Reflections on the past

I got this e-mail from the president of my school yesterday:

Dear Members of the Harvard Community:

Starting this October, Harvard will celebrate its 375th birthday. Such milestones encourage us to reflect on our institution's remarkable past--to remember that all we aspire to today finds inspiration in the creativity and commitment of those who have come before.

Even more, our forebears' example reminds us that, while we stand on the foundations they have built, we must never stand still. Our history not only provides us with a sense of continuity and confidence; it highlights Harvard's tradition of imaginative change.

I don't really feel a strong connection to the Harvard community. Everything I know about the history of Harvard I learned today from glancing at wikipedia. I gather* that this is somewhat common among graduate students generally, but it's not helped by the fact that the med school where I work is several miles (and actually in different counties) from the college.

The summer before I came here, I was traveling abroad and was actually a bit hesitant to tell people where I was going to school. You meet a lot of people traveling on your own and staying in hostels, and naturally people want to know about you.

"What do you do?"
"I'm a scientist; I'm going to graduate school in the fall."
"Oh cool, where are you going to school?"
"Um... in Boston."
"Neat, but what school?"
"Oh, well um... Harvard."

Usually, that last line was accompanied by a slight backing away, as if there was a ring of defference that was a bit wider when the plebes interacted with someone going to so prestigious an institution. I hated it - it seemed like there was a perception that I was better than them or smarter than them, or at least that I might think I was better or smarter, and that always seemed to put up a wall, or add some distance that wasn't there before. Or maybe it was just me projecting.

Anyway, since moving here, I've gotten better at embracing the fact that I'm getting a PhD from a school that is quite literally world renowned (though I haven't managed to embrace it to quite the extent of some other people, more's the pity). But I digress.

Harvard was founded in 1636. For any Europeans reading, that may not seem that old, but it's ancient in terms of American institutions - 140 years before there even was a United States of America.

The history and prestige of this place aren't always (or even often) out on display. It's not something I think about on a daily basis. But it's there. I doubt I'll take part in much of the anniversary festivities, but I did manage to stop and reflect on 375 years of history. I know much of it was wonderful. I imagine much of it was not. My school's moto is Veritas.



That's what I'm looking for. I hope I find it.


*For the record, I scored 2pts on this quiz.

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I was a postdoc at HMS for 3 and I had the same feeling about telling people where I worked. Still get it sometimes, when it comes up. My way to deal with it is to joke about it. My first time going through US Immigration (I'm from Europe, like history, just not as old), when the officer checked my J1 visa he saw it was sponsored by "Harvard University", so he said "oh, Harvard, you must be super smart, huh?". His tone was kind of ambiguous so it made me very uncomfortable, but I shrugged and said "nah, they just let anybody in these days". He was taken aback and laughed, and that defused the awkwardness.

Same thing happens with Cambridge. The number of times I've appologied for it "Uh...Cambridge, sorry" or just had a sudden moment of awkwardness are unbelieveable. The worst was being an undergrad at conferences, when I'd suddenly be surrounded by PhD students who knew about seven hundred times more than I did going, "Oh you must be smart then?"

I've had the same feeling about mentioning Harvard... I've been doing the whole "oh, I'll be studying in Boston" thing as well. In the end most people reacted really warmly ("ooh Congrats!") so I think it was mostly self-imposed anxiety. Now that I'm here, though, I'm glad I don't have to have that conversation quite so often :)

@ DG - Welcome! Yeah, people are mostly positive, though it does help if they've gotten to know you a bit first.