I’ve had the honor of speaking with a handful of prospective/admitted students curious about life at Harvard College. I really enjoy speaking to these students because I was definitely in their position – where I was just dying to know what Harvard life was like – and their intriguing questions allow me to adequately reflect on my time as an undergraduate – an activity I wish I did more of! #runonsentence
There’s a few questions – some that I didn’t anticipate – that seem to come up frequently so I wanted to dedicate a blog to share and perhaps even plant new seeds of thought! #ambitious
But before acting on this endeavor of answering popular questions, I wanted to preface with a mini autobiography to make all the bias that I weave into my answers really obvious.
My name is Jeanie Nguyen. I’m currently a rising Harvard undergraduate junior, 20 years old and I spent the first 18 years of my life mostly in Southern California. So yes, I love Avocado (like it’s a real person, hence the capitalization/personification) and I can be quite snobby about my Mexican food (but Taco Bell is totally legitimate and if you don’t think so, you obviously haven’t had a chalupa). Essentially, I talk about being from Southern California like it’s something to brag about. I’m that premedical student who carries band-aids, burn ointment, and eye drops wherever I travel; and I’m concentrating in Neurobiology (major), secondarying in Global Health and Health Policy (minor), and pursuing a Spanish Language citation. I’m pretty adventurous/spontaneous: I love trying new things whether that’s food or activities!
In addition to warning everyone of my incredible bias, I also need to have a length disclaimer. My answers are really long, ramble for an eternity, and are probably only partially applicable at best. I throw out tons of information that I would have appreciated someone else telling me, but I’m really random and minor-detail oriented. If you don’t hate it, keep the questions coming! 🙂
Question 1: What would you say is the “best” dorm around?
At Harvard College, the freshman live in the center of campus – called The Yard – and these buildings are colloquially termed “dorms.” Most people know about Harvard Yard because it’s the heart of campus and where the oh so popular John Harvard statue is. The Yard is always beautifully manicured – even after such wildly muddy events like Yardfest and Harvard’s 375thBirthday Party – so living here your first year is such a marvelous privilege!!
Since the university follows a residential college way of housing, after your freshman year, you move out of the yard (reluctantly?) and into upperclassman houses – or “Houses” for short. You stay in the same House for your remaining time as a student although you move in and out of different rooms within the same House. Dorm locations are definitely ideal, but the love and community concomitant to House life is worth the 15 minute walk in the morning!!
I lived in Wigglesworth as a freshman. A lot of my non-Harvard friends were genuinely upset with me that I didn’t immediately tell them that I lived in a building called Wigglesworth. The name is actually somewhat fitting as it lies above the subway (colloquially called the T) so when the subway trains pass, you can feel the floors of Wigglesworth (Wigg) tremble – not annoying as it sounds! But then again, I lived on the third floor so I felt less of the impact. My really good friends were on the first floor though and I was never bothered by it. I also studied a lot on the second floor so I feel like my opinion takes a lot of perspectives into account!
There’s this period of time during the summer – I think it begins after the day you commit to your college of choice – where your future fellow college peers start friending you on Facebook. Although I normally hate adding people I don’t know, I felt really obligated to accept because I just wanted to be accepted!! Haha you really don’t have to accept – and you really shouldn’t accept unless you’re comfortable with casually exclaiming “Oh yeah! I know you because we’re friends on Facebook!” in a lot of conversations. This Facebook thing is applicable to the questions because I remember a great deal of people posting about how they were hoping to get Wigglesworth so when my housing letter came in the mail, I was excited about the result!
Wigg is known for its hard wood floors (so much better than nasty carpet that can stain easily!) and fireplaces (although you can’t use them). I’m pretty sure all rooms in Wigg have a common room in addition to bedrooms although students always have the option of making their common room into a bedroom to maximize the number of available singles. Wigg also has the luxury of in-suite bathrooms so no yucky, typical college bathroom woes. We also have our own laundry room and trash room in the basement so we don’t need to go far to take care of these chores (unlike student in Grays dorm for example). There’s also a bigger common room in the basement with study tables, comfy couches and a big flat screen TV with cable for those dedicated to Grey’s Anatomy and Gossip Girl.
My room was the only room on the third floor and was super spacious. I loved it! And so did my three roommates! Every time I walk pass my old room, I definitely look at it fondly. Between the four of us, we had one double bedroom and two singles. To be fair, we switched rooming situations half way through the year.
Also, I lived in the smallest subsection of Wigglesworth (there are three subsections), fondly termed the Wigglet and since only about ~30 students are lucky enough to live here each year, the community can get pretty close and just as cute as its name!
