September, 2002. Anxious as ever, I participated in Harvard’s Freshman Week activities, the traditional weeklong orientation and welcome to the college. I forced myself to socialize at the Ice Cream Bash, chuckled through the Love Story screening, and engaged in dozens of awkward conversations (“Where are you from? Chicago? Oh, do you know Brett? I met him an hour ago”). Along with 1600 other freshman—one of whom would go on to create Facebook—I made it through this uncomfortable start to my college adventure. Yet, my anxiety ran deeper than my fellow students, since I harbored a unique secret. I was walking around with a golf ball-sized brain tumor in my head.
Two weeks before I gave the valedictory address at my high school graduation, I was given this diagnosis after years of worsening headaches and fatigue. Full of pride and against the wishes of both doctors and my parents, I decided that nothing would stop me from beginning my college journey. I had already accepted my place in the Class of 2006, so why would I postpone the best four years of my life?
One month into the journey, I realized I had made a huge mistake. The regimen of powerful prescription drugs—the first wave of treatment—left me ill and unable to focus. Hat in hand, I broke the news to Harvard: I was going to take the rest of the year off, a medical leave of absence.
To say that Harvard was understanding would be a colossal understatement. They gave me an immediate position in the class of 2007, guaranteeing my generous financial aid package and refunding the current tuition. That was the first time I recognized the comforting reality that would persist throughout my college years: schools like Harvard really care about their students.
Fast-forward eleven months. After more medical treatment and life-changing neurosurgery, I was healthy and ready to participate in Freshman Week… again. I went to the Ice Cream Bash, laughed through Love Story, and this time delighted in the awkward conversations. I was grateful to be back, and the Harvard landscape seemed fresh with possibility. In many ways I was still immature, but the year ahead would be even more transformative than the last. I didn’t know it then, but I would grow both intellectually and personally in ways I hadn’t thought possible.
Harvard’s course offerings were vast and ultimately transformative. The best part about Harvard’s curriculum is that the first week of classes is designated as “shopping period.” With no commitment necessary, students can sit in on courses for a minute or an hour, helping them decide what to take. You don’t even have to formally register for anything until the end of the first week. It is because of shopping period that I discovered some of my favorite classes at Harvard, like a course in my freshman year called The English Bible, which gave a literary perspective on history’s most famous book.
Even after shopping period, you have another month to add or drop courses with no consequence. Thanks to this generous policy, I discovered my true academic passion during freshman fall. I had started off the year enrolled in a course about the history of the Middle East, but the professor was painfully dry and boring—a rarity at Harvard. With one more day to add/drop, I wrote an email asking if I could get into a class on Film Theory. I figured I’d take it as an elective, since I’d always loved movies. The course turned out to be eye opening, diving deep into the underlying craft and psychology of cinema. I was fascinated and couldn’t get enough. Nearly four years later, I graduated cum laude with a degree in Film Theory.
On a personal level, freshman year was a sometimes scary, oftentimes thrilling ride. Still managing my illness, I was learning to exist on my own, while also forming bonds that would last a lifetime. One of my three freshman roommates, an Applied Math major named Adrian from Malaysia, would turn out to be one of my best friends in life. I vividly remember walking around campus with him at 2 a.m. on the last night of freshman year—only three hours before he would fly back to Malaysia—talking about what we had learned on our first-year journey and what we planned to do with the next three years.
The greatest part about that first year at Harvard is that the entire freshman class lives in dorms within the gates of the Yard, the heart of campus. All 1600 of us ate in the same dining hall, and by the end of the year, it felt like I had gotten to know so many of my classmates. We engaged in deep philosophical discussions, held study groups in the library, and endured the frigid Cambridge winter together (it was the first time Adrian ever saw snow).
Even the difficult parts of freshman year provided growth opportunities. In early March, students decide on who they want to live with for the next three years, forming cohorts of up to eight people known as “blocking groups.” Having to tell a friend that you really don’t think it’d work between you two as roommates is heart wrenching, but building and breaking relationships is a necessary part of life. Choosing your blocking group teaches you how to manage these situations, no matter how challenging they may be. Adrian and I had an understanding that we wouldn’t “block” together—living with each other for one year was enough—but we knew that we’d stay friends.
By the end of the year, I was healthier, happier, and more intellectually energized than ever. I had an incredible doctor at University Health Services who closely monitored my condition, but that was not the only way I felt Harvard’s depth of care. As a university, Harvard implicitly understands that freshman year can be a trying time both mentally and physically, and they’ve built one of the world’s strongest support systems to foster growth and well being amongst their students.
Most other universities would have penalized me financially for withdrawing after only a month. Harvard did not. Most other universities require you to preregister for courses before you step foot into a classroom. Harvard does not. And most other universities don’t spend countless hours trying to create positive matches for your freshman year roommates. Harvard actually does.
I am eternally grateful to Harvard for giving me the chance to experience a transformative freshman year, even after it didn’t work out the first time.
By Stephen Black, Admissionado Senior Consultant