So What Did I Learn at Harvard?

One hallmark of graduation season is that every day or so, someone asks me: “So what was your biggest takeaway from four years at Harvard?”

I always struggle to answer this question. They may as well have said: “Summarize your transformations over the past four years, and all the lessons you’ve learned in classes, extracurriculars, and from the hundreds of people you’ve met, and somehow make it sound witty and non-arrogant. You have 10 seconds.”

So I decided that the best way to answer this question is to give them the same response when I’m asked other difficult questions: “I have a blog post about it; I’ll send it to you!”

Here’s that blog post:

Perhaps the best gift that Harvard has given me is the ability to make choices that reflect my values and goals. Every second that I’m doing something at Harvard, I’m giving up doing something else. I used to be hyper-aware of this fact as a freshman with the typical FOMO (fear of missing out) syndrome. It is having to make that choice among grades, exercise, making friends, sleep, extracurriculars, job search, family, relationships, hobbies, reading for pleasure, that has led me to know myself better. Harvard is all about balancing trade-offs. So is life. Even though I still do not completely know myself, it has taught me how I can get to know myself better. Now I have learned to intentionally miss out on certain things in order to focus on others; to identify the activities that are making me a better person, and turn them into habits.

I came to Harvard with the belief that success in life is always directly proportional to hard work. Over the past four years, there have been multiple times when I questioned this. Sometimes there seems like it’s much easier to take the shortcut, following aphorisms like “It’s not about what you know; it’s about who you know.” At a place like Harvard, it can be tempting to think that hard work can be replaced by connections, background, or cleverness. It is easy to fall prey to the illusion that we are as great as those famous people with whom we take a selfie and post on Facebook to get hundreds of likes after they speak at Harvard. Or the illusion that just because we had a coffee chat with a successful person and solicited their advice, we will become just as successful as they are.

From organizing Harvard China Forum, which led me to interact with hundreds of people I could only dream to meet before Harvard, I learned that it’s not about what you know; it’s not even about who you know. It’s about how much you care. I leave Harvard even more convinced of the simple tenet that I believe got me there: hard work will always be rewarded and can never be replaced.

But what comes before hard work is motivation, and what comes before motivation is confidence. And this is my other biggest takeaway from Harvard: the feeling that I can achieve anything if I wanted to. We all need a “Harvard” in our lives—something that constitutes the building blocks of our self-worth. For us Harvard students, it came conveniently with the university’s brand name. But I admire even more the people who found it through other means, who built confidence the hard way, like Jack Ma, a proud alumnus of Hangzhou Normal University, who is so successful that he can boast about being rejected from Harvard multiple times.

All this being said, I also learned a few things through Harvard’s classes. Here’s a one-line summary of my takeaways from the most memorable courses I took at Harvard.

Freshman Seminar: Human Rights, Rhetoric & Reality

The UN is overrated.

CS 50: Introduction to Computer Science I

Just leave the coding to the coders.

Jewish Identities from Antiquity to the Present (Study abroad in Jerusalem)

Some people don’t take their nationhood for granted.

Psychology 15: Social Psychology

Still don’t know how to read minds.

History 1462: History of Sexuality in the Modern West

People love sex.

English Seminar: Introduction to Journalism

Journalistic integrity.

Government 30: US Government: A New Perspective

Democracy is a necessary waste of time.

History 89H: Henry Kissinger

Met the man himself in New York!

Psychology 18: Abnormal Psychology

We are all crazy.

English 181A: Asian American Literature

There needs to be more of it.

History 1881: The Middle East

The West screwed things up there.

15.4311 Entrepreneurial Finance and Venture Capital (at MIT)

Valuations are BS.

15.501 Corporate Financial Accounting (at MIT)

MIT has more useful classes than Harvard.

Zara Zhang

Zara Zhang

Zara Zhang is a senior at Harvard. You can contact her at zhang08@college.harvard.edu.

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