Harvard students have commitment issues. I write not of commitments within the juicy domain of romantic relationships, but of co-curriculars — engagements beyond the classroom that support our personal and professional development. It is hard to remain committed to something at the epicenter of the world’s most prestigious university, where alluring carrots dangle before students in every which way.
The dizzying abundance of resources at Harvard can lead to carrot overdose. Fellowship opportunities are scattered across campus, fluorescent flyers from laboratories ask for undergraduate researchers, finance firms scream “apply!” in inboxes, former White House officials offer positions for student leadership in their study groups, and more than 400 tantalizing student organizations look to lasso members. The Pokémon tagline “Gotta catch ’em all” resounds while FOMO, fear of missing out, abounds. The more commitments you collect, the better. The busier, the better.
Students spar with their peers, competing in the game of sleeplessness; the person who sacrifices the most slumber reigns supreme in the coliseum of achievement. Students are constantly reminded of the opportunities, the opportunities. What a shame to miss out on all the opportunities! So we ascribe to overscheduled lives governed by Technicolor boxes in Google calendars. In the struggle to keep up with the Joneses, or the Crimsons, our commitments multiply.
I have felt the crushing pressure of the opportunities, the opportunities. I have experienced the hollow absence of commitment in scurrying from one meeting to the next, missing the broader picture of my purpose and my contributions in college. I have struggled as that overscheduled, frazzled student. As a student past the halfway point of my time here who was recently reminded at Junior Parents Weekend by President Drew Faust that 454 days remained in my undergraduate career, I was compelled to reflect on my time spent on campus. I asked myself, “What have I committed myself to?” The age-old question “Is it better to hold many commitments well, or just a few extremely well?” buzzed in my brain. Letting those inquiries marinate, my attention floated to my proudest achievement at Harvard, the one that I had poured my heart, soul, and hours upon hours into: the Athena Program.
Since I was a first-year, I committed myself to Athena, a gender empowerment and mentoring program run out of the Phillips Brooks House Association (Harvard’s student-led, community-based nonprofit) that leads a biannual conference. I have devoted more than 500 hours to this program, which embodies the spirit of my Harvard education. It has taught me the importance of commitment. It has, more than any course, prepared me for life beyond the ivy gates.
Athena embraced me for the first time at a retreat is in the Harvard College Women’s Center (a spectacular space that has supported and housed our programming and served, more or less, as an extension of my room). My peers plunged into a reflective identity activity within minutes of meeting each other. We were asked to list 13 aspects of our identity and winnow our list down to three, and share which aspects of ourselves we eliminated, if we felt comfortable. This agonizing activity revealed that we are inherently intersectional beings, a compilation of interwoven identities. After plowing past the initial discomfort of revealing axes of myself to new people, I felt the presence of an extraordinary community that would challenge me to be more thoughtful in my life. I was hooked.
This intimate family feeling permeated our meetings, which began with each member sharing a peak (highlight of the week), valley (lowlight of the week), and a gender river (any thought related to gender that gave pause). We discussed the impact of our programming. I began as a member of the outreach team that built contacts with guidance counselors, high school students, and community leaders to bring young people to the conference.
I’ve led workshops on goal setting, built personal and professional relationships with my supportive co-directors, helped to manage a budget, built up a stipend program to compensate mentees for their contributions, and learned about life and leadership from the program directors who preceded me. The guidance of these directors built confidence in me to direct the program, which I have now for almost two years.
My long-term commitment to Athena has helped me to see its evolution, and has helped me learn from my mistakes. The scope and size of our program has swelled. We opened our program to members of all genders to promote open dialogue and gender equality. During my involvement, I have developed curriculum, built my public speaking skills, and learned about Boston communities. I discovered that it is wise to check citywide events before selecting a conference date. (We mistakenly scheduled a conference during the Walk for Hunger.) I acted rashly in heated decision-making moments, and I apologized. I learned to respond more promptly to emails, and to encourage reserved mentees to speak up through engaging techniques. I learned to actively appreciate others. I’ve built a social, emotional, and professional skill set I’ll keep with me for the rest of my life. For me, commitment created community.
My collection of the colored pins that we distribute on Conference Day reminds me of my commitment, and how my dedication to Athena has supported my growth. I’ve participated in the creation of four conferences: “Define Your Own Beauty,” “The Power of You(th),” “Blasting Through Stereotypes,” and “Born This Way?,” and our most recent conference, “Growing Up Gendered.” From leading close readings of Lady Gaga’s lyrics to boldly shouting “No!” in the Harvard University Police Department’s Rape Aggression Defense workshop to hearing mentees speak truth to power at the coffeehouse for self-expression, each conference inspires a new sense of possibility and passion in me that I experience in no other realm of my life. Each conference also brings new students, glimmering insights, and ideas for improvement.
Alas, Harvard students (myself included) have commitment issues. I am not concerned by the willingness of my peers to plunge into new experiences like some do into the Charles River off Weeks Bridge. What does concern me, though, is the excessive number of commitments students are motivated to plunge into. Ironically, the more commitments one has, the less committed one is; yet they are labeled commitments all the same. I have found that I can only slice myself into so many parts; I’ve distributed myself at times in a way that is unsustainable, unhealthy. I’m still working through managing my commitments, but I have taken the first step in identifying what matters most to me and throwing myself into it, while still keeping space to explore new frontiers.
As I transition out of Athena leadership, I reflect on the competencies the program has built in me. I do not aim to answer whether having one main commitment is superior to having several. I do, however, hope to encourage my peers to consider giving more than a little of themselves to something, and to stick with it for a stretch of time. We need to strike a balance between the opportunities, the opportunities, and the most meaningful commitments in our lives. My experience has shown that great growth comes from the latter. Stay with something long enough to feel its pulse, to be uncomfortable, to fail, to see change, and to celebrate successes, mistakes too.
I’ve committed, even though I’ve failed extravagantly, struggled with complex topics of gender and identity, led a fundraiser that flopped, and facilitated poor trainings. But I’ve also helped mentees with college essays, helped a mentee who will be the first in her family to attend college, involved mentee parents, organized a strong conference programming team, and cultivated an empowering community where youth can express themselves. Because of all that, I am a more loving person, a more thoughtful person, and a more confident person. I committed.
If you’re an undergraduate or graduate student and have an essay to share about life at Harvard, please email your ideas to Jim Concannon, the Gazette’s news editor, at Jim_Concannon@harvard.edu.