There's No Crying in Summer School

Listen, we're not all sprightly geniuses

Some of us have to work hard to make the grade. Remember when I almost quit after only the first day of class? I want to talk more about it here.

I think it's important to share experiences, positive or otherwise, to help paint the whole picture. I also believe that other students, who may be struggling or experiencing self-doubt, might benefit from knowing that they are not alone and that these feelings are not uncommon in academia. Harvard can be an extremely competitive and very disquieting place sometimes, especially for people who have very high expectations of themselves.

Back to School

Revealing some vulnerabilities

There were several factors which contributed to my anxiety and state of panic. To enumerate: 1) I have been in virtual isolation for two years; 2) I felt like I did not belong here; 3) moving out of my home and my comfort zone was a big deal; 4) the expected workload changed unexpectedly; 5) my eyes were sharp only in shape, not so much in function; and 6) if I wanted my money back, I had to act quickly. I was under so much pressure, both real and imagined, that it felt as though the only choice I had left was to give up.

A closer look at what was going through my mind

First, I have been in virtual isolation for two years. Since the height of the pandemic, I seldom left my house for more than just a quick errand run. I essentially lived my life like a recluse, leaving the house only when absolutely necessary, and only in short bursts. Suddenly, it felt as though I was thrust into a classroom and forced to interact with other humans in close proximity. This caused me a bit of anxiety, to say the least.

Second, I felt like I did not belong here. The class was made up of a diverse group of learners from high school students, who were participating in the Pre-College Program or Secondary School Program, to adult degree candidates, like myself. The age spectrum was wide and varied, and my place was at the tail end of this. After observing the eager, young learners during our first meeting, I was struck with a sinking feeling of alienation. I felt like I was too old and too slow to belong in this class.

Third, moving out of my home and my comfort zone was a big deal. The last time I relocated anywhere was more than a decade and a half ago. So, when I mentioned that I only brought a backpack and a small carry-on luggage for a seven-week session at summer school, I wasn't exactly bragging about my minimalist lifestyle and efficient packing skills (okay, maybe just a little). For days leading up to my trip, I had no idea what and how much of it to stuff into suitcases. The commitment to change my zip code, even if only temporarily, still caused some consternation.

Fourth, the expected workload changed unexpectedly. The course I selected for the summer initially had a final term paper requirement along with some short writing assignments and a short presentation. We had the entire semester to build upon the main paper, submitting portions and revisions of it as we progressed through the summer. I thought this was a workload I could handle.

On the first day of class, however, we were presented with a modified syllabus. It now included a midterm and a final exam, in addition to the weekly writings. The individual short presentation turned into a group project, consisting of a 25-minute oral presentation with a Q&A portion in the end. A short written component, graded individually, was also a required part of the group project. When they said it would be a short but intensive term, they really meant it. Welcome to Harvard Summer School.

Fifth, my eyes were sharp only in shape, not so much in function. In addition to the aforementioned workload, we had some viewing (e.g., documentaries, films, short videos) as well as weekly reading assignments. These were all to be expected, of course, given the focus of the class. The readings included text by contemporary and classic philosophers who had a tendency to drone on and on and on about stuff. Most of the old texts were written in such small fonts, that I was grateful to have a device which allowed me to zoom in to be able to actually read them. Dealing with vision limitations exacerbated my worries, and knocked my confidence down a few more pegs.

Sixth, if I wanted my money back (most of it, anyway), I had to act quickly. I checked the Academic Calendar, and found out that the last day I could drop the course for the full tuition refund was on the second day of our class. This added some pressure to the timeline. I felt like I had to immediately decide if I should drop out. There was also the question of whether I could get my money back for the room and board, a more significant expense than the tuition itself.

When frustration, insecurity, and panic converge

I texted my husband frantically from the backseat of an Uber car. I had spent the day in the library, trying to catch up on reading assignments. All the while, my mind was distracted with the nagging thought that it might have been a mistake to come here in the first place. On the ride back from Harvard Yard to Currier House, I already started to imagine packing up my things in my dorm room after having only unpacked them to move in a few days beforehand.

I got to my room and I cried. I cried because I took a good chunk out of my savings to travel and move into campus this summer. I cried because it could be a while before I will have income again to replenish the funds I took out of my account. I cried because I knew it would be a waste of time and money if I dropped out now.

I cried because I felt ancient and sluggish and out of place in the classroom that was full of fresh, young minds, primed for picking up the material with ease and grace. I cried because it's already taking me so many years to get my college degree, and dropping out now would be a huge blow to my progress. I cried because thinking about quitting felt like a huge failure on my part, especially after only the first class meeting.

I cried because I was missing my husband and our dogs. I also didn't know if my indoor houseplants would survive without my meticulous plant care routines for the next seven weeks. I cried because I already felt defeated when we barely even got started. I cried because I realized I should have been studying some more instead of sobbing like a baby, in case I did decide to stay.

Stock Books & Coffee

Done is better than perfect

A few more uncontrollable sobs later, and after some sensible conversations with my husband, my close friend, as well as my instructor, I gave myself a little pep talk. I decided that it would be best to stay in school and push through the challenges and (perceived) hardships. "Just get it done, Niki, just get it done." Get through the seven weeks, pass the class, and earn the four credits. Like an earnest prayer, I mumbled to myself repeatedly: "Done is better than perfect, done is better than perfect, done is better than perfect."

I stayed for the summer and persevered. The heavy fog of self-doubt eventually dissipated, and I was able to focus my energy on learning instead of worrying. I acknowledged and accepted my own limitations, and just did the best that I could do to move forward. I divided my workload into manageable to-do lists, ticking away at each task and taking breaks as needed. I set a goal to get through each week unscathed.

Thank goodness, the topics covered in the course were extraordinarily fascinating and thought-provoking. It didn't take too much effort to actively engage in and contribute to class discussions. Many of the course participants were enthusiastic and vocal about their ideas and opinions. It was easy to get caught up in waves of lively and fruitful exchanges. Every meeting since the first became something I looked forward to every week.

Then, it was finally done, and it was perfect.

============

If you ever feel similar concerns and pressures, reach out to your instructor, academic advisor, friends, family, or a confidant. Share your thoughts with someone that you trust, who can help put things into perspective. If you have specific questions for me, my email is published in Harvard's public directory. You can also find me on social media. There are helpful resources available through the University, which I have linked below.

Helpful resources for students: