No matter where you decide to attend college, there’s one thing you are certain to find – opportunity. At colleges and universities around the world, you will discover the opportunity to explore a new place, the opportunity to meet new people, and opportunities to develop your ideas and strengthen your abilities. These opportunities are going to result in a transformation, as your growth will continue from the moment you arrive on campus to the day you graduate.
Lucas Koelle ‘16 details how his experiences during his first year at Harvard College have impacted his life, helping him grow as a student and as a person.
My first year at Harvard College was a transformative experience. I tried my hardest to step outside of my comfort zone by choosing courses that were interesting to me even though I knew they would end up presenting some of the hardest academic challenges I’ve ever had to face. Hanging around some of the smartest people in the world challenged me to think and produce work of a higher standard than I ever thought I was capable of producing. I was able to form lasting friendships with fellow students who genuinely cared about my well-being, encouraged me to follow my passions, and challenged me on my ideas and opinions whenever they disagreed. My sense of belonging increased over the course of my first two semesters at Harvard, and I’m immensely grateful to the people that have truly made Cambridge, Massachusetts feel like a second home. The relationships I built were the most important part of my first year at Harvard.
My journey at Harvard began during Orientation Week. All freshmen are obligated to arrive one week before classes begin, when incoming students are taught all about how Harvard works, its culture, resources, as well as the expectations that Harvard has for its students, both in and out of the classrooms. Orientation Week was a great time to bond with fellow students and adjust to life on campus without any academic demand. Professors and administrators of the college reiterated Harvard’s hope that every student should feel at home, and we should take full advantage of the freedom a liberal arts education provides by choosing whichever courses interested us, even if these happened to be courses with academic concepts that we had no previous experience in.
Orientation Week then morphed into what Harvard calls its “Shopping Week.” Shopping Week consists of an entire week at the beginning of the semester where students can drop in and out of any class before enrolling in the four classes you are required to take. It was an amazing time to explore the enormously diverse academic pursuits Harvard has to offer, and it allowed me to pick courses that truly interested me.
For me, one of the best parts of Harvard College is that they have only one required class, and it is only one semester long. The freedom to pursue whatever it is that you want to study without core requirements weighing you down is amazing. It allowed me, for example, to focus on courses that I had never dived too deeply into before. Even though I knew that I would end up declaring economics as my concentration, I decided to take a less traditional path and study entirely different fields in my first two semesters. I focused on philosophy in my first semester and then psychology and history in my second semester. This opened my mind to how different pursuits require vastly different types of knowledge and skills, and made me even more eager to explore economics once I return for my third semester.
Furthermore, I was fortunate enough to discover a community of Brazilian students on campus that was incredibly friendly, and they became like a family to me. The community is called HUBA (Harvard Undergraduate Brazilian Association), and even though it is more of an informal organization, many of its members are responsible for organizing an annual conference at Harvard and MIT called the Brazil Conference. The goal of the conference is to bring together amazing people to discuss innovative solutions to Brazil’s problems. Past participants include Warren Buffett, Jorge Paulo Lemann, Ray Dalio, Larry Summers, Gisele Bundchen, and Barack Obama.
As luck would have it, I ended up becoming Co-President of HUBA and had an unbelievable time helping with the organization of the conference. It was interesting to see the remarkably successful people we invited to the conference were excited to talk to students, eager to pass on their knowledge as much as they could. The conference was also personally refreshing for me – most of the people we invited were both highly passionate individuals that did what they loved and who were successful at what they did.
I’m really looking forward to getting back on campus for my sophomore year. I miss the daily interactions that I have there with my friends, colleagues, and professors. Harvard taught me an important, but often overlooked, life lesson: intellectual growth is most effective when you learn from other people. Rarely, if ever, do you learn something entirely by yourself. I relish the deep personal bonds I have created during my first year in college and have found that a culture that genuinely cares about your well-being – whether it be emotional, physical, or intellectual – creates an environment that is profoundly conducive to learning.