How the Harvard dream became a nightmare for a first-generation college student
‘America’s oldest and most prestigious university makes changes to accommodate no one’
I have a complicated relationship with my alma mater. College is a time of self-discovery, but it is particularly hard to find who you are when you attend one of the most intensely competitive, hyper-critical, and hypocritical universities on the planet. Finding who you are in this type of setting is a trial by fire. When a young person emerges from Harvard stronger, tougher as well as more open-minded, grounded, and open-hearted — that is an extraordinary accomplishment.
On one hand, I will always be grateful for the scholarships, grants, and opportunities that Harvard gave me as a low-income first-generation college student whose immigrant parents can barely read or speak English. I will always be grateful that going to Harvard put me on a near-equal footing with classmates whose parents are CEOs, heads-of-state, and world-renowned thought-leaders. I will always be grateful that having the Harvard brand on my resume has opened and will continue to open doors. Most important, I will always be grateful for the friends I met at Harvard who helped me on my journey to becoming the person I am today.
On the other hand, over the past 16 years since my graduation, the thought of going to any Harvard alumni function and attending a reunion consistently triggers in me a sense of discomfort and class anxiety. I have realized part of the reason has to do with the fact that I have not given voice to how miserable and unhappy I was during my four years at Harvard. So now, I feel it is finally time to tell my story of disillusionment.
As a refugee from Vietnam who grew up in inner city Philadelphia and attended a public high school, I felt extremely lucky and blessed when I got my acceptance letter from Harvard. It was an unlikely dream come true. My zip code in Philadelphia had (and continues to have) one of the higher rates of crime, violence, poverty, and trauma scores in the city. In my hood, nearly half the kids drop out of high school, so it is seen as a triumph for a kid to go to community college. Getting into Harvard was like boarding a rocket ship out of the ghetto. My hope was to eventually use my education to support my family and help more poor kids like me break through barriers.
Harvard was my first immersion in an elite upper middle class environment. It was like shell shock. Unlike scholarship kids who attended private schools, I had never spent time with people who were so wealthy before. In contrast, where I came from, violence was normal. My parents ran a take-out restaurant in an area overrun by gangs. There were regular fights and robberies in our store. One time, a customer was shot in the head going out the door. During my freshman year at Harvard, I realized that what I had gone through was really not normal at all. Most of the kids in my class had enjoyed a very sheltered life. As I listened to my classmates whine about their troubles, I wondered how could they possibly understand what I had gone through?
My freshman year, I struggled to find a community where I felt I could openly share my concerns and find friends who resonated with my values and experiences. During high school, I had relied heavily on support from Asian-American friends whose parents were also humble uneducated immigrants who provided for their families by doing back-breaking menial jobs. At Harvard, I tried to connect with Asian-American student groups but soon learned that besides the color of our skin, we did not share much in common. Many of these students had parents with PhDs and masters degrees who had groomed them to play brilliantly in the orchestra and follow in their foot-steps. Further, many of the Asian-American students I encountered were neurotically obsessed with their grades and led a materialistic lifestyle that was out of my reach. It felt like many of them would look down on me for being poor and having no connections.
It didn’t take long for me to feel completely alienated by the ivory tower academic culture and the self-absorbed drive of my peers and my professors. The administrators preached about lofty goals and celebrated alumni who had changed the world. Yet, I learned the hard way that America’s oldest and most prestigious university makes changes to accommodate no one. Harvard was then (and probably continues to be) a sink or swim environment. Looking back, not a single staff person from Harvard’s admission team who knew about my background and financial situation ever reached out to check on me. If there was anyone on staff who gave a damn if I did sink, I didn’t know who that person was.
To me, Harvard was a place where people put on a politically correct face. It wasn’t normal to be real or to be vulnerable. Even if you didn’t feel like an overachiever, you still had to fake it because everyone expected you to be one. I learned that if you didn’t fit in, it was up to you to change to adapt to Harvard. Otherwise, the options available to you were to take a year off to think things through, to self-medicate your way through to graduation, or to have a shrink prescribe anti-depressants to numb your disgruntlement. I was shocked to see just how many students there had access to drugs and how many students were taking anti-depressants.
I had no idea that the combination of toxic stress and not having a social support network at Harvard was about to cause all the traumas I had experienced growing up but never fully processed to blow up into post-traumatic stress disorder. I had no idea I was about to experience symptoms that included suicidal depression, dissociation, panic attacks that kept me from sleeping and relaxing, and general cognitive impairment. From freshman to sophomore year, I went from being a Harvard College scholar to not being able to focus in class, do my problem sets, or write papers. By the spring of my sophomore year, as the PTSD took over my life, my goal became to simply survive Harvard with my soul intact. I withdrew even more because whenever I was in that state of mind, I didn’t want to be around people and I didn’t want anyone to know I was falling apart.
In the end, I found solace in the art department, which at Harvard, goes by the pretentious title of Visual and Environmental Studies. What I relished most was that it gave me official permission to be as weird and un-Harvard as possible. It was like having carte blanche to express being different. Like Andy Warhol, I used artsy quirkiness as an armor to protect myself and pose subversive challenges. As I continued to observe and question the social norms I saw around me, art gave me an outlet to make social commentary.
