Embracing Rejection At Harvard (also unexpected surprises)

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A rejection 😦 (There is a twist at the end, so read on.)

Dear Writing,

It’s an open secret that I love you but have never felt very sure about you. You’re a complicated lover — sometimes, you come so close I can breathe your scintillating effervescence and feel you intimately against the insides of my skin; other times, I’m reminded by your improbable capriciousness. You don’t belong to me, you dance nimble steps a distance away, you ask, all wide-eyed innocence, Who said this would be easy? 

I know. I really do.

*

I applied for a fiction writing workshop under Harvard’s Creative Writing program, housed in the college’s English Department. A brief Googling yields some interesting yet intimidating history about the program on The Crimson (Harvard’s daily newspaper): Writing Classes Turn Students Away is pretty self-evident from its five-word title; Ink and Paper: Creative Writing at Harvard calls the selection process “notoriously competitive”; Many Dissatisfied with Creative Writing compares Harvard’s (intimate 12-people workshops) to the larger number of creative writing offerings at other schools like Yale and Princeton.

To determine admissions, all of Harvard’s creative writing courses require a separate application that includes a three to five-page writing sample in the relevant genre due on the first day of classes each semester. Each student also ranks their course preferences when applying.

Frankly speaking, I don’t have a lot of experience with fiction writing. It’s something that I always wanted to do, but I ended up talking more about it than ever seriously attempting it. I have not written a novel; I have never been to a writing workshop; I have not even published any short stories online or elsewhere.

Yet, when I opened my inbox to read that email on a drizzling gray afternoon on September 5, my heart still died a little. (It resurrected sometime later.)

Here were the first things that enveloped me. Self-doubt (Maybe I’m not a good writer? Should I stop trying for this kind of thing? Goodbye The Advocate and anything remotely creative writing related.), thoughts of if-only and what-if (I should not have started working on my writing sample eight hours before it is due; why did I ever think this was a good idea?), and a sense of resigned helplessness clambered into my mind in a clamorous scuffle. Even though I had an inkling of the competition that it is inevitable when you gather the best and brightest together for a limited number of opportunities, and I knew I was competing against not only my peers but also upperclassmen and graduate students for those 12 slots, rejection is never (and should never be) easy to swallow.

In a mildly depressed haze, I went to the gym at the M.A.C. for the first time since college started. The steady thuds of my soles against the treadmill pulled me out of the despondent swirl of thoughts. And I recognized the pulsing, irrevocable pull I felt towards challenging and transformative experiences, the inextinguishable yearning I had for doing hard things that can change me, and the heart that drummed loudly to authentically live and achieve my best — if I can never get rid of my ambition, I must necessarily come to terms with this ugly but formative thing called rejection.

The moment I officially acknowledged that in my mind, all the clutter cleared. What mattered then was how fast I could condition my mind to move past rejection and whether I could figure out how to try again, again and again — however many times it would take — in a progressing, more sophisticated fashion.

*

Life works in mercurial, unbelievable ways.

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Turns out I’m the first name on the waiting list! Someone didn’t enroll (thank you!!!) and I got in! 🙂

The next day, on September 6, when I was on my way to shop another class, I refreshed my inbox and saw an impossible email from the Harvard Creative Writing Program.

I got in, off the waiting list! Firstly, I didn’t know there was a waiting list. Secondly, isn’t it incredible that I am the first name on the waiting list? Thirdly, it must be by some strange miracle of the universe that someone just so happens to be unable to enroll and I get to discover all this behind-the-scenes stuff. This is what I think: God wants to test my resilience. The power to embrace rejection is harder to master than hard-earned acceptance. So every rejection I taste at an early phase is a precious chance for self-growth.

So, yes! I am now one of 12 students taking the Fiction Writing workshop under Professor Claire Messud this semester.

And yes, there is a happy ending to this story.

But, the happy ending is not the key thing here. What is crucial is understanding that we must each discover how we individually can embrace rejection, conquer it in as short a time as possible, and keep moving with high hopes and concrete action — all these set against the backdrop of Life in which rejection is constant and inescapable.

Even as a freshman, I find myself constantly faced with the prospect of not getting a coveted class. For instance, out of the four classes I’m taking this fall, three had an application process. I might have ended up with a completely different slate of classes in another time and place if all three didn’t happen to work out. Introducing my Freshman Fall classes:

  1. A Humanities Colloquium: From Homer to Garcia Marquez
  2. Freshman Seminar: The Creative Work of Translating
  3. Fiction Writing: Workshop
  4. The Fundamentals of Archaeological Methods & Reasoning (For people who are like ‘HUH? You want to be an archaeologist?’, no I don’t, but in an alternate universe, I would be a 20th century tomb-raider. This anthropology class satisfies the Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning General Education requirement, yay! Farewell calculus!)

I am immensely grateful for the rocky way I converged with my fiction writing workshop and this early rejection on the cusp of my transition to four years at Harvard. I will never be able to stop myself from aiming for things I love — no matter how high the probability of rejection. In a place like Harvard, or even in life, the most empowering thing might just be to proudly wear whatever rejections come my way like emblems of a battle-hardened veteran driven by unyielding dreams.

