The Harvard Syndrome

Published: May 27, 2012
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Students have more activities listed in the last two years of school than the rest of their lives put together; all to get that prized acceptance letter from the college of their dreams. PHOTO: REUTERS

Every morning when he wakes up, the first thing he sees when he opens his eyes are the big block letters on the chart opposite his bed: HARVARD.

It taunts him, tempts him and ultimately motivates him; it’s what gets him out of bed every morning.

This is the manic spirit that possesses much of the student populace in the ‘most prestigious’ schools of Pakistan. Come the first year of A’ Levels and every student switches to college mode. Thus begins the madness.

On an academic level, students fill their schedules with even more tuitions, in pursuit of those elusive (or not) A-plus grades that will impress the Ivy League College admission officers. On an extra-curricular level, they pull out all the stops.

Rowing, MUN-ing, volunteering, writing, cooking, elocution, acting; all have the same reaction,

If it’ll look good on my college application, I am in!

The drive with which such activities are pursued is unparalleled. The focus and determination could kill- the competition almost does.

Students will have more activities listed in the last two years of school than the rest of their lives put together; all to get that prized acceptance letter from the college of their dreams. So much so that it becomes a disease.

Every disease has its roots, and the roots of this one can be found embedded deep during ones childhood, much before the student even knows what the letters SAT stand for.

It begins with the older siblings, the friends of the siblings, and the siblings of friends. It begins with that 10-year old boy listening in awe at the dining table, his half eaten rice lying forgotten in his plate, as his parents discuss how their friend’s brilliant child has received admission into Stanford University.

One of the best in America, beta (son)

And unknowingly, that is when the longing begins. That is the moment when the child enters the tunnel with only one light at the end; getting into an Ivy League; a goal by which the success of his or her life will be judged.

Admirable as these sentiments are, unparalleled though their drive is, respectable though admission to Harvard always will be, a crucial question must be asked:

Then what? Once school life draws to a close, once admission has been received or not received, what then?

A student who spends his/her life planning for one single moment will inevitably meet suffocating disappointment; either because of the failure to meet that goal or because of losing the drive after achieving it.

It follows logically that the prevention of this lies in drawing motivation from a source that does not run dry. Herein, lies the cure to the Harvard syndrome.

Learning to access this gold mine of motivation may prove to be a seemingly insurmountable barrier, but the effort of cracking it is well worth the reward beyond.

A brief reflection on the activities you have pursued in the past can elucidate that one thing that defines you. It would be that competition in which second place was a defeat; it would be that exam in which 99% was a failure; it would be that activity in which you were emotionally invested in the end.

Yet, passion for something and ability for something, sadly, do not always coexist. If acting is the passion, but you always get cut at the last short-list, it is worth hanging on to. This is because one day, you will hang on long enough to make the final cut.

Therefore, what a student body in any school should consist of is an actor who makes you scream and cry with him, a singer who takes you through the pain of unrequited love, a debater who shakes your fundamental convictions and a cook who could impress even Gordon Ramsay.

No deep pondering is required to find that someone or the other is present, within your school, within your grade or even within your class, who was born for one of these roles. This proves beyond the shadow of doubt that golden talent exists, yearning to break free, and yet we are crippled by the Harvard syndrome; the blinkered view that the end of the road must be Harvard.

It all boils down to a question of bravery and skill.

Do you have the courage to take the path less travelled?

But more importantly, do you have the skill to juggle stellar grades, healthy relationships and good health aside from that one thing that you are destined to succeed in?

Do you have the skill and bravery, in essence, to maintain the perfect balancing act to defeat the Harvard syndrome?

Follow Areeb on Twitter  @areebmahamadi

Areeb Mahamadi

Areeb Mahamadi

An A' Level student at the Karachi Grammar School. His interests include acting, elocution, writing, public speaking and most recently, participation in the Model United Nations. He tweets @areebmahamadi

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