Since Wigg lies on the perimeter of the Yard, along Massachusetts Avenue AKA Mass Ave, it can be a trek to Annenberg/the Science Center which basically is on the opposite side of the Yard. However, there are many perks to being along a main road such as being < 3 minutes away from CVS (convenience store), JP Licks (dangerously delicious ice cream shop), and the T stop!
I can’t even really think of any common ways people bashed Wigg. When you tell people you’re from Wigg you generally get an excited response (since Wigg is a really large dorm and it’s likely that you’ll run into other Wigglers) or at least a nod of respectful approval. “Go Wigg or Go Home!” is a common phrase that should be chanted not only proudly, but frequently.
If you’re already tired of my bias, I can’t blame you. Here’s my apology, please accept:
A more comprehensive overview (applicable to the unlucky ones 😉 )
Question 2: Any advice on packing stuff up/shipping stuff out east?
If you know my middle name, you would never ask me this question. A lot of people would consider me a bad packer. I can’t say that I completely disagree, especially after my catastrophe at the end of my sophomore year. However, my reputation is sort of like a misnomer! I tend to never schedule sufficient time to pack adequately, but I do pack smart!
My friends are most impressed by how meticulously I pack. I weave dryer sheets in between my clothes when I pack them, especially if the clothes will be packed for a long time, so they always come out smelling like I just washed them! Additionally, Instead of putting things straight into a cardboard box/suitcase, I generally like to put it in a trash bag first. This trash bag method is awesome because it serves as another bad odor prevention mechanism. I also found this method helpful while traveling Europe this summer because I stayed in dorm-like hostels where I shared bedrooms with strangers so I would be uneasy about the security of my belongings; but since any potential thief would have to go through my trash bag first, it would probably wake me up too!
I make tons of paper copies of my name and phone number that I put not only on the exterior of the box, but the interior too. This is an idiot proof method when storing boxes in a common area which is the kind of storage Harvard provides (to students outside a certain radius). If anyone accidentally/not-so-accidentally takes your box, there’s really no way to justify them playing dumb since my information is everywhere!
When storing my boxes in a common area, I also like to tape newspaper to the outer sides of my boxes for easy identification. Some people like to use wild duck tape, but these types of tape are commonly sold in stores so multiple people may have the same tape. No one really tapes newspaper and since the surface area of newspapers is larger than duck tape, it’s also easier to spot in a room that’s literally filled from floor to ceiling with boxes! Newspaper is also free!! Woo!
I also enjoy performing activities in an economic fashion. This is really just a fancy way of saying that I’m cheap. However, I’ll never be cheap with packing tape. You need to buy the good stuff and use tons of it because it’s not worth it ever if a box rips and your belongings become separated/lost! Friends also become eternally grateful for your extra tape.
Being cheap also means that I hate buying boxes too! I would much rather put money towards my churro funds rather than cardboard. Definitely ask stores for their cardboard boxes since most recycle them anyway. I tend to rely on my parents’ company for boxes when I’m at home.
As for physically relocating things to campus, make sure to triple check your baggage allowances on your mode of transportation and don’t be shy about asking for student discounts. It never hurts to try. Domestically, I usually fly with Southwest airlines because they allow 2 free checked bags and a carry on which is the most “free” I’ve ever experienced. Fortunately, my parents flew out to help me move in so I called dibs on their check ins!
I literally imagined myself dying in the cold from my first East Coast winter and thought I had to buy tons of coats before leaving, but this is definitely not something you have to do. It’s hard to find appropriate coats in Southern California anyways. I’ve conformed and have become a big fan of the Northface brand though. You may not want to admit this to your parents, but you really don’t need a new wardrobe!
I still wear my SoCal tanks and tees under a big coat in the winter. Your coat just needs to be good enough to withstand the wind + rain + snow for your <15 minute walk to class because your classrooms will be waiting for you all warm and toasty! Note that umbrellas don’t help!! Buy a wonderfully comfortable coat with a hood to strut in because it’s typically too windy for umbrellas and you wouldn’t want to hold an umbrella anyways! All you want to do in the winter outside is to bury your hands in your pockets.
Rainboots are a separate case from coats though. It rained within the first three or four days of my arrival on campus and I’ve never regretted investing in some rainboots as a preemptive strike. Every time I walk in/through a puddle in rainboots, I’m still incredulous that my socks aren’t soaked!!
If you were spoiled with amazing weather all the time like me, don’t let the threat of East Coast winters scare you!! I love experiencing four seasons. In fact, it’s best to experience leafy autumns and snowy winters in college where you don’t have to rake or shovel anything yourself!!!
Question 3: What are some of the must-sees/must-dos at Harvard?
This is one of the more difficult questions to answer because interests vary so widely. But I hate it when people use that as an answer to a question. I’m already incredibly biased and don’t want to be hypocritical too!
