HARVARD END OF TERM REPORT
A Cambridge classics graduate, who won a coveted scholarship to study in the US, describes her first semester at Harvard
LAST AUGUST, after much anticipation and a very long wait in Boston Logan airport immigration, I finally stepped onto American soil, ready for a year as a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard University.
I was guided out of the airport by English signage, immediately greeted by comfortingly familiar levels of pollution and swept off by an Uber driver called Abdul.
Before my departure, friends, colleagues and other well-wishers had noted how “European” Boston is and for those first blissful 10 minutes I could have sworn I was in London.
‘You’ve got an accent…you’re British!’ exclaimed Abdul. “How’s the Queen?”
I admitted to not knowing Her Majesty personally. We both laughed. Little did I know that this would form the template of many conversations I would have with 70 per cent of the Americans over the age of 45 who I would encounter.
Next morning in Harvard Yard the university was buzzing with tourists shepherded around the grounds by student guides.
On the steps of the Widener Library I heard one guide proudly point out the spot where Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave the 2017 commencement speech.
Mr Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard. Hopefully I will last longer than he did.
My first week adjusting to American academic life was spent rushing around campus “shopping for classes” from a catalogue of over 10,000 options. Unlike UK universities, choice is the centrepiece of academic programming at Harvard. Trying to pick from the courses on offer was almost as tricky as trying to navigate the famed Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The elevator offered floor 1 (not the first floor but the ground floor) and went up in half increments to floor 5½. I knew many Americans admired the English, but I hadn’t expected them to take Platform 9¾ seriously.
Inside the classroom there was no shortage of culture shocks. On my first day at Harvard Business School I arrived just in time to get the last seat in a classroom with more facilities than an entire UK secondary school. I sat down in the front row, opened up my pink laptop and started typing vigorously, not wanting to miss a word.
After an hour and 40 minutes of intense note-taking, a kind classmate informed me that laptops are not allowed in the classroom. I assume that no one else had let me know because they were getting much too much enjoyment from my Legally Blonde moment.
Professors are a very different breed, stateside. Unlike in the UK where the title is given as one of the highest academic ranks, in America “Professor” is the term used to refer to the person standing at the front of the lecture theatre.
Consequently the faculty glitters with TV presenters, politicians, CEOs and newspaper editors, sprinkled with the odd academic or two.
Insights are therefore many and varied. One professor helpfully offered up advice on choosing the correct life partner — currently remarried to one of his previous ex-wives, he assured us he was most qualified in this department.
Adjusting to life in a new country is challenging, but jokes aside, there is much to offer here. The range of academic opportunities is unparalleled and the teaching methods are experimental and engaging. Students and academics are talkative, friendly and upbeat (as long as you steer clear of talking about Trump). And almost everyone has wished me mazeltov on the royal engagement.
Stephanie Posner in Boston outside the Harvard Club for university alumni