Lots of Love,

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Harvard, It’s ? at First Sight

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Obligatory photo at the John Harvard statue

Amazingly, it has been 18 days since I came to the U.S., 15 days since I joined the incredible Freshman International Program (one of the five pre-orientation programs that Harvard offers), 11 days since I moved into my freshman dorm Canaday, four days since I officially became a Harvard alum during Convocation, and three days since classes started unofficially with Shopping Week — we have one week to literally “shop” for any class that we are interested in and we are free to leave in the middle of a class for another, no commitment required; this is perfect for undecided, lost people like me to figure out how to settle on a measly four courses out of a catalogue of thousands. It’s stressful to figure out what I want to actually study — so much autonomy over the cultivation of my own mind! — but I already think this is one of the best features of Harvard’s academics. I still have two more days of ‘shopping’ to go. At this point, I have sort of figured out three out of the four courses that I will be enrolling in this semester (Freshman Fall) which I will talk about in another post.

So, how exactly is seeing Harvard for the first time as a student?

As you can see from the interrogative ? in the title of this post, it’s hard to pin down the feeling and put it into words. There are moments when I get jaded and complain (I know, it has only been two weeks…) about the most minute of things (e.g. Annenberg food, Harvard’s social scene or lack thereof, the elusive iced tea in convenience stores), but more often there are moments when it just strikes me how incredibly blessed I am to simply be here. It’s surreal to walk on the historic campus on the way to class or socials, alongside throngs of tourists — as a freshman, there’s a taut duality to this experience because we can still acutely recall how we yearned as hard as these tourists to join this university not too long ago. Harvard, to me, is both far away AND right here, right now.

These past three days, as I went around to classes with the most off-the-charts course names, quirkiest descriptions and towering reputations, it sinks in that this is what I am here for — the intellectual challenge, diversity in thought, and most importantly the freedom to go in any direction my heart so desires and be equipped with the best resources to uncover the truths I seek.

In a few words, what I think about each class I have shopped so far:

Day 1

ETHRSON 18: Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory

One of the largest classes at Harvard. Reminded me of everything I grew up reading as a child. I’m giving it a pass, but it’s very worth taking for those who have never been exposed to the Eastern tradition in philosophy.

PHIL 6: Ancient Ethics and Modern Morality

As always, arete (ἀρετή — virtue) and eudaemonia (εὐδαιμονία — flourishing/happiness)!

ECON 10A: Principles of Economics

Taught by Mankiw, who is arguably both famous (he writes the textbook) and infamous (the class is mostly taught by teaching fellows?), this class is HUGE. Honestly, half of the cohort will be taking it anyway regardless of whether it is good. I went for the experience but was once again proven right that not taking Economics in Junior College was a right choice. It just isn’t my thing. 😦

EMREAS 17: Logical Reasoning

On an island, there are only two types of people, Knights and Knaves. Knights can only tell the truth; Knaves can only tell the opposite of truth. You meet A and B. A says: “We are both knaves.” What is A, and what is B? (The answer is at the bottom of the post.)

Negotiation and Conflict Management: From the Interpersonal to the International

I stumbled into this by accident, but the room was filled to the brim — apparently, a very popular class. The professor, Daniel Shapiro, was electrifying. Definitely planning on taking this some time in my four years here. Best class I took on Day 1 of Shopping.

Day 2

A Humanities Colloquium: From Homer to Garcia Marquez

The class I wanted to take the most — amazingly I got in! Taught by six professors across departments (Anthropology to Divinity to English to History to Philosophy), it’s an immersive experience of humanistic traditions and ideals. The information-cum-application session was already mind-blowing — two words: superstar faculty.

Freshman Seminar: To Far Places: Literature of Journey and Quest (you can only take this as a freshman, as the name suggests; each seminar is capped at 12-15)

This seminar was my first choice, but sadly, I have now changed to another due to scheduling conflicts. It was pretty interesting since I love travel writing (read: Macau & Bali). Guess what, we read The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost in the first class. I definitely had things to say.

Day 3

Elementary Korean

It was a very small and engaged class. Might not take since I had already covered most of the syllabus in Singapore at HANOK. I’m very seriously considering a study abroad in Korea instead of using one of my course spots for this. T_T

COMPLIT 102: Comparing, Connecting, Compos(t)ing: Comparative Literature from Jules Verne to Slumdog Millionaire

I loved this!!! The professor was fantastic — she speaks more than six languages, I lost track — and the selection of texts is extremely compelling. Quoting the course description, “we will explore…the relation of literature to topics as diverse as the rise of new media, technological transformation and its relation to the humanities, the human-animal divide, medicine, sexuality, translation, space, gender, race, ecology, violence, and (post-)colonialism“. MY THING.

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My entryway, Canaday E, before Convocation

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With our PAFs (Peer Advising Fellows)! And our proctor, Vanessa, who happens to be the co-host of the podcast, Harry Potter & and the Sacred Text!

Roomies!!!

Lots of love,

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(A is a knave; B is a knight)