When I think back through my time as a Harvard College student, there are definitely some defining moments. I LOVED embracing the East Coast culture and being a coxswain for the Men’s Heavyweight Crew team! Definitely one of the best, once in a lifetime experiences!!
I’ve said it before and I won’t ever stop saying that one of my ultimate, favorite aspects of Harvard is the people! I’m obsessed with sitting around and doing absolutely nothing but getting to know my peers. Everyone is so freaking interesting and hilarious! We’ve also collectively racked up enough good stories for a lifetime. It’s come to that point where I’d say our lives are more interesting than TV – interesting, not dramatic!
Most of my greatest memories are on campus/campus events – like meeting celebrities!!! You’ll be on tons of email listservs as a student where the spam can be annoying but a lot of the pubbed events are super interesting/exciting opportunities!!
I do really want to start taking even more advantage of my environment by completing everything on Natalie’s list though!
Question 4: Is there any advice you would offer your freshman self (or a lost freshman), knowing everything you know now?
Two prominent mistakes (one personal and one academic) come to mind when I think of my personal freshman year – although we all know there were several committed.
Most of my friends are surprised that I identify myself as an antisocial person. The beginning of freshman year is just super overwhelming because not only have you left all your family and friends, but you’re now in a whole new environment with thousands of strangers! Albeit the strangers are friendly, I had a hard time continuously meeting tons of people during the beginning days of freshman year because I always doubted whether we’d become actual friends or not. This negative mindset pushed me to rely on my high school friends. I Skyped (video chatted via internet) my high school friends a lot freshman year due to the fear that our friendship would become estranged. I definitely don’t regret staying in touch with my high school friends because the ones I Skyped all the time are the ones that give me a strong reason to come home; but, I do feel like the fear of losing my high school friends shouldn’t have been stimulating anxiety. It’s definitely a natural fear to have, but after becoming super busy sophomore year, we’ve kept in touch less throughout this past year. However, I still feel just as comfortable around my high school friends to this day as I did 2 years ago. In fact, thinking about them right now makes me feel simultaneously really lucky for having their continuous support and really stupid for ever fearing that our great friendships would diminish. Therefore, if I could reassure little, lost freshman Jeanie, I’d demand her to not worry so much about her loving connection with her friends and family back home.
After the emotional stabilization, I would definitely tell myself to not try to plan my life. College comes with waves of intense sensations of fear that you’ll fail at everything which will propel you to try to plan your life. This endeavor isn’t possible – at least not your freshman year; it becomes more of a likely possibility your sophomore year and that’s why you declare your concentration (major) your sophomore fall semester rather than during your freshman year which is what most other universities have students do. During your freshman year, it’s best to talk to upperclassmen, your assigned academic adviser, your PAF: Peer Advising Fellow community, faculty and etc. to learn all the classes that are truly geared towards your interests. You’ll learn so much your first year about the differences between class series and the importance of sections, so that the life plan you made freshman year will render itself useless in a matter of a few conversations! It’s best to wait until your sophomore year to start planning how all of your courses will fit in the short time you have as an undergraduate.
I am fully aware that I’m advising you to take your hands off the wheel during your entire first year and that this request is a horrifying one! But enjoy your time as a wide eyed freshman and feel free to be a little lost! Just don’t be so lost that you can’t give a tourist directions to Annenberg.
Holy smokes. My answers always turn out to be soooo much longer than anticipated!! I really hope that the information overflow isn’t overwhelming because that is definitely not its purpose!!!! You truly don’t need to know any of this information because I didn’t and I am (arguably) fine, I promise! AHHHH SORRY!
There are also tons of other resources for any burning questions you may or may not have! One of my favorite finds are Harvard Q&A groups on Facebook. We’re all guilty of wasting time on Facebook so you might as well satiate your curiosity that way! Most of the time it’s benevolent Harvard students answering questions – yay!
**Excuse any slang/improper English please! I’ve been speaking and thinking in Spanish so hard these days while living in Peru – and LOVING it!!!!!
***UPDATE (24 June 2012)
One thing to start thinking about is money on campus – meaning banks. I am no longer an advocate of the sock drawer so one thing I made sure to check for during prefrosh/Visitas weekend was nearby banks. I know of a handful of people who chose to keep their local, small town banks but I feel like the majority of students have local banks for convenience. Once you do your research and choose a bank, you can start thinking about credit cards. And just because you’re going to college doesn’t mean you can’t bring your parents in on this – they have much more experience than you! One additional thing to keep in mind is that many, many Harvard students travel abroad at some point during their undergraduate careers so if you like to plan super ahead, take into account international fees/cards/offers.
Random list of local banks from the top of my head: Harvard University Credit Union, Bank of America, Citizens Bank, TD Bank, Citi Bank