Freshman year was perhaps the most difficult year of my life.
I had come from a relatively sheltered home, and Harvard shocked me in more ways than one. There were so many transitions. New place. New friends. New home.
School was harder than it had ever been. The weather was colder than I ever knew it could be. Playing soccer for Harvard was more stressful than I imagined. There were so many people everywhere, all the time! And yet I felt alone.
Everyone was cooler than I was. Smarter than I was. More athletic than I was. More social than I was. Just all around better than me.
That year my confidence shattered. I had no self-esteem. Everything I thought I was—everything I had built my identity on—taken from me.
Why Did Harvard Want Me?
My family was so far away and struggling with their own battles—they could no longer be my sole support system. My grades were poor and school no longer gave me satisfaction in learning but rather insane anxiety. I was riding the bench in soccer—the one thing I thought I would always find joy in was now a source of stress and frustration.
Why did Harvard want me? It took them long enough to accept me off the waitlist—so why did they bother? Why did God open this door for me—this door I had prayed He’d open only if it was His will for my life? Why would God lead me here if only to become a failure?
I wrestled with these questions for so long, and I wrestled with them quietly—afraid of showing people my struggle—afraid of being anything less than the “perfect” person I always tried to be.
Yet through the guidance of my Bible study group with Christian Impact, I began to slowly open up. One day I remember we read 1 Corinthians 4 and something clicked.
It says, “25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
In reading this passage, I had come to realize my purpose at Harvard.
Ultimately God opened the door because he knew what I didn’t—He knew that Harvard would lead me to Him. He knew that Harvard would break me so much that I had nothing to boast in—except for the love and the grace and the forgiveness of my Savior, Jesus Christ.
God took me from my humble and sheltered bubble of Bakersfield, CA and brought me to the liberal oasis of Cambridge, MA—not so I could fail and lose my self-esteem, but so I could succeed as a vessel for His purpose, confident because Jesus was my rock—not because of my grades, not because of success on a soccer field, not because of the company I could keep.
Freshman year I learned a valuable lesson: Alone I could do nothing and alone I felt like a nothing. But with Christ as my foundation, I am valuable as a child of God—no matter how I perform in the classroom or on the field.
I’d like to say with this realization, the rest of college was a breeze. But it wasn’t.
I’d like to say I never struggled again with finding my worth outside of my success in school or soccer or anything else, but that would be a lie.
Sophomore year may have been worse than freshman year.
I Thought God Didn’t Care That I Wasn’t Trying
I got a concussion early on in the soccer season and everything soccer went downhill from there. My team was doing so well, yet there I was—feeling useless and exhausted. I was depressed and I thought about quitting. They didn’t need me—and was what I doing there anyway—sitting on the bench? Would they really miss me if I wasn’t there?
School was even harder. I had a crisis regarding what I wanted to study. I chose science, but I did poorly on every science and math test I took. I still couldn’t figure school out—was I just stupid? Was it the concussion? Was it my depression?
And of course the weather didn’t help. We had several blizzards that year.
And the whole time I said my identity was in Christ, and I believed it. I believed it so much so that I began to be lethargic in my faith and my school, my soccer, and everything else. If my value was in my faith and my faith alone, then why bother trying to do well in school and soccer if they don’t really matter anyways?
I had somehow convinced myself that mediocre was okay, because God loves me anyway. So why strive for more? Of course with that attitude I struggled even more in my soccer and my classes. And the cycle was circular—the more I failed, the more I turned to God—burying myself in His love and shutting out the world. I thought, if God uses the weak, it’s fine if I’m weak and I stay weak. It’s fine if I’m not achieving things—God loves me and He will do the work for me.
Consuming myself with these thoughts, I became even more passive, and deeply depressed as a result. I had almost given up. I was about to quit soccer. I wanted to go home. I wanted to leave Harvard.
But one day, I came across this quote from a Harvard grad named Gary Haugen. It said, “Without a fierce commitment to the sharpest standards in operational and tactical excellence, we do not honor God.”
Reading that stung. I immediately wrote it down and put it on my wall. I memorized it. And every time I would see it, it would haunt me because more and more I came to realize that God did not put me on this campus to be weak. God did not put me at Harvard to flounder in my failure. God did not open this door for me to waste it in His name.
Yes, by worldly standards I was failing. But as a Christian, I was failing too.
I Learned to Pursue Excellence, and That Brought Joy
I had become content. I had become lazy. But God calls us to be neither of those. God calls us to more.
1 Colossians 3:23-24 says, “23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
God calls us to always give our best effort, and do so for His purpose and His glory. After all, as 1 Corinthians 4:1 says, we are to be stewards of His Word: “This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.” And further in Matthew 5:16, we are to be lights shining for Him: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
God calls us to be hard workers and God calls us to do our work with excellence—as an offering to Him, all the while being an example to those around us.
These things and more I came to reflect on the summer after sophomore year. That summer I stayed on campus. I made a decision to dedicate myself to my studies and my soccer, working out four hours every morning and taking a summer school class. I fully devoted myself to doing the best I could. Come fall, I had become so much more confident in Christ, confident in myself, and was absolutely ready to take on Harvard with all my might.
And now, as I look back, I can say that the past two years have been the best years of my life. I have never been happier, even in times of trial, than I have been these past two years.
Even though school remained challenging and organic chemistry tested every neuron of my brain, I fought through it. I learned to truly study, to seek help, and to not let any bad grade shatter my confidence. In soccer, I battled my way into a starting spot and we won the Ivy League for the second straight year. I learned how to be more vulnerable and open up to people, and as a result my relationships with roommates and teammates and friends became that much more real and honest and genuine.
Just overall, so many things seemed to finally be falling into place. I learned what true joy meant—and I became honestly joyful in the Lord—for the opportunities He gave me to struggle, to mature, to be humbled, and to pick myself up off the ground and keep pushing forward in His name.
On campus where faith is considered a weak man’s hope, in a world where grades and championships determine your worth, by the grace of God I learned to survive. Better yet, I learned to thrive.
Perhaps J.K. Rowling said it best in her Harvard graduation speech for the class of 2008. She said, “The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means you are ever after secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself or the strengths of your relationships until both have been tested by adversity.”
Harvard has proved this to me.
There is a lot of uncertainty in life, and indeed a lot of adversity. I thought I would go to college and have everything figured out. I thought I’d be graduating having it all figured out. I thought it would be easy, navigating everything from friendships and relationships to degrees and careers. It’s not. But I’ve learned to welcome it, and wait on the Lord. I’ve learned to not be content in my faith or my efforts, but to continually strive to do more and be more. And I know I will continue to learn these lessons again and again.
Indeed, what Harvard has taught me the most is that the learning never stops—especially not once you leave the classroom. Every moment is an opportunity to learn, to discover, to grow.
And in the end more than anything, Harvard has brought me closer to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And for that, while I know it was perhaps the opposite of Harvard’s intentions, I am forever grateful. And for that, I will rejoice now, after graduation, and for all eternity.
“4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:4-9).
Brooke Dickens ’16 is an Neurobiology concentrator in Cabot House. Next year, she will be working in health policy in Washington D.C. or Boston. (She still has to make up her mind…)