What I Learned at Harvard

by Elison Alcovendaz

When Patty and I first started talking about a trip to Boston, other than meeting several of my in-laws for the first time, the thing I was most excited about was going to visit Harvard. When I graduated from high school, I didn't know much about colleges or how attending one college might set you up differently than another. I applied to several places, got in to most of them, including Sac St., my admittance approved after a three minute interview done on the spot in the Christian Brothers College Counseling office that wasn't really an interview but instead a check of my application, my grades, and a stamp of approval. Just like that, I was a college student. I ended up choosing Sac St. because it was cheaper, close to home, and a good portion of my friends were going there. I graduated with a Business degree a few years later and went to work. A few years after that, feeling a little bit lost, I went back to Sac St. (for that story, please read this).

While obtaining my MA, I was introduced to complex literary texts, cultural and sociological theorists, and literary criticism. My mind became open to invisible threads, ideologies, structures, and fallacies that had shaped my existence. One such fallacy was in the seemingly inherent nature of capitalistic worth - that a CEO is worth more than a teacher, for example. So, while I knew that going to one college versus another didn't necessarily "mean" something in terms of my own self-worth, when applying to PhD programs, I aimed very high: Iowa, Denver, and other well-known Creative Writing graduate programs in the country, and Cornell, Berkeley, Stanford, among others for PhD programs in Literature. Oh, and Harvard. I did this in spite of myself, even though I knew it was mostly what you did afterward that counts. I still wanted that reputation. I bought in to the hype. And I didn't get in.

So as we drove toward Harvard Square yesterday, all of the thoughts came flooding in: the grand, brick buildings; the walking in the footsteps of history; the being in the aura of the most intelligent minds in the country; the seeing if, even though I didn't get in, if I measured up, if I could hang; and, of course, the glorious, magnificent Harvard Library. I imagined myself lost in the aisles, pulling random books, reading pages I never would have had access to, the rarified air, soaking in the knowledge that just being in the Harvard Library would certainly provide. Even if I wasn't a student, I could just benefit from being there. Perhaps, by some magical osmosis, my writing would improve. 

But first, the tourist stuff. We went to The Coop, where after mulling over several items, I bought a zip-up hoodie despite feeling strange buying clothing for a university I did not attend and did not have a rooting interest in any of their sports teams:

A tourist trap, mostly. 

A tourist trap, mostly. 

We walked around Harvard Square, watched some street performers, ate some Thai food, snapped some pictures of old but pretty, important but unknown buildings (like this one):

Probably a dorm? 

Probably a dorm? 

On campus, we took a photo with the John Harvard statue, being rushed in and out of focus by a horde of Asian tourists. We paraded around the paths, guessing which people were Harvard students and which ones were tourists and which ones were professors. After meandering for half an hour, we reached the main Harvard Library (there are like, a million of them, but one "main" one).

The long, concrete steps blazed (even in the cloudy grayness) like some pathway to knowledge. Students milled about on the steps, eating lunch, flipping through paperbacks. It occurred to me that with my backpack on, I could've easily been one of them. I walked up the steps and no one noticed me, as though I belonged. Patty caught up about halfway, and at the same moment, a good friend who actually will be doing postgraduate work at Harvard and was traveling with us, called us out for a photo. We turned around and found him at the bottom of the steps, a camera raised to his face. It happened in a flash. Patty whispered in my ear that she hated taking these kinds of pictures, and I replied that it represented a lack of pride, and when those students who didn't notice me before now stared at us, one or two rolling their eyes, I knew I didn't belong. I had been rejected again. I was Other. 

The moment now memorialized, I told Patty I was going to try to get into the library. I'd come this far. I wasn't going to be stopped. I'd been told you needed a Student ID, but friends had told me that they'd gotten in just fine. I reached the doorway and a sign confirmed that yes, you needed a student ID. A separate door to the left was for all non-students requesting access to the library. I ushered myself away from the main door, the door for the accepted, and found myself in a small room where an uninterested woman looked up from a computer and said, "Can I help you?" Not "How can I help you?" but "Can I help you?" as though, perhaps, I might've simply been forgone, beyond aid. I hadn't realized yet that I could've told her I was a writer doing research, which could've gotten me a pass, so I simply told her I really loved books and would love to take a look around. She said "Sorry" and glanced back down at her computer. 

For the rest of our time in Harvard, I strove to find something to pick me back up. I walked into a random building and just so happened to be standing in front of the Graduate English Studies office, the office that had likely rejected my application. A woman dressed in a stained ITALIA shirt and sweatpants came storming out, cursing loudly about the errand she was just assigned. I peeked through the glass of a study room door, where three students had, on the projection screen, a Powerpoint slide with at least three grammatical errors. Somewhere in Harvard Yard, we watched a student with absolutely zero charisma UH and HMM her way through a speech that I guess was meant to protest against Harvard's timber plantations. I looked at books people were reading, Intro to Greek Tragedies, Leaves of Grass, the same Foucault book sitting on my nightstand. All items I'd read. None of this fit the vision I'd had of Harvard. Not the overpriced food trucks, not the students chattering on their cell phones about some sorority party they attended the night before, not the grounds that had seemed to barely survive the winter. Not the reading, in the Harvard Book Store, by an actual Harvard professor, that only had 20 attendees (Sac St. gets greater attendance for alumni readings):


A "well-attended" reading at Harvard.

A "well-attended" reading at Harvard.

None of it met the expectation of grandeur or importance I'd carried for so long. This was the place I didn't get into. 

Recently, The Washington Post declared Christian Brothers the most academically rigorous high school in the Sacramento area, the 51st toughest private school in the country, and for a long time, I regretted not using that as a jumping board to a greater collegiate experience.  I thought that I needed to get a PhD at a "great" school to fill that hole, to make that part of me fulfilled, to fix that blatantly jealous thing inside me that made me feel inadequate for not doing the great things or going to the great schools many of my high school classmates had done. 

But now, I've realized that my romanticized view of Harvard, a view implanted by society, is incorrect. This is the same society that tells you if you pull yourself up by the bootstraps, and work hard enough, and are willing to play the game, you can have the spoils. A society of conflicting messages. Harvard is full of them:


This is a biblical verse, from Isaiah, and almost seems an invitation, a welcome to Harvard, THE place for truth. The Doric columns are militaristic and speak to knowledge as power. At the bottom of the photo, you'll notice the gates, the pointed tips ready to pierce any wannabe scholar who may try to enter the place of truth. And yet, seeing the students read what I read as a Sac State student, to be bothered by the same teenage/young adult dilemmas of collegiate parties and lighthearted activism, to see the same books in the Harvard Book Store as you'd find in almost any Barnes and Noble, to find professors reading to sparse crowds, to see frisbees flying about, I realized it was my acceptance of the social myth, my own privileging of Harvard as THE place of truth that prevented me from finding one actual piece of truth, something I'd already learned and hadn't realized I'd learned, and that's that truth is everywhere. It's at Harvard, it's at Sac State, it's in your bookshelves, the Internet, in nature, your parents' memories, your emotions, your body, your senses, your stanzas, your language, your songs, your ideas. If you need an Ivy League school, or a job on Wall Street, or a well-paying profession to teach you about life, to teach you about truth, then you're learning the wrong thing.

The Harvard sweater is in my suitcase, ready to fly. Someday, I'll put it on and remember that Harvard did teach me something. It taught me that maybe the Sac State library (and maybe the Harvard one, too) will house one of my books someday, but it's up to me to make that true.