Advice From A Graduating Senior

Category Student Voices

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Portrait of Alli Scharmann, student
Allison Scharmann Class of '21
Authored on April 30, 2021

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For three years, as a coordinator for the Harvard First Generation Program, I have shared bits and pieces of my college experience on this blog.

I’ve written about everything from my daily routine and my concentration to my campus jobs, extracurricular activities, and social life. I’ve written about living in Boston and changing my academic plans and then changing those plans again. If college is a winding road from start to finish, these blog posts are like flags planted at regular intervals, each offering a glimpse into what I was doing, feeling, or thinking at any given time. It feels fitting, then, to end my time at Harvard and with HFGP by sharing some words of advice to those waiting to finish college or who have yet to even start. 

The most important lesson that I learned in college, above all else, is that you have to give yourself space and time to grow. When I arrived at Harvard, I thought I had it all figured out, like the various parts of my college experience were just the means to the larger end of stability, success, and (ideally) happiness. There’s nothing wrong with caring about those things, but it is important not to box yourself in. Keep your goals in mind, but allow them to grow with you as you push beyond your comfort zone and challenge yourself to explore new interests and consider new ideas. Even if, at the end of the road, you end up studying or doing or being the things that you always thought you would, you’ll do so with the understanding that no single job or trajectory can encompass the whole of what you can do or what you can become. 

Allison standing on the steps of a large library holding a black thesis binder opened to the title page of her thesis.

I got to take photos with my thesis (or at least the first 25 pages of it) on the steps of Widener Library!

Be willing to change your mind. I almost said “be open-minded,” but I do think that there’s a difference between being open to unfamiliar ideas and ways of living and actively challenging and reflecting on the way that you live and the things that you believe to be true. It feels great to win an argument or to feel successful and proud, but you’ll always learn more from your slip-ups and your outright mistakes than you’ll learn from the things you got right the first time. Over time, I learned to take and make space, to be a better listener, and to admit when I’m wrong about something or when I’m starting to feel like I’m in over my head. It can be hard in the moment, but it’s valuable in the long run, and I’m so grateful to all of the people and experiences that have challenged me to do better and to be better from my early semesters of college to now.  

And on that note: always ask for help when you need it. When I got to Harvard, I didn’t know how to ask for help. As a first-generation college student, I was used to handling school, work, and even life without a lot of external guidance or resources. I was also stubborn. As I embarked on my first year of college, I felt like asking for help was equivalent to admitting defeat, but that wasn’t true. Once I started to let that feeling go, it became easier both to navigate the resources in front of me and to allow myself to lean on friends and advisors for support when I really needed it. Because I allowed myself to ask for that help — be it academic assistance, extensions, mental health resources, or anything else — I feel better prepared for my adult life now than I did four years ago, when I would’ve sworn to you that I had everything under control.  

As graduation approaches, I am becoming comfortable with the fact that my plans for the future look nothing like I thought they would four years ago. I think often about a quote by Toni Morrison: “I tell my students, when you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.” I don’t know what I’ll be doing in one year, or five years or ten, but I hope to be using the resources at my disposal to live happily in solidarity and community with others. And I hope that, if you want it, that’ll be true for you, too. 

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Allison Scharmann Class of '21

Hello! My name is Allison Scharmann and I’m a senior from Western Massachusetts living in Winthrop House. I’m concentrating in Social Studies with a secondary in English and I spend most of my free time on campus working for our newspaper, The Harvard Crimson.

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Portrait of Alli Scharmann, student