I experimented with different personas: I shaved my head, dyed my hair many colors, and dressed eccentrically. Then I got involved in theater and eventually directed productions by the Asian American Players. When we put on M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang, I dressed up as a butterfly and carried a boombox blasting Pucini’s opera around Harvard to promote the show. I realized I had developed a reputation for standing out when I came to class in costume and my classmates didn’t flinch. They only asked me how they could see the show.
While at Harvard, I did seek psychiatric care to deal with the PTSD. It was life-changing when the psychiatrist explained to me that my brain development was impacted by the traumatic experiences I went through as an infant when my family escaped Vietnam by boat and spent almost two years in a refugee camp. As heartbreaking as it was to hear that my brain was malfunctioning because of events I had endured as a child which were completely outside my control, it was also empowering to finally have an explanation for what was happening to me. He then recommended I try zoloft to see if it could rebalance my neurochemistry. He also suggested I start therapy.
The medication stabilized my brain, but left me feeling numb. The therapy made me feel more despondent and helpless. I gave it time, but in the end, I never figured out how talking with a therapist was supposed to be helpful. The most frustrating thing is that the people who treated me didn’t focus on helping me learn effective methods to handle the circumstances causing my high stress: that my family still lived with extreme financial hardship, that I didn’t want to be a burden on them, that I felt responsible for helping them and guilty for not being there to help them, and that going to Harvard did not directly translate into putting me in a better position to financially support them.
What I needed was mentorship and coaching to build the life skills I didn’t learn at home, to address my trigger-defense mechanisms that were locking me in negative spirals, and to become financially secure. Since there was no way that Harvard was going to hand these things to me, I realized I needed to figure out how to do these things on my own. Plus, no one seemed to understand that I was not going to take anti-depressants the rest of my life. In fact, I was going to stop as soon as my student health insurance expired when I left Harvard. It was up to me to develop a plan to get off medication without relapsing.
For the most part, I managed to heal and push myself to grow over a long journey that continued after graduation. I taught myself neuroscience and developed mind-hacking techniques to heal my brain. I combed through books on emotional intelligence, behavioral economics and positive psychology to unravel my conditioning and build a healthier relationship with myself and connect more authentically with other people. I became financially savvy and secure by working in management consulting, getting an MBA from Wharton, and then managing private equity investments.
Now I am a social entrepreneur pursuing the aspiration that led me to Harvard in the first place: to pay it forward and help more people realize their potential. My solution is to create an evidence-based trauma informed essential life skills training that integrates important lessons and skills I’ve learned over the course of my life with scientific findings. I have named this the Calm Clarity Program because it helps people calm their minds and think and see clearly. I am now in the process of building a social enterprise that delivers the Calm Clarity Program on both sides of the educational divide.
I have waited to engage with Harvard as an institution because I still have no idea who on staff there would actually give a damn about my story and the fact that I spent most of my four years there in pain and anguish. I wonder whether my sharing my story with decision-makers there would make any difference. These are some of the questions I have asked over the years:
Could starting such a dialogue motivate Harvard to provide more support to students who come from low-income backgrounds?
Is it possible to create a safe space to talk about socioeconomic class differences within the student body?
Would the college administrators understand the importance of providing a trauma-informed life skills training?
Would they be willing to offer such training to the student community?
I honestly don’t know the answer to any of these questions. Yet, I hope that when the time comes to engage with Harvard, I will find much more open-minded and caring people to have a dialogue with.
This article was originally published under the title “Poor and Traumatized at Harvard” on Medium.
Addendum: My motivation for writing this essay was to finally face my own fears of being looked down at and rejected for growing up poor and traumatized. I knew it was holding me back. So I decided to share my story with my classmates so they would understand why I have been avoiding alumni functions. I’ve been amazed by the outpouring of support and sharing that followed. It’s been so uplifting to realize that no one is looking down at me — actually, it’s quite the opposite!
In response to people who have reached out to ask for suggestions for books and resources, please refer to the list here.
To read about some of the lessons I learned from my experiences as a first-generation college student at Harvard please read my next post: Social mobility ≠ mindless assimilation.
About the author: Due Quach (pronounced “Zway Kwok”) is the founder of Calm Clarity, a social enterprise that uses science to help people across the socioeconomic spectrum master their minds and be their best self. Calm Clarity creates social impact by using revenues from corporate training services to deliver the same high quality training to disadvantaged groups such as low-income first-generation college students and inner city teenagers. A refugee from Vietnam and graduate of Harvard College and the Wharton MBA Program, Due overcame the long-term effects of poverty and trauma by turning to neuroscience and meditation. After building a successful career in management consulting and private equity investments, she created Calm Clarity to help more people overcome adversity and unlock their potential.
Due has brought the benefits of Calm Clarity to many organizations, including Ernst & Young, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Vanguard, M&T Bank, Devereux, the University of Pennsylvania, and New York University. Her inspiring story has been featured in the New York Observer, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Streetwise, and the Seattle Times. Her forthcoming book, “Finding Calm Clarity,” will be published by Tarcher Perigee Penguin Random House.