During college, I cheered myself hoarse at a few tennis matches and the odd basketball game. As a tour guide, I relished the hyperbolic legends that concluded with a Princeton triumph over “that other school, the one in Massachusetts.” When my boyfriend was hearing from law schools, I tracked down corresponding T-shirts to don in celebration of each acceptance letter. Stanford? Already had one. NYU? I look great in purple! Harvard? I borrowed a shirt, but I felt funny putting it on. And before I returned it, I did a little ritualistic exorcism dance — just to be safe.
In August of 2006, having graduated and spent several weeks unemployed, I moved to Boston to be a journalist.
I love Boston: I’ve come to genuinely care about the Red Sox, and to excel at pretending to genuinely care about the Patriots; I own a pair of waterproof, fur-lined boots that I can wear for six months straight; I say “wicked” instead of “very.” Yes, I noted almost immediately the kudzu-like omnipresence of Harvard University, but my reactionary pangs were fully manageable. Some 18 months later, indulging a quarter-life crisis, I accepted a job at the Harvard School of Public Health and with it, an e-mail address that ends with “harvard.edu” and the shame of knowing that my daily bread thenceforth was to come from said Other School.
On my first day, I arrived tigrine, with proverbial hackles raised and ears pricked. Then I sat down for a chat with my new boss, a world-famous scholar who was eager to orient me.
“Harvard is really the best research institute in the country,” he said, radiating academic delight.
“Well, not the best,” I replied, grinning. “Maybe No. 2 ... on a good day.” He looked at me blankly. Chagrined, I reassured myself that he’s only on the Nobel committee — it’s not like his opinion matters or anything.
On my second day, I went to visit the Princeton alumna who, as an established Harvard employee, had advised my job application. I imagined the way she would shut the door behind me, deactivate the spy equipment, and lean forward conspiratorially to say, “Now that we’re alone ... how lame is this place?” We would pass many hours doing locomotives, laughing heartily at jokes whose punch lines were, “And then I said: ‘the Princeton Trapezoid Club!’” and generally toasting Old Nassau. I would leave hoping I’d brushed all of the orange ticker tape from my hair.
Here’s what actually happened: She asked me how my new job was; we talked about the fusion of public health and writing; she suggested I call her with any questions. And so it went. People just weren’t interested in talking about Princeton — if I truculently told my HSPH colleagues “I bleed orange,” they’d suggest that I talk to someone in Infectious Diseases.
“What’s it like being part of the H-bomb?” friends would ask, probably hoping for classified information about Barack Obama’s LSAT score. “It’s fine,” I’d mumble, groping for something to say. “I ... have great health insurance.”
I’ve now made it through the better part of a year, and I’ve largely convinced myself that a crimson “H” is no scarlet letter, nor does it compromise the orange “P.” Harvard University is the third-largest employer in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts — eo ipso, living in Boston and working for Harvard is only a few notches down the inevitability spectrum from living in Vatican City and working for the pope.
Furthermore, those of us who were undergraduates at Princeton and have moved on to other institutions of higher learning have done so with a specific objective, be it to earn a living or to become the preeminent scholar in bananimalogy. Our doings with these schools are merely equitable business transactions of cerebral labor (and sometimes tuition) in exchange for an advanced degree or, in my case, a paycheck and some wicked good health insurance.
By contrast, while my time at Princeton may remain the most expensive and the most demanding thing I have ever done, I have no doubt that I got the better bargain, because while college is — yes — about education, it also is fundamentally about the process of learning and growing and being.
Rachel L. Axelbank ’06 is a research assistant and freelance writer.