I did not have lofty dreams of coming to Harvard throughout my childhood. My prime exposure to the institution was the film ‘Legally Blonde’, which thankfully has not shaped the course of my life.
I applied to Harvard for practical reasons. The courses and professors are brilliant, it is widely respected, and there is funding available. I am sure many other British students have been in my predicament – with a masters offer that will help in the long-run, but financially cripple you in the short-term. In the US, 42 per cent of people repaying their student debt are between the ages of 30 and 50. I was incredibly lucky to receive a scholarship from the Kennedy Memorial Trust.
The Trust was established by act of parliament after President Kennedy’s assassination and Kennedy Scholarships are the living British memorial to him. This year eleven were awarded to British students studying at Harvard or MIT, covering tuition fees, healthcare, living costs, summer travel allowance, and a return flight to the UK.
From the outset, the application seems daunting. One quote from popular online forum ‘The Student Room’ explicitly discouraged candidates from applying with the comment ‘look at the profiles of who gets these things’. Honestly, I didn’t think I stood a chance of being selected – I did not attend Oxbridge, after all! – but I decided to mimic the American ‘can-do’ attitude and apply regardless.
The application process was not as daunting as I had thought. A panel interview with ten people sounds horrendous. But the interview was actually surprisingly relaxed – everyone I have spoken to had the panel in fits of laughter at some point. It is a process that challenges you to evaluate what you want, and be prepared to defend it.
Coming to Harvard has a similar effect. The sheer volume of talks and opportunities emailed to you literally every day – not to mention work – constantly pushes you to assess your interests. One of the first Master’s introductions is a career talk, already planning for your departure from the university. Harvard offers its students professional development at a level I never imagined possible. Within two months, I have already been placed on a journal’s editorial board, filled up my January ‘holiday’ with a trip to assess the Syrian refugee crisis, applied for two conferences, and attended over a dozen talks. It is like spinning through a crimson haze.
There are huge differences from UK university education, many stemming from a focus on professional skill development. Courses tend to be less theoretical and push the real-world impact of ideas. If you feel quite comfortable with being a high-achiever at your UK university, the level of competition for everything at Harvard may not be enjoyable. At one point I ran out of earshot of an interview before mine, as the candidate was so intimidatingly qualified. Americans also tend to talk about their feelings a lot in seminars, which doesn’t sit well with the British disposition. Students are also ludicrously confident; the Kennedy scholars were recently invited to a ‘Future Leaders’ evening, which felt dauntingly presumptuous.
Currently, I only have a vague idea of where the next two academic years will take me. It is a world away from the certainty I had during my undergraduate degree. But, at least for now, I am enjoying the whirlwind.
Applications for Kennedy Scholarships awards for 2014-15 will close on 23 October 2013