bring about one of the most important mathematical theorems of our time.

And on that load of crap, I got myself into Harvard.

Defusing The H-Bomb

Harvard alumni often talk about the best way to "drop the H-bomb," which is telling people that you went to Harvard (and didn't just go to school "in Boston"). The H-bomb is referred to as such because of its cataclysmic result, no matter the initial intention. When you tell people that you went to Harvard, you get one of three reactions: awe, indifference, or "fight me."

  • Awe: "Wow! What was it like? Do you really have Quidditch matches on Sundays? You're like a genius, aren't you?"
  • Indifference: "Oh yeah. I've heard of it."
  • Fight Me: "So what did you get on your SATs? That's not that impressive. I heard there's a lot of grade inflation there. Did your parents go there? Are they super rich? Your grandfather donated a statue, didn't he? Whatever, I make more money than you."


When I first arrived at Harvard, I was squarely in the first camp. I was in awe of the place. Save for the severely narcissistic, many Harvard freshmen come in believing that they were the admissions mistake. I certainly felt like one. I wasn't the high school valedictorian, I didn't have a perfect score on my SATs, and I had no unique talents, like playing the obokano. The only reason I felt somewhat legit was that my grandparents hadn't donated a statue. At least I couldn't be accused of being a legacy admit.

For some students, the question of "How did they get in?" was immediately answered. One of my freshman roommates could speak five languages and was from Albania. Dan was a junior Olympian skier. Anthony won $25,000 on Jeopardy in high school and could recite the capitals of all the countries in the world. But for someone who couldn't point out where Albania was on a map, I was mired in my admissions-mistake insecurity.

However, after a few weeks on campus, I began to see Harvard differently. Yes, it was a place of high-achieving, intelligent people... but they were spread across a pretty broad spectrum. There were students who were IQ-smart but socially incapable of talking about anything but quantum physics. There were students who received terrific grades but did so as a result of studying all day and night. And then there were students who were so clearly admissions mistakes that they simply gave up trying to prove otherwise, and spent most of their time doing coke at the Fly and eating all the cheese at company recruiting events.

To be in awe of Harvard, the institution, was understandable... but as for us humble members of the student body? The overachievers, the bookworms, the "How did they get in?" mysteries? Well, we were just plain lucky (and good at bullshitting about movies).

Honestly, though, I don't think I felt completely at ease at Harvard until one evening, a few weeks into my first semester. I was having dinner in the freshman dining hall when I overheard a football player earnestly describing a night out with strippers. It was a fun night, he said, but the strippers turned out to be somewhat prudish:

"They let us get real close, but we couldn't touch 'em... It's like they were asymptotes."

Crème de la Crème

At Harvard, there was never a dearth of stimulating conversation. Even though there was a distinct liberal, do-good slant at Harvard, we were all undeniably snooty. In a place where jocks complained about asymptotic strippers, we reveled in our seemingly superior intellectuality. Just by virtue of being at Harvard, we convinced ourselves that we were the smartest, most accomplished, and best-looking scholars and future leaders of America... the crème de la crème.

There were all types of snooty, from grunge snooty to Upper East Side snooty. There were artists who flocked together in their rebellion and harangued the world of conformists and sellouts. There were well-heeled suits and pearl-wearing debutantes-to-be who hosted chardonnay parties and talked about dollar cost averaging. Beat poetry coexisted with popped collars; debates about Burma with tirades about taxes.

Snootiness was commonplace, whether it was intentional or not. I had one friend who only spoke in grammatically-correct sentences, leading her to use phrases like, "Flo-Rida, whom I love... " Another friend enjoyed abusing hapless telephone operators: "It's 'M' as in Mary, 'A' as in Apple, and 'P' as in Pterodactyl."

But at the same time, the intellectualism of the institution overwhelmed us. After all, we were living in a world where Harvard had drawn the line between "high" culture and "low" culture. We were supposed to value the New Yorker over Us Weekly, Italian wines over Franzia, and opera over Oprah. Classical music and Jane Austen were culturally superior to Justin Timberlake and Agatha Christie. There were entire departments dedicated to the study of Greek and Roman civilizations, but current pop culture was considered so foreign and extraneous that it was relegated to the field of anthropological studies: along with Zulu tribesmen, Lindsay Lohan was simply a curious human phenomenon.

It was quasi-sacrilegious to admit that one enjoyed reading undeep, unanalytical, unintellectual publications like InTouch Weekly, filled with uncompoundable compound words. At Harvard, you could get away with being a Marxist, but it was something else to admit that you were an avid O-Town fan. Miss Congeniality was not the same as A Beautiful Mind.

It came as no surprise, then, that when GQ first released its list of America's 25 Douchiest Colleges in 2009, Harvard came in fourth. We were only beaten by Princeton, Duke, and Brown, which was first. Of course, as this link circulated around our Harvard circle, someone had to make the snooty, douchy comment: "I suppose this is the only list on which Brown will be #1 ahead of Harvard."

Where My $150,000 Went

During my senior year of college, my uncle asked me: "So now that you're almost graduating, what's the most interesting thing you've learned from Harvard?"

It seemed like an innocuous question, but there was an already-implied $150,000 answer, thanks to Good Will Hunting ("You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library"). The best response to this kind of question would involve something uber-academic and arcane, like the neurobiology of whales. Given my degree in economics, I tried to recall the most exotic facets of the social sciences. But at that moment, just a few months away from graduation, all I could remember was that there was some famous economist named Slutsky, which I had found hilarious. But that was it. I couldn't recall anything interesting about anything that I had learned in four years. And I certainly couldn't talk about whale brains.

Thankfully, in that moment, my expert bullshitting skills came to the rescue once again. I dutifully came up with some canned answer, sprinkled in some platitudes and fancy economic terms (The Solow model? Is that a thing?... Adam Smith! That's a thing!), and my uncle seemed satisfied.

In May, I went back to Harvard for my five-year reunion. Just walking around the Yard brought back memories from the streets of the Cambridge. As a freshman, I once walked into the Crate and Barrel on Mass Ave and asked for directions... to Mass Ave. That weekend, as an elderly alum, I expertly weaved through the crowds and reminisced about the days when the campus was mine, when the memories were happening. And now that I'm a few years older, ostensibly wiser, and wholly entrenched in the "real world", I can finally look back on what I learned (and retained) at Harvard:

I learned that Harvard students are the best and the brightest in the world at avoiding people who pass out flyers. I learned how to make the perfect spiral on my fro-yo cone and how to dance like I'm having a seizure. I learned that I shouldn't rub the foot of the John Harvard statue unless I want it to smell like urine.

With my $150,000 education, I know now that a naked run in the brisk midnight air is the key to surviving ensuing exams. I know that it's "ec", not "econ," and "gov," not "political science." I know that if you remove the "i" from "assistance" you have the labels on our blue light emergency phone stations. Because even at Harvard, a pole that says "ASS STANCE" is funny.

So, what's the most interesting thing I've learned from Harvard? It's that these insights came far more rapidly than my recall of the Solow model. It's that these learnings have taken priority in the annals of my tiny whale brain. It's that these memories -- from the dorms, from the tailgates, from the dank and sticky dance floors of the Kong -- have replaced Adam Smith. (It's possible that Adam Smith was never there in the first place, but whatever.) It may not sound like the typical Harvard admissions pitch, but it's definitely something you can't get for $1.50 in late charges at the public library.

 

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