Before moving to Cambridge four years ago, I had a lot of expectations about Harvard. The classes would be difficult. My peers would be the smartest people I’d ever met.I’d grow into a better version of myself. Freshman year proved these to be true, and I was thrilled to know that Harvard was everything I thought it would be. I took classes about political theory and storytelling; religion and the history of psychiatry.
As I tried to explore my many interests, I had a difficult time explaining to my parents what exactly it was that I was doing. My parents never really understood the ins and outs of American higher education, but they knew that Harvard was the place where people went to change the world. It’s where I would go to become a doctor or a lawyer.
So, when I shared my excitement about existentialist texts or African fables, my parents didn’t see the merit in it. I was embracing a liberal arts education that was gradually broadening my understanding of the world, while simultaneously opening a chasm between myself and my family.
For the next couple of years, I gave them brief overviews of my classes without getting into too much detail. I did the same with my extracurricular activities, because it was frustrating that they didn’t already know what Model United Nations conferences were. I began to feel like my family understood very little about my life. I had developed interests I’d never had in high school and was slowly adapting my political views to reflect my newly formed perspective of the world.
My parents complained about how infrequently I called, how little I shared, and how irritated I was when I did. I let myself off the hook by telling myself that they needed to make a bigger effort to understand me. It’s not that I didn’t want my parents to know about my life, but when I couldn’t ask them to proof an essay about Darwinian attraction or help with a resume for a job interview, I felt isolated and unsupported.
The presidential election, in which none of my family members (all of whom live in Florida) voted, pushed me to think hard about the distance I had allowed between us. Much of public discourse at the time centered around how we as a country had let ourselves become polarized and deaf to the concerns of the other side. I was perpetuating that problem. I had walled myself off from them in my ivory tower at Harvard, complaining about their lack of understanding instead of actively engaging them in my life.
It has become a blessing and a curse to receive the education that my parents never had the luxury of having. I struggled with wanting to share everything I had learned with them but feeling that our differences couldn’t be bridged by a conversation when our experiences were rooted in different times and different cultures.
Hoping to better understand my family, I took a class about the Cuban revolution. While most of the material in the class was not new to me—I had grown up hearing about it from my grandfather—it made me pause and reflect on their experiences. Learning about the political climate of their adolescence and focusing on the difficulties they faced, I realized I wanted them to be a part of my struggles. I decided that I could not afford to push them away any longer.
I had expected them to simply understand my new life, but ultimately, I was the one who hadn’t tried to share my experiences with them. It was easier to bury myself into my classes than it was to make time to familiarize my family with my day to day life. Even when they were willing to listen and learn, I let my disappointment over their lack of understanding be an excuse for not prioritizing bridging the distance.
This morning I called my mom to talk about commencement plans. We agreed on who would come and when to book flights and where they would stay. When she asked me about the classes I’d finally decided to take, I said I wasn’t taking any economics courses, but classes in the Romance Languages and Folklore and Mythology departments. When she asked why I’d decided to do that, I didn’t sigh loudly or respond with “just because.” Instead, I chose to start explaining.
Image Source: Flickr/Tim G. Photography