The first thing we do each year at Harvard is move in. Before we start our classes, start making friends, and start sitting through hours of orientation, we are assigned to some small room on campus and asked to make it our own. We bring basic supplies like bedding and clothes, as well as little knick-knacks and reminders of home. We put up posters and pictures of family to mark who we are and what we love. The first thing we do, often with our parents helping carry and unpack the boxes, is carve out a space of our own on campus.
And we are not just given a room, but made responsible for it. We are told that if we scratch the paint or put holes in the wall we will be term billed. We are reminded to turn down the heaters when we leave for winter break and to absolutely never tape or prop open our suite doors, which would of course leave the suite vulnerable to crime, besides being a violation of the Harvard College Handbook for Students.
The space of each of our rooms marks the intersection of the expectations, the rules, and the culture of Harvard, and our own. The need to have an American or Estonian flag hanging on the wall is weighed against the injunction against using nails. The desire to listen to loud music at two in the morning is weighed against Harvard’s goal of creating restful, private spaces for its students. The Canaday students’ need for restful, private space is weighed against Harvard’s need to ring the bell of Memorial Church for morning prayers.
The moment we arrive on campus we enter into a balancing act with the school. On the one hand, Harvard gives us the opportunity to have a space of our own to grow and express our identity. On the other, Harvard asks us to conform to the standards of its own space, intending to keep us safe, protect its brand, and produce the best possible graduates.
This balance is one that we live out first in our dorm rooms and then going forward each day on campus. We choose between spending our time doing homework, serving the community, making music, pursuing internships, hanging out with friends, working in a lab, and thousands of other things. Each possible way of spending our time balances the expectations Harvard puts on us and those we put on ourselves. Harvard encourages us to study hard, get a good job, and as Dean Khurana always reminds us, have a transformative experience. We push ourselves to pursue all or some or none of these. The sometimes destructive, sometimes wonderful, and always strange Harvard culture is the product of hundreds of years of this conflict between the interests of each student and the interests of the university.
As Christians, we believe that spaces in this world will always be spaces of conflict. Since the Fall, humanity has lived in a world of sin, a world where interests are always in conflict. Our loyalties to our families, to our friends, to our communities, and to ourselves lead us in many different directions. But as Christians, we are also promised that God will make a new space, the new heavens and the new earth, where there will be no more conflict, no more pain, and no more sin. Only with God’s help will we someday move to a space that does not bring conflict and the hard work of balancing, but perfect peace and rest.
Gregory Scalise ’18 is currently pursuing an MFA at Johns Hopkins University.