Being a student at Harvard as a spouse and getting education and life skills that go beyond academic degrees
No matter how hard I try, I still cannot think of temperature in terms of Fahrenheit. Celsius it shall always be. That’s the Londoner in me, I suppose. It is -22 outside. Worse than anything I ever encountered in any of the countries I have lived in. Welcome to New England weather!
Over the last four years, I have survived many climates and cities - London, Singapore, Lahore and now Boston. I have learnt to live only in one - Cambridge, MA. There has probably enough been said about Harvard without me adding my bit, but trust me there is a reason for this.
Perhaps this academic town appeals to the inner child in me who has always felt the happiest among teachers, books and institutions. There is a sense of purpose all around. Barring all those who have the mental prowess to make it to this place, Harvard is ready to offer its bounties to everyone who deserves it. I look for the social class distinction that often prevents members of a less affluent class benefitting from the rewards that only the more privileged feel entitled to. There is none.
It can be said with certainty that Trump spells bad news for all communities in the US. That would be most unfortunate since, at least here, I see no threat of discrimination lurking within the boundaries of the most prestigious university of the world.
Harvard empowers all - not just the white, rich and famous. It celebrates a passion for learning above all else, which is not dependent upon social class or wealth. Its merit and need-based scholarships to people from all over the world bear testimony to this. As I sit as an auditor in one of the writing classes in the Kennedy School of Government, I wonder if the LUMS or IBA could also allow a student’s spouse to sit in one of the courses just to allow her to satisfy her love for knowledge.
Life is simple here. Far simpler than the one I have experienced in other countries. Since the US is heavily focused on the DIY (do it yourself) policy, people contain their expectations from each other. Hard work is rewarded whether on campus or outside. This is the air one breathes in - not saturated with vapours of judgement, wealth assessment and if or not you are good enough to greet. Networking matters, of course, but it is NOT the only thing that matters.
It is what you know and aspire to know that matters rather than what you have or what you aspire to have.
Could I live here? Me - an outsider, desi (Pakistani) to the core, with traditions and beliefs very different to the ones I see around me? Probably not. It is not home and never will be. Yet the town has given me an appreciation of how simple just about anything can be. It is up to us to make our lives as simple or as complicated as we want.
Here, among a pool of diverse people with different beliefs yet shared core values and an overall respect for individuals, there was a strong sense of unity. "I don’t have to conform" is liberating in its own way. It sets you free as you make your own rules depending on your intelligence and experience.
I had the reputation of being an over-protective mother who, people complained, had trouble letting go of her offspring. Cambridge seems to have changed that. I cannot believe I am the same person who would always arrive ten minutes prior to class dismissal lest the child became anxious. Revelation after revelation. I make my son walk home every day from school. It helps, of course, that it is not too far.
My 11-year-old traumatised by tales of school killings while in Lahore is embracing the idea that things are not bad everyday everywhere. We would not be walking here if they weren’t.
We walk from Harvard Book Store to Cambridge Library to Natural History Museum. During that time, we talk about issues that are important to me as a parent - more important than fossils and species of dinosaurs. But, it is good to know about fossils and dinosaurs too.
While in the bookshop, prancing through bookshelves, I help my kids choose books. At first, they resist. They look disinterested but they cannot escape the fact that books are everywhere. I try to set an example, as I spend hours in the bookstore myself, browsing through the latest bestsellers. It’s a very peaceful experience. Finally, they relent. I see a booklist in my older ones hand. He starts looking up and demands books himself. One battle won!
I will miss you, Cambridge, for allowing me to think for myself once again and for helping my children become the people they are today. For making me appreciate my own company rather than one which I do not enjoy. For the friends I have made here - those who transcend social class, colour and origin. For being able to live without apology for my belief and fears.
As I always say, this is another world. A world I did not know before. I am glad I got an opportunity to spend a year in this world. Housework has corroded my hands, my bones feel tired and there is still all that laundry to be done. School hours are over too soon and kids hungry even sooner. Yet, I have a sense of fulfillment I have not had in years. I have a voice and the voice is heard because it matters. People matter; opinions matter. Difference in opinion does not mean you do not like each other - just that you think differently. Friendships can exist despite the difference.
I am not going back with a degree. My husband can enjoy that privilege. But I feel like I have earned one too without the examination and thesis. I have been a student at Harvard in every possible way except in a strict academic sense.
Sometimes, these skills are more useful than paper degrees.