From High School to Harvard: A “Fresh” Reflection of First Semester
By Shaira Bhanji
Before I started classes at Harvard, I thought I had my life figured out. I had just graduated from Flintridge Preparatory School, a small, close-knit private school in sunny Southern California. I could have stayed in California for college, but decided that I wanted to take four years to be exposed to a completely different environment. I quickly learned just how different the east coast is when I realized that wearing flip-flops everyday is not an option. Moreover, I would no longer know (or at least recognize) everyone on campus. I was set on being pre-med, had found a concentration/secondary combo that interested me—Environmental Science and Public Policy and Global Health and Health Policy—and yes, I had even laid out my courses for nearly every semester of my four years at Harvard.
However, I was in for a rude awakening. It became apparent in the first weeks of school that my plans would be challenged, tested, and ultimately transformed. During my first days of class in Life Sciences 1a (LS1a), the sheer number of students—many of them pre-med, just like me—overwhelmed me. Some of them knew exactly what they wanted to do in life, while others were still trying to find themselves. At first, I would have identified myself as one of “those” freshmen who knows what she wants in life. Yet, by the end of the first semester, I am no longer so sure. My first semester at Harvard has helped me make a few important realizations.
First of all, science classes are a lot harder than I thought they would be. In high school, AP Biology, Honors Chemistry (my school didn’t offer AP), and AP Physics were not exactly easy, but I could excel by doing the reading and making a study guide. At Harvard I have found that I need to constantly immerse myself in the material; doing the reading just is not enough. This is not to say that I do not love a good challenge or that the classes are not appealing. In fact, I find quite the opposite to be true: the most challenging classes turned out to be the most interesting.
LS1a first awed me when Professor Robert Lue showed us his New York Times-famed biology animation designed in collaboration with Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Janet Iwasa. The class went on to cover lots of material that I have found very relevant to today’s world, including breakthroughs in HIV/AIDS drugs such as Fuzeon—which treats HIV by binding to CD4+ T cells, preventing HIV from doing so and entering the cell—as well as the workings mechanism of chronic myelogenous leukemia CML, a bone marrow cancer that is the cause of 20% of adult leukemia cases. These real-world scientific applications of the basic chemical principles in our coursework were two of the most interesting parts of the class. Beyond lecture, I also really enjoyed section. Oddly enough, there is something refreshing about waking up for an 8:30 AM section on Thursdays. In fact, my lab group and I bonded so much that we needed a special name for ourselves—“the dream team.”
Aside from LS1a, I took Math 19a: Modeling and Differential Equations for the Life Sciences. In my high school there were no courses like it. Math was math and science was science; the two rarely intertwined. It led to my second basic realization: math in college is very different from math in high school. Math 19a was unique in that it used mathematical models to describe biology. This ‘math’ course even had reading assignments—we were given scientific articles as part of the assigned homework. During the first weeks I considered dropping the class because reading the articles was like trying to understand a different language. But, with continuous exposure, I learned to look for certain patterns in the reading that helped me decipher the scientific code.
Looking back, the most valuable tool I have taken away from Math 19a is an introduction to the modeling of various scenarios such as epidemics and predator-prey relationships. As a bonus, it was always fun to see the look on my friends’ faces when I told them I had to go do my math reading or that I had to work on my math paper. Yes, a math paper! Instead of a final exam, the class required a final paper that analyzed a scientific article of our choosing with a mathematical model. At first, I was horrified by the idea. As it was I had trouble understanding our assigned articles, and now I had to analyze one? But after numerous problem sets, a paper was in some ways a blessing. I got the chance to pick an article that interested me and was able to work at my own pace. By choosing an article about how climate change affects malaria transmission, I was able to combine environmental science with global health—and for my math class, nonetheless.
All in all, first semester called for some serious soul searching. While I am still pre-med and still plan on going to medical school, my eyes have been opened to the numerous other health-related careers that I could pursue if I happen to change my mind. Perhaps the most important observation I have made during my first semester is that time in college flies by—more so than in high school. The days are long—filled with class, office hours, problem set sessions, discussion sections and other meetings—but I never know where the weeks go. Sometimes, in the midst of problem sets, essays, reading and exams, it was easy to become immersed in my day-to-day routine. But, when it got cold (I am from Los Angeles), it suddenly hit me that I was thousands of miles away from home. At that moment, I lost sight of the big picture as homesickness kicked in and college became nothing more than mundane, stressful, and never-ending—rather than a part of what is famed to be the best four years of life.
I scare myself when I think that perhaps I was the only freshman who felt the way I did. However, I have been told that my rough experience was all part of the adjustment of first semester. In any case, I have learned many lessons both in and out of the classroom from all the wonderful people I have met so far. I am looking forward to the remaining seven semesters. Now four years seems like hardly enough time to explore such a dynamic place.
About the Author
Harvard College 2014
Shaira Bhanji is a sophomore at Harvard (and a proud resident of Kirkland House!) concentrating in Economics with a secondary in Global Health/Health Policy. Her science experience includes research internships at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as well as at City of Hope National Medical Center. She is also a Global Health and Finance columnist for the Harvard Global Health Review. Her other interests include playing soccer, taking walks along the Charles, and making frequent visits to Pinocchio's Pizza and Boston Tea Stop (and sometimes the gym).