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My first semester as a Brit at Harvard

A Cambridge University classics graduate, who won a coveted scholarship to study in the US, describes her first experiences of the Ivy League college

    Stephanie Posner in Boston outside the Harvard Club for university alumni
    Stephanie Posner in Boston outside the Harvard Club for university alumni

    This August, after much anticipation and a very long wait in Boston Logan Airport immigration, I finally stepped onto US soil, ready for an exciting year as a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard University.

    I was guided out of the airport by English signage, immediately greeted by comfortingly familiar levels of pollution and swept off in a black Honda Civic by an Uber driver called Abdul. Prior to my departure, friends, colleagues and other well-wishers had noted "how European Boston is" and for that first blissful 10 minutes I could have sworn I was still in good, old London.

    ‘You’ve got an accent…you’re British!’ exclaimed Abdul, most excited to be driving a Brit. I confess, guilty as charged.

    "How’s the Queen?" Abdul inquired politely and I admitted to not knowing Her Majesty personally. We both laughed. Little did I know that this would form the template of conversations I would have with 70 per cent of Americans over the age of 45 I encoutoured.

    Next morning in Harvard Yard the university buzzed with tourists being shepherded around the grounds by student guides.

    "This is the famous statue of John Harvard," an undergraduate told a crowd of visitors who started clambering over each other to get a selfie with the bronze - the statue is in fact "an unidentified youth", not John Harvard at all. 

    The history lesson continued over at Widener Library, named after Harry Widener, who allegedly died on the Titanic after refusing to get on a lifeboat because he wanted to go back to his cabin to get a book.  On the steps of the library, the guide proudly pointed out the spot where Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg returned to give the 2017 commencement speech. Mark dropped out of Harvard. Hopefully I will last longer than he did.

    My first week adjusting to American academic life was spent rushing around campus "shopping for classes" from a catalogue of over 10,000 options. Unlike universities in the UK, choice is the centrepiece of academic programming at Harvard.

    Trying to pick from the array of courses on offer was almost as tricky as trying to navigate the famed Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The elevator offered floor 1 (not the first floor but the ground floor) and went up in half increments to floor 5½.  I had long since known that many Americans admired the English, but I hadn’t quite expected them to take Platform 9¾ seriously.  

    Just when I thought I was getting the hang of America I got a delayed variant of freshers’ flu. Time to give Harvard Health Services a go.  However, before passing go one must fill out an obligatory questionnaire:

    Q: What is wrong with you?

    A: Can’t breathe 

    Q: What makes you feel worse?

    A: Breathing;

    Q: What makes you feel better?

    A: Gin and tonic medicine. 

    All completed far away from the receptionist who won’t engage with me until I put on a surgical mask –not a helpful accessory for anyone having breathing difficulty. 

    After being introduced to three different nurses I started wondering whether I’m a contestant on some new medical speed-dating show. Finally a nurse took me to the doctor’s office and left me there, alone.  Like a child in a sweet shop I couldn't help but eyeball the labelled drawers – one called "alcohol prep" undoubtedly being the most appealing item on offer – but I remained seated since the nurse had not made clear whether this was an all-you-can-eat buffet system. After four hours less than I would have spent at an NHS hospital, I escaped with a three-day course of steroids - not bad.

    Ready to get back to enjoying life at Harvard, I resolved to aid my recovering by cutting out the American national dish - pizza - and opting for a healthier diet for a while. I made a trip to the supermarket where "English cucumbers" cost $2.89 each (that’s not even for organic) - there is no exchange rate that can make that OK. 

    Fortunately, kosher meat is much easier to get hold of in the US so I decided on chicken soup for dinner.  Unfortunately the supermarket worker had no idea what a stock cube was. With my request completely lost in translation, we parted ways and I managed to leave with carrots, celery and chicken  - that would have to do.

    In fact I was lucky to be leaving with that - there are a lot of vegetarians in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Still, I hadn’t realised quite how much Americans love their animals until it came to Thanksgiving in November. Enormous wild turkeys roam the streets undisturbed and on domestic flights there appear to be more dogs returning home for the holidays than there are owners.

    Inside the classroom there is also no shortage of culture shocks. I have chosen to take Hebrew, Arabic - with classes at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School.

    On my first day at the business school I arrived just in time to get the last seat in a lecture theatre with more facilities than an entire secondary school. I sat down in the front row, opened up my pink laptop and started typing vigorously, not wanting to miss a word. After an hour and 40 minutes of my intense note-taking, a kind classmate informed me that laptops are in fact not allowed in the classroom. I assume that no one else had let me know because they were getting much so much enjoyment from my Legally Blonde moment.

    Professors are also a very different breed, stateside. Unlike in the UK where the title is given as one of the highest academic ranks, in America it is the term used to refer to the person at the front of the classroom. Consequently the Harvard faculty glitters with TV presenters, politicians, CEOs and newspaper editors, sprinkled with the odd academic or two. Insights are therefore many and varied. One professor helpfully offered advice on choosing the correct life partner – currently remarried to one of his previous ex-wives, he assured us he was most qualified in this department.

    Adjusting to life in a new country can be challenging, but all jokes aside, America has so much to offer.  The range of opportunities is unparalleled and the teaching methods are experimental and engaging. The people are talkative, friendly, welcoming and upbeat (as long as you steer clear of politics). 

    Almost everyone has wished me mazeltov on the royal engagement. At the end of my first semester I am happy to report that although much different to home, America is an exciting place to live, to learn and to be young.