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Living the Harvard dream

Choosing a college to study at isn’t just about getting honour roll – it’s about your life

brunch Updated: Aug 26, 2017 22:19 IST
Zuni Chopra
Zuni Chopra attended The Power of Fairy Tales course at Harvard University
Zuni Chopra attended The Power of Fairy Tales course at Harvard University (Photo imaging: Parth Garg)


You felt something just from the name, didn’t you?

Like a static shock. A jolt of excitement. Anticipation. Ambition. Excellence.

For most, this is what the university has come to represent. A haven of learning, a chance at a miracle: getting in. I experienced a fraction of that miracle this summer, when I went to study at Harvard for two weeks.

My course – The Power of Fairy Tales – was a complete game changer for me as a writer. And now that it’s over, I’d like to share what I’ve learnt with you.

Life at Harvard

Living at Harvard is an experience that changes you in a myriad of ways, so subtly that at first you will wonder whether you’re changing at all. Like a sand sculpture left to be shaped by the tide, slowly you learn to adapt to your surroundings, and you are shaped by the demands on your new-found independence. You’ll make stupid decisions – ‘Lol dude I didn’t eat breakfast, slept in till 10’ – and then you’ll face the results of those decisions – ‘DUDE MY STOMACH HURTS CLASS DOESN’T END FOR ANOTHER TWO HOURS I’M DYING HELP’ – and then you’ll rush to a café outside Harvard Yard to eat something. And then next morning, you’ll stop by again for breakfast. This café will become one of your favourite spots to write essays. And just like that, another part of you, another experience, has fallen into place.

You’ll take in your surroundings like a sponge, not even noticing you’re doing it; the ringing of church bells in the morning, the red and black cobblestones of the pavements, the glowing crimson domes soaring above classrooms, bearing the majestic crest of the school. You’ll explore it too, knowing this is an opportunity not many receive. The dining hall with its splattering of stained glass, tall arched ceilings, low hum of life. The library: so quiet you can hear your own heart fluttering as you look up at towers of books, some so old that the edges have been chewed away by time. The hallways, like moving through the belly of some great dragon, as though the whole place is alive.

This – to me at least – is something worth aiming for. Not because of the prestige, not for the bragging rights, but just for the life it gives you.

But I do concede that the bragging rights are also pretty great. I was walking up the steps to the library and this tour guide was explaining to her group that ‘only Harvard students have access’, and I strutted past them right up those long white steps feeling like I was walking away from an explosion in a Michael Bay film.

Learning at Harvard

Diverse, to capture it in a word. Everyone is on a different track of learning, and yet somehow, you’re all learning together. Because your friend is studying cosmology and you’re looking at women in literature, you begin thinking about how they interconnect. Education becomes a web of knowledge and culture rather than an isolated textbook for you to memorise.

Yet this has its disadvantages as well. No, I’m not about to speak badly of Harvard. Snipers, sit down. I was at the University of Iowa as well this summer, doing a writing course. I know – what a nerd, right?

No two colleges are the same. And no one college is necessarily ‘better’ than the other. It’s about finding a place that’s best for you; it’s about discovering a place where you can discover yourself.

Iowa is an entirely different universe. Rather than a diverse college of a crazy number of high-achieving students, the whole city is like a small community of writers. If you see someone with a notebook or laptop, chances are they are working on their next masterpiece. Our counsellors were writers, our teachers were writers, our director was a writer, and everyone there seemed to have come together to celebrate, grow at, and enhance this wondrous art. Iowa is beautiful, not so much a city as a charming town, filled with people my age with books in their hands and hope in their hearts and all kinds of creativity in their heads unlike at Harvard, where students were still finding themselves and their vocation. I was encouraged in my pursuit of such a subjective and often misunderstood passion, and challenged to push myself to new heights by the inspiration my classmates provided. Harvard, on the other hand, was a major university with a community of learning. Both enriched and motivated me more than I had dared to hope.

This, I believe, was an equally important lesson as the others I was taught. No two colleges are the same. And no one college is necessarily ‘better’ than the other. It’s about finding a place that’s best for you; it’s about discovering a place where you can discover yourself. Of course Harvard will be on my (long) application list. Of course I’ll hope with all my heart to get in. But would I cry myself to sleep thinking my life is over because my 18-year-old self is not the exact kind of student that fits their quota at the moment? Not in a million years.

Too often have we students felt pulled to certain decisions by others. But I’d take their advice with a healthy pinch of salt. Because this isn’t just about getting honour roll – this is my life. After a certain point, I’m not trying to impress anybody anymore. And now, continuing forward from what has been a fairy tale summer, that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Author’s bio: Zuni is the daughter of filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra and journalist Anupama Chopra. She debuted as a novelist with The House That Spoke and has also penned two poetry books 

From HT Brunch, August 27, 2017

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