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Columns

We Built the Harvard Bubble. It’s Time to Pop It.

Boston: Education’s Capital City

Harvard security guards stop those passing through the North Gate of Harvard Yard to ask for Harvard identification in order to enter.
Harvard security guards stop those passing through the North Gate of Harvard Yard to ask for Harvard identification in order to enter. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Joseph W. Hernandez, Crimson Opinion Writer
Joseph W. Hernandez ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House. His column, “Boston: Education’s Capital City,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

Harvard students live their lives insulated from the stresses of the real world.

Sure, we may have a seemingly endless mountain of assignments and readings, but thanks to need-based financial aid and the House system, everything we need is at our fingertips. But what happens when students have no incentive to leave the privileged world of Harvard Square?

Building the Bubble

“It’s very hard to go outside the sphere of Harvard and Harvard buildings and Harvard events, and explore the city or the area beyond that,” Ashal Malik ’25 said.

“Our food is here; all of the things we need to live are here. There’s no need to go outside of Harvard for anything,” Malik said.

This is in large part thanks to the House system, which sorts undergraduates into 12 Houses, each with distinct identities; separate dorms; individual dining halls, private gyms, and personal libraries; and independent sets of leadership.

Given these built-in shared spaces and privileges, it should come as no surprise that it takes conscious effort to leave the Harvard bubble: that is, the self-contained social world that is Harvard, where nearly every last person in a student’s on-campus life is tied to Harvard in some way.

Though Harvard students know it as the Harvard bubble, the concept of a college having a ‘bubble’ is hardly unique to Harvard.

“I can’t really think of friends I have from college outside of Lesley,” Isabella M. Bianco, a recent graduate of Lesley University, said.

Though Lesley and Harvard’s campuses blend into each other, sharing space in Harvard Square and near Harvard Law School, that doesn’t necessarily translate to socially close student bodies.

Harvard Law School and Lesley University are virtually neighbors.
Harvard Law School and Lesley University are virtually neighbors. By Frank S. Zhou

“It’s very intimidating to go into a space where you know you don’t belong, even if you’re invited,” Bianco said regarding considering going to a Harvard-affiliated event.

Max A. Pociask, a junior at Boston University, expressed a similar sentiment about the greater Boston area.

“If you just live on campus, and work and play on campus all four years, you’re not actually making use of living in a city at all. You might as well be in a college town or a suburb,” he said.

The experiences of these students is hardly surprising; it’s not hard to imagine that a student’s social life might be defined by the campus community they live in, go to classes in, and work in.

Even still, it’s clear that socioeconomic status is a key component of a college ‘bubble’ — it’s especially challenging for low-income students to find time to devote to popping the bubble given the combined responsibilities of being full-time students and part-time workers.

The Consequences of Isolation

“MIT students generally have a tendency to stay on campus, not really interact with the outside community, not even really engage with it, like the outside community and other parts of Cambridge and stuff like that. They really just focus basically their entire lives just in MIT,” Leeban Morgan, a junior at MIT, said.

Yet these surrounding communities are hardly isolated from the impacts of these students. As students, we are among the driving forces behind gentrification in Boston, warping the landscape of the neighborhoods we live in with little concern for their original residents.

Kingsley Street is just one of the many roads in Allston undergoing a period of gentrification, with average home prices jumping from $350,000 to $500,000 between 2011 and 2019.
Kingsley Street is just one of the many roads in Allston undergoing a period of gentrification, with average home prices jumping from $350,000 to $500,000 between 2011 and 2019. By Pei Chao Zhuo

It’s worth considering that when students graduate from prestigious universities like Harvard, they are on a fast track to leadership positions wherever they work. If Harvard students have no experience in the world beyond our ivory tower, how can we expect them to lead in a world they’ve never seen — one which is nothing like the campus we have grown complacent in?

If someone comes from the comfort of an Ivy League school’s bubble, but leads a team coming from less privileged backgrounds, “it might be harder for them to have the skills to interact with and work with those people,” Bianco, the recent Lesley graduate, said.

Furthermore, in the case of the ‘bubble’ present at schools like MIT and Harvard, there can be a more sinister undertone to the choices students make when they isolate themselves from the communities beyond their University.

“Whereas there might always be a little bit of elitism in every college bubble, the elitism is definitely a lot more noticeable at MIT,” Morgan said.

“I remember in my first year, there were some people I used to hang out with that were saying, ‘I don’t really think it’s worth talking to people from Northeastern, or this school, or that school, because they’re not as smart as us.’ There were a lot of comments about Wellesley students also that would come to MIT,” he elaborated.

Popping the Bubble

To some extent, schools seem aware of the challenge that these bubbles pose. On multiple occasions, Harvard College’s official student voices blog has encouraged students to go beyond our brick walls.

When considering what this could look like in practice, Pociask, from Boston University, encouraged faculty to engage in a dialogue with local communities and students to help out their neighbors, guided by the needs as described by the communities themselves.

Morgan shared this sentiment, reflecting on his own participation within his community.

“Not only am I in MIT, but I’m also in Boston, I’m in Cambridge. There’s a lot of communities here and organizations here that would love to have people from these schools come in and work with the community,” he said.

Cambridge City Hall is a mere 15 minute walk away from Harvard Yard.
Cambridge City Hall is a mere 15 minute walk away from Harvard Yard. By Julian J. Giordano

Though college bubbles are an education-adjacent problem, that does not necessarily make them a problem for university administrations to solve.

The truth is, the problems presented by the Harvard bubble are largely of our own creation as students — though the consequences will reach far beyond our campus. As such, it is our responsibility as students to find meaningful ways to give back to the communities we reside in, going beyond the bubble.

“For example, right now I’m working with the Black Students’ Union to have an initiative where we’re having students from MIT come to low-income schools — predominantly Black and Brown schools in the area — and introduce them to STEM topics and try to harness and increase their skills in STEM, because after the ruling on affirmative action that was something we wanted to do,” Morgan said.

Each of us plays a role in our universities’ isolation from the communities we live in. Though that is a great weight we carry, it also is a great opportunity; with the weight of responsibility comes the opportunity to solve this problem.

It’s long past time for us to pop the Harvard bubble. By establishing relationships with the local communities we’ve ignored for far too long, we can begin to deconstruct the ivory tower we’ve built, brick by brick.

Joseph W. Hernandez ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House. His column, “Boston: Education’s Capital City,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

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