Mountaineering, rowing and Dalai Lama on campus: Reflections of a graduate’s time at Harvard

Harvard graduate
What’s it like to study at Harvard? One graduate takes a walk down memory lane. Source: Study International

A common misperception about Harvard is it is solely focused on academics. The school that accepts only the cleverest applicants and count Nobel Laureates in its faculty would mostly, if not solely, be focused on intellectual pursuits only, right? Harvard graduate Wan Nadiah Wan Mohd Abdullah Yaakob from Malaysia would beg to differ.

Scaling mountains, rowing down rivers, listening to Yo-Yo Ma playing in the hall, having Bill Gates deliver the commencement speech on your graduation day — these are the experiences that stay with its students for a lifetime.

Although it’s been nearly two decades since Wan Nadiah graduated from the Ivy League, the memories of her days in the Ivy League are still fresh on her mind. 

“It was at Harvard that I joined a mountaineering club and first peed in snow,” said the Malaysian via an email interview. 

That’s not the standard answer you would expect when asked about what it’s like to attend one of the world’s top universities. 

To Wan Nadiah, that’s the beauty of it. The perks of studying at a school like Harvard lies not just in its research labs or lecture halls. It’s in its abundant resources available for any interests students may have.

Harvard graduate

(R) Wan Nadiah with her friend, Albert Kao, before leaving for their Freshman Formal in 2003. Source: Wan Nadiah Wan Mohd Abdullah Yaakob

Harvard was where Wan Nadiah learned to row for her House; obtained a grant to study Spanish, shamanism and hallucinogenic plants in Costa Rica over a summer; and relished in finding gems in the library — said to be the largest academic library in the world — from the latest thriller to obscure, rare first editions. 

“The things I miss most about Harvard is the rich intellectual environment that is ripe with opportunities for you to see the world in all its glory,” said the 36-year-old, who is now the CEO of a hospital in Malaysia.

“On any given day you could listen to Shakespeare in the yard or Yo-Yo Ma playing in a hall or the Dalai Lama giving a lecture.” 

Wan Nadiah recalled that she could walk down a street and find a homeless man playing “superb chess,” or overhear a conversation entirely in Latin.

For someone who had never left the country at the time, the experience proved intoxicating.

A home away from home

Harvard graduate

As a biochemistry major, Wan Nadiah (second from left) had the idea of dressing her and her roommates up as mismatched DNA base pairs for Halloween in 2005. It won them the best costume prize at the house Halloween party that year. Source: Wan Nadiah Wan Mohd Abdullah Yaakob

Wan Nadiah opted to stay with a foster family and lived with the Millers, a Jewish family, for the first two weeks of being in the US.

“They took me into their family and I was always welcome to a home-cooked meal if I was getting bored of dorm food,” she said.

“I still keep in touch with them and I always joke with my host mum Ellen, ‘There was a time when a Jew and a Muslim …’”

One of the major challenges of being a Harvard student is being independent. As a liberal arts school, students can choose from over 3,700 courses, as long as they meet their concentration and General Education requirements. 

“Another third are electives that are also chosen individually by students. This means that no student is likely to graduate Harvard taking the same classes all throughout their time there. Subsequently, you are constantly studying and interacting with different people all the time and are literally forced to carve your own Harvard education experience,” she explained.

Navigating the university itself is a challenge on its own. Students are free to use any facilities or attend any classes across the university. Academic advisors are available to help first-year students with this.

Famous commencement address for Harvard graduates

Harvard graduate

Wan Nadiah (second from right) with Bill Gates (second from left), who spoke during the Commencement Day in 2007. Source: Wan Nadiah Wan Mohd Abdullah Yaakob

Harvard has a long history of prominent individuals giving commencement speeches, including several German chancellors, prime ministers, journalists and authors.

In 2007, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and former US president Bill Clinton were the Commencement and Class Day speakers when Wan Nadiah graduated.

“Bill Gates, in particular, was rather shy in person but he spoke passionately about reducing inequity in the world. He advised us to take on a complex problem to dedicate our lives to it and not let complexity stop us from taking on big inequities to solve,” she said.

One phrase from Gates’ speech that stuck in her mind was, “To whom much is given, much is expected”. 

“That has always been the core spirit of Harvard, the tradition of service and the expectation to lead and to contribute to making the world a better place,” she said. 

It’s something she holds true until today. Wan Nadiah is an alumni interviewer for the Harvard College admissions, which she signed up for upon her return to Malaysia in 2010. In this role, she interviews candidates shortlisted by the admissions officer.

“The admissions officer at Harvard will typically inform us of candidates shortlisted for interview and we then contact interviewees to arrange for an interview,” she explained.

Buckle up for the ride of your life

For incoming international students who are looking for sage advice upon their arrival at Harvard, Wan Nadiah has this to say:

“I think international students should make full use of the opportunities presented at Harvard with all the resources available, especially to learn about America.” 

As a country that dominates international affairs, she notes that it’s a good idea to use the opportunity of being in the country to learn about their political systems, government, history and economy. 

Wan Nadiah had the opportunity to visit Washington DC on a field trip organised by the Kennedy School of Government where she visited the Department of State and heard how policies are developed and decided. 

In all, it was an invaluable opportunity to learn beyond what students might read in the newspapers.

Liked this? Then you’ll love…

From journalism school to the frontlines of India’s COVID-19 fight

Ivy League universities offer 450 